Cumberland Gap in winter
|Elevation||1,600 ft (488 m)|
|Traversed by||U.S. Highway 25E|
|Location||Kentucky/Virginia/Tennessee, United States|
Famous in American colonial history for its role as a 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 Historical Park.
Long used by Native Americans, the Cumberland Gap was brought to the attention of settlers in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and explorer. The path was explored by a team of frontiersmen led by Daniel Boone, making it accessible to pioneers who used it to journey into the western frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee.
The passage created by Cumberland Gap was well-traveled by Native Americans long before the arrival of European-American settlers. The earliest written account of Cumberland Gap dates to the 1670s and was written by Abraham Wood of Virginia.
The gap was named for Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II of England, 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 traffic and sometimes became known as the Wilderness Road.
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 annually.
The 12-mile (19 km) long Cumberland Gap consists of four geologic features: the Rocky Face Fault, the natural gap in the Cumberland Mountain ridge, the eroded gap in Pine Mountain, and Middlesboro astrobleme, or "cryptoexplosive structure."
The Middlesboro astrobleme is a 3-mile (4.8 km) 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 the Rocky Face Fault, it would have been difficult for pack-horses to navigate this gap and the gap in Pine Mountain near Pineville, and it would be 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 astrobleme. Special mining techniques must be used in the complicated strata of this crater. (Milam & Kuehn, 36).
The gap was formed by erosion of weakened rock in Cumberland Mountain caused by the Rocky Face Fault (which also helped form the water gap in Pine Mountain near Pineville, Kentucky.
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.
- 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. When he lost the vote "out of sheer cussedness voted for Cumberland Gap" as the proposed site.
- In Alistar Cookes America (BBC2, 1972) in episode "Inventing a Nation", the gap and the folk tune relating to it are featured.
- The gap is referenced by Seinfeld episode The Red Dot as an example of a trail smooth enough to drink alcohol while riding "on the wagon." 
- In 1986 the US Park Service produced a brief short  on the Gap that was narrated by Lorne Green.
- There is a widescreen documentary (Discovery Channel, 2010?) on Appalachian Geology that mentions the Gap, mainly that it was caused by a bollide collision.
- Todd M. Ahlman, Gail L. Guymon, and Nicholas P. Herrmann (July 2005). ARCHAEOLOGICAL OVERVIEW AND ASSESSMENT OF THE CUMBERLAND GAP NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, KENTUCKY, TENNESSEE, AND VIRGINIA. The Archaeological Research Laboratory, University of Tennessee.
- "VA-K1 Cumberland Gap". Historical markers. Retrieved 5 May 2012.
- A Cumberland Gap Area Guidebook, Tom N. Shattuck, The Wilderness Road Company, 1999, ISBN 978-0-9677765-3-8
- Boone: A Biography, Robert Morgan, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, ISBN 978-1-56512-455-4
- "Cumberland Gap".
- National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Cumberland Gap Historic District - Virginia/Kentucky/Tennessee, 1980
- Kortenkamp, Steve (Summer 2004). "Impact at Cumberland Gap: Where Natural and National History Collide". PSI Newsletter 5 (2): 1–2.
- Larson, Erik (2003), The Devil in the White City, Crown Publishers, p. 17, ISBN 0-609-60844-4
- Seinfeld Scripts - The Red Dot
- Kincaid, Robert L. (January 1941). "Cumberland Gap, Gateway of Empire". Filson Club Historical Quarterly 15 (1). Retrieved 2011-11-30.
- Rickie Longfellow, Back in Time: The Cumberland Gap, United States Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
- Cumberland Gap National Historical Park at the U.S. National Park Service
- The short film Cumberland Gap (1986) is available for free download at the Internet Archive [more]