(el. 1600 ft.) is a pass through the Cumberland Mountains region of
the Appalachian Mountains, also known as the Cumberland Water Gap,
at the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Famous
in American history for its role as one key passageway through the
lower central Appalachians, it was an important part of the
Wilderness Road and is now part of the Cumberland Gap National
Cumberland Gap was discovered in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, a
Virginia physician and explorer. Long used by Native Americans, the
path was widened by a team of loggers led by Daniel Boone, making it
accessible to pioneers, who used it to journey into the western
frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Cumberland Gap is located just north of the spot
where the current-day states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia
meet. The nearby town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee takes its name
from the pass.
The gap was named for Prince William Augustus,
Duke of Cumberland, who had many places named for him in the
American colonies after the Battle of Culloden. The explorer Thomas
Walker gave the name to the Cumberland River in 1750, and the name
soon spread to many other features in the region, such as the
Cumberland Gap. In 1769 Joseph Martin built a fort nearby at
present-day Rose Hill, Virginia, on behalf of Dr. Walker's land
claimants. But Martin and his men were chased out of the area by
Native Americans, and Martin himself did not return until 1775.
In 1775 Daniel Boone, hired by the Transylvania
Company, arrived in the region leading a company of men to widen the
path through the gap to make settlement of Kentucky and Tennessee
easier. On his arrival, Boone discovered that Martin had
beaten him to Powell Valley, where Martin and his men were clearing
land for their own settlement – the westernmost settlement in
English colonial America at the time. By the 1790s the trail
that Boone and his men built was widened to accommodate wagon
Several American Civil War engagements were
centered in and around the Cumberland Gap and are sometimes called
Battle of the Cumberland Gap. In June 1862, Union Army General
George W. Morgan captured the gap for the Union.
In September of that year, Confederate States
Army forces under Edmund Kirby Smith occupied the Gap during General
Braxton Bragg's Kentucky Invasion. The following year, in a
bloodless engagement in September 1863, Union Army troops under
General Ambrose Burnside forced the surrender of 2,300 Confederates
defending the gap, gaining Union control of the gap for the
remainder of the war.
It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000
migrants passed through the gap on their way into Kentucky and the
Ohio Valley before 1810. Today 18,000 cars pass beneath the
site daily, and 1,200,000 people visit the park on the site
U.S. Route 25E passed overland through the gap
before the completion of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel in 1996. The
original trail was then restored.
The gap and associated historic resources were
listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic
district on May 28, 1980.
The 12-mile long Cumberland Gap consists of four
geologic features: the Yellow Creek valley, the natural gap in the
Cumberland Mountain ridge, the eroded gap in the Pine Mountain, and
Middlesboro crater is a 3-mile diameter meteorite
impact crater in which Middlesboro, Kentucky, is located. The crater
was identified in 1966 when Robert Dietz discovered shatter cones in
sandstone, which led to the further identification of shocked
quartz. Shatter cones, a rock shattering pattern naturally formed
only during impact events, are found in abundance in the area. In
September 2003 the site was designated a Distinguished Geologic Site
by the Kentucky Society of Professional Geologists.
Without Middlesboro crater, it would have been
difficult for packhorses to navigate this gap and improbable that
wagon roads would have been constructed at an early date.
Middlesboro is the only place in the world where coal is mined
inside an impact crater. Special mining techniques must be used in
the complicated strata of this crater.
The gap was formed by an ancient creek, flowing
southward, which cut through the land being pushed up to form the
mountains. As the land rose even more, the creek reversed direction
flowing into the Cumberland River to the north.
References in popular culture
Cumberland Gap has lent its name to a popular
folk song recorded and performed by American folk and bluegrass
musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Earl Scruggs and British skiffle
artists such as Lonnie Donegan and The Vipers Skiffle Group.
A style of beard with sideburns that has a "gap"
cut through it about an inch wide right below each earlobe is
colloquially known by some as a "Cumberland Gap".
The gap has been mentioned in many songs,
including the Old Crow Medicine Show song "Wagon Wheel" co-written
by Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor, the song "The Ballad of Thunder Road",
and the song "Mighty Joe Moon" by American band Grant Lee Buffalo.
In 1889 a United States Senator voted against
having a World's Fair, the fair Chicago's bid eventually won, "and
out of sheer cussedness voted for Cumberland Gap" as the proposed