Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Cumberland Gap

Growing up in Southern California, I never really thought much about the Appalachian Mountains. Westerners know the Sierra Nevada's, the Cascades and the Rockies, mountains rising to over 2 miles in altitude and extending seemingly forever, from Alaska all the way to Mexico. When we would read about the pioneers not being able to get over the Appalachians we would kind of snicker at them being held up by mountains that barely exceed 6000 feet. Heck, Big Bear Lake is over 6000 feet.

Powell Valley in western Virginia from the top of the gap.
But the Appalachians were a significant barrier in colonial times. As we drove along the eastern side of the mountains in western Virginia, you could see that there are frequently 200-250 feet of sheer drop at the top. That's a heckuva climb even with modern mountaineering equipment, let alone trying to bring your family and all the materials you need to start a new life in the West. There were only a handful of places where you could reasonably cross the mountains with a backpack or horse and by far the most well-known of these is the Cumberland Gap.

The Native Americans, of course, had known about this pass for thousands of years and it is likely that one of them spilled the beans to their white trading partners back in the early 18th century although it is possible that one of the European settlers found it on his own. No one really knows who the first European was through the gap, probably one of the long hunters who would go out hunting for 6-8 months at a time. Thomas Walker left a record of his exploration through the gap in 1750 but he did not penetrate far enough to reach the bluegrass country and wasn't sure Kentucky was suitable for settlement.

Looking into Kentucky from the Cumberland Gap
Then the long hunters started bringing back stories of huge areas of fertile grassland in what is now central Kentucky and interest in the area picked up. In North Carolina, a judge and land speculator named Henderson arranged to purchase all the land south of the Ohio River between the Appalachians and the Kentucky River, over 20,000,000 acres worth, from the Cherokee for what seemed like a good price. Since the Cherokee did not actually own or have any historic claim to this land, they were perfectly happy to sell it on the cheap. The Shawnee, who had established a claim to the land in a treaty with the British in the 1720s, were never consulted and were none too happy about this deal, leading to decades of conflict with the eventual settlers. In any event, a British royal edict in 1763 had made it illegal for British subjects to buy land from the natives or to settle West of the mountains. Henderson could see the writing on the wall with regard to British sovereignty and was hoping the Commonwealth of Virginia would eventually ratify his land claim, but they never did.

On the back roads of Virginia
Henderson hired one of the long hunters named Daniel Boone to blaze a trail to his newly acquired property. Boone took a group of 30 men with axes and chopped down enough trees to create what was basically a footpath to the bluegrass country in 1774 which became known as the wilderness trail. He then went back and packed up his family and a half-dozen others and went back along the trail to establish Boonesborough in central Kentucky. Many of the early settlers realized that Henderson's claims to the land were largely specious and considered it up for grabs. In 1776, the newly organized Continental Congress agreed and when the British finally left, Henderson's plan collapsed.

By 1790 the wilderness trail had been widened to allow wagon traffic and by 1810, nearly 300,000 immigrants had traversed the gap and entered Kentucky and Tennessee. Eventually the road was paved but the twisty little mountain road through the gap was so treacherous that it acquired the nick name "Massacre Mountain". Finally, in the 1990s, a tunnel was cut through the mountain just west of the gap and the road was torn out and turned back into essentially a wagon path. Now hikers can walk the road under conditions similar to what would have been present in the early 19th century.

Rural Appalachian home with goats in the yard.
Cumberland Gap National Park sits at the conjunction of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee and contains bits of all three states. Since Vicki and I were there before the federal government went on indeterminate leave, we were able to stay at the National Park campground. It has water and electric hookups but you have to use a dump station for your sewage. A bigger problem is that all of the sites were significantly sloped and getting the motorhome level was a bit tricky. We never succeeded, we just lived on a slight slant for four days. It wasn't a huge problem, just an annoyance. If you come to stay, make sure you have enough leveling blocks.

I happen to be a fan of the television show "Justified", so when I discovered we were less than 30 miles from Harlan, Kentucky I just had to go. The television show, of course, is all filmed in Southern California, so there was zero chance that I would recognize anything but I wanted to say I had been there. It turns out it is a fairly nice little town, population about 2000. Most of its money does come from coal mining but you don't see a lot of external signs of that. There is a downtown area of about four blocks and a large-ish county courthouse. Otherwise, it seems to have little to recommend it.

Raylan Givens, the main character of the TV show, is assigned to the US marshals office in Lexington. I had heretofore been really completely ignorant of Kentucky geography but I now know that Lexington and Harlan are about 170 miles apart which makes it hard to understand how the character can spend most of his time in Harlan (regardless of the fact that he grew up there) and still apparently show up in the Lexington Marshall's office every morning. It seems like a long commute.
Harlan County Courthouse

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post! I have read a little about Daniel Boone but didn't realize he hacked the footpath/wilderness trail. Safe travels.