Kentucky: Cumberland Gap

Gateway in Cumberland Mountains through which hundreds of thousands of settlers moved on their way west in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the Civil War, the gap was an important strategic site for both sides.

Site Office

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

U.S. 25E South

P.O. Box 1848

Middlesborough, KY 40965

Ph.: (606) 248-2817

fax: (978) 248-7276

Web site:

Located at the intersection of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, Cumberland Gap, a narrow five hundred-foot-deep notch in the Cumberland Mountains that forms part of the Appalachian range, was the site of the famous Wilderness Road Trail. The geologic origins of the gap go back to the Paleozoic period and its 200 million years of erosion. Early explorers include Thomas Walker in 1750 and Daniel Boone in the 1770’s. The road followed the path of migrating animals and was used by the Native Americans (the Shawnee name for the trail was Warrior’s Path), as well. It is estimated that perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 men, women, and children made their way through the gap along the Wilderness Road on their way west. Many of them settled in Kentucky.

Early History

In the 1740’s, the Loyal Land Company was formed in Virginia with the aim of exploring and exploiting the resources beyond the Cumberland Mountains. Dr. Thomas Walker was hired by the company to survey nearly one million acres of land granted to the company. With five others, Walker traveled west through the Cumberland Gap in 1750. He carefully recorded his findings and followed the course of the Cumberland River. A primitive log cabin was built in what is now Knox County near the small city of Barbourville. It was Walker who gave the notch in the mountains its present name after the infamous duke of Cumberland, known as “the butcher of Culloden.”

In 1769, Daniel Boone led a party of six through the gap exploring, hunting, and trapping. The Transylvania Company engaged Boone by 1775 to use thirty axmen to clear and mark what would be called “Boone’s Trace” that ran through the Cumberland Gap to Fort Boone on the Kentucky River. By the end of the American Revolution, twelve thousand people had gone through the gap to the west. The historian and surveyor John Filson’s 1784 book The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucky, printed along with the first map to concentrate on the state, promoted settlement by promising a rich land “flowing with milk and honey.” The peak years for the gap came following the Revolution. By June, 1792, Kentucky entered the Union as the fifteenth state. The first governor of Kentucky, Isaac Shelby, raised money to improve the unpaved trail to allow wagon passage. By 1800, over 200,000 settlers had traveled along the Wilderness Road across the Cumberland Gap.

The Civil War

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 saw the border state of Kentucky deeply divided. Official state policy was one of neutrality. Kentuckians volunteered in large numbers to serve on both sides during the war. Later in the year, a Confederate state government was formed with Bowling Green as its capital. The Cumberland Gap took on significant strategic importance as a potential route for both Union and Confederate troops. The gap provided Union forces with the quickest way to attack the rail lines connecting the West and Virginia. Confederate forces then occupied Cumberland Gap. Thirty miles away at Barbourville, Camp Andy Jackson, filled largely with Union sympathizers from eastern Tennessee, was opened. By September, a Confederate force under the command of General Felix Zollicoffer marched from the gap into Kentucky. Subsequently, after the Battle at Camp Wildcat near London, the Confederate forces withdrew back to the gap. The Confederates stationed a garrison at Cumberland Gap and began to fortify their position. Union forces cautiously scouted the Confederate defenses.

In 1862, Union forces sought ways to outflank the strong fortifications at Cumberland Gap. With a mixed contingent of infantry, cavalry, and even artillery, Union troops had successfully outflanked the Confederates. On June 17, the Union forces found that the gap had been evacuated. Thus, the much-prized Cumberland Gap and its fortifications had been taken without any losses. President Abraham Lincoln wired his congratulations to the Union commander Major General George W. Morgan. The road from the gap to central Kentucky was repaired. An army engineer was dispatched to improve the Union defenses. New batteries were erected and ten thousand troops stationed at the gap and along the approaches from Virginia and Tennessee. The much-delayed plan for a Union advance into eastern Tennessee failed to materialize as Confederate troops advanced into Kentucky. As the main Confederate force pushed on to Lexington, cutting off the Union forces defending the Cumberland Gap, a two-month siege forced the defenders to abandon their position. What could not be hauled away in the retreat was destroyed by the Union army. Guns defending the gap were spiked, ammunition destroyed, and the road leading to the fortifications mined. Yet the Confederate invasion of Kentucky was turned aside at the Battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862. The Confederates withdrew back down the Wilderness Road and across the gap into Tennessee.

The following year, Union troops returned to the Cumberland Gap. Confederate defenses were weaker than before, following their earlier destruction at the hands of Morgan’s Union soldiers. Confederate forces numbered about twenty-five hundred men. Union forces moved to encircle the gap by September, 1863. Believing their position untenable, the Confederate forces surrendered without firing a shot. The Cumberland Gap was once again in Union hands. In early 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived to inspect the gap and its defenses. Following his inspection, Grant remarked that with two brigades he could have held off Napoleon’s entire army. While the gap and the wilderness roads were important strategic positions in the Civil War for both sides, neither was fully able to use the gateway to full advantage. Confederate plans to invade and occupy Kentucky had failed. Union plans to cross the gap and operate against important railway lines and capture eastern Tennessee were not realized.

The Cumberland Gap After the Civil War

After the Civil War, the next significant development near the Cumberland Gap was a period of economic boom fueled by much speculation. Alexander Alan Arthur from Scotland became convinced of the economic potential of the immediate area at the base of the gap. He received money from European investors to develop the iron, coal, and timber resources. Over 100,000 acres were purchased, and the town of Middlesborough was laid out by the 1890’s. Railways were built that opened the region further to the outside. A railroad tunnel was bored beneath the gap in the late 1880’s. The venture was a failure. Iron deposits turned out to be less than expected, and the Panic of 1893 saw the flight of investment out of Middlesborough. On the Tennessee side, a plush seven hundred-room resort hotel known as the Four Seasons was built in 1892. However, occupancy remained low. The hotel was torn down and sold as salvage by 1893. The economic boom was over. Only coal continued to provide a source of revenue.

Noted for it ruggedness, the old road across the gap had fallen into a sad state. Local county leaders from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee made an appeal to the federal government in Washington, D.C., for help. By 1907, engineers from the Federal Office of Public Roads began a survey of the gap. Later that year work began on building a paved road across the Cumberland Gap. The road was completed by October, 1908. By 1926, following a period of road-building activity in Kentucky, “Dixie Highway” (U.S. Federal Highway 25) was paved from the Cumberland Gap to the Ohio River. Highway 25 became the alternate route between Asheville, North Carolina, and Corbin, Kentucky. The arrival of the automobile and paved roads gave rise to tourists traveling between the North and South. The old Wilderness Road had new life as tourist-related business opened along the route. Since that time, Highway 25E (Cumberland Gap Parkway) has been expanded to four lanes on the Kentucky side, with twin tunnels built beneath the gap.

The Founding of the Park

As roads began to open up the Cumberland Gap, efforts began to gain recognition of the historical importance of the site by making it a national park. An association was created in 1937 to promote the idea. Three years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law that provided for the creation of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Some 20,305 acres were purchased for the new park by the state governments of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. It took fifteen years to purchase all the necessary land for the park. Finally, on September 14, 1955, the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was established formally. Vice President Richard M. Nixon attended the official dedication ceremonies on July 3, 1959. A visitors’ center was also opened a little later. It is estimated that the park attracts one million visitors each year. With the replacement of roads with tunnels on 25E, efforts are under way to restore a portion of the Wilderness Road to its late eighteenth and early nineteenth century character.

Places to Visit

In the immediate vicinity of the park is the Abraham Lincoln Museum at Lincoln Memorial University. Kentucky’s Pine Mountain State Park is also nearby in Pineville, Kentucky. The Wilderness Road State Park in nearby Virginia has beautiful scenery and an 1870’s mansion house. The historic town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, is located near the park with shops and a small village atmosphere. Bicycles, canoes, and tube rentals are available from private outfitters. The town of Middlesborough is located on the Kentucky side of the gap. Some buildings of historic interest can be viewed, such at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. A P-38 restoration museum at the Middlesborough airport can be visited.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park is open to visitors year-round. Peak visitation occurs in July and in the fall when the park is filled with the color of autumn leaves. The park has a visitors’ center with a bookstore and Appalachian crafts, picnic areas, a museum, campsite, and fifty-five miles of hiking trails. The Pinnacle Overlook, at 2,440 feet, provides a view of three states (Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee). Hensley Settlement offers a restored early pioneer community. Visitors can also hike to the 3,500-foot-high White Rocks above the valley. The park can accommodate tents, trailers, and recreational vehicles. However, other accommodations are available in the nearby area.

For Further Information

  • Burns, David M. Gateway: Dr. Thomas Walker and the Opening of Kentucky. Bell County, Ky.: Bell County Historical Society, 2000. Much useful information on the early history of the gap and Walker’s role in opening the trail west. With photographs by Adam Jones.
  • Channing, Steven A. Kentucky: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. A general history written on the occasion of Kentucky’s bicentennial.
  • Harrison, Lowell H. The Civil War in Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1975. Best single treatment of the war in Kentucky.
  • Harrison, Lowell H., and James Klotter. New History of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997. Recent study of the history of the state.
  • Kinkaid, Robert L. The Wilderness Road. Middlesborough, Ky.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. Offers a popular history of the road with much information on the history of the Cumberland Gap.