I remember going up to Cumberland Gap in the 1960s. There was no 4-lane highway, no tunnel, and US25E went straight through the gap, right along the Wilderness Road.
That’s all changed now. There is a tunnel, and the concrete of the highway has been replaced by crushed limestone, which, while not exactly period — Wilderness Road was often described by early travelers as a muddy mess — makes for a nice walk along an historic road.
Daniel Boone blazed the trail in 1775, looking for a way into the Kentucky territory “purchased” from the Iroquois and Shawnee by the Transylvania Company. Boone started his trailblazing from the Long Island of the Holston River in what is now Kingsport, Tennessee. The island has gone from sacred Cherokee spot to industrialized mess in the 2+ centuries of European colonization.
US23 follows Boone’s Path from the Long Island north to Moccasin Gap in the Clinch Mountain (which I hear is soon to be significantly destroyed by a gleaming new highway), joining US421 to head west over Powell Mountain at Kanes Gap (where there’s a trail, not a highway). At what is now Duffield, Virginia, US58 picks up the route, ending at US25E just before Cumberland Gap.
The trail crossed the Cumberland River after that, with Boone continuing on to where he founded Boonesborough. Eventually the trail split before Boonesborough, continuing northwest to the Falls of the Ohio River. A southern fork followed the river down to Nashville, Tennessee, and even back to Knoxville. Later on the Wilderness Road skipped the trip down to Kingsport for the start and instead veered off the Great Valley Road at Bristol for those settlers headed from the northern regions.
But the gap itself. At one point there was a bear in a cage up there. I love bears, but not in cages. There’s also caves there. I went through the main one when it was called Cudjo’s Cave. It’s now called the Gap Cave. The history of that is fairly fascinating.
From 1970, it was clear that US25E was not able to handle the traffic going through the area. Widening the highway through the gap raised a lot of issues, naturally, because of the historical nature, so the DOT decided to build a tunnel and bypass the gap. Construction on that was finished in 1991, and the tunnel opened in 1996.
In 1998, Old 25E still went through the gap, although you couldn’t drive on it. A fellow named Robert Droz, who’s as into old highways as I am, took a hike along the route and captured these images:
But now visitors can walk the Wilderness Road through Cumberland Gap — that deep cut in the mountain that’s visible from my hometown — sans concrete. I haven’t been up there since all that’s happened, but the Old Kentucky Road beckons. I foresee an all day trip that will start with the Old Kentucky Road in my hometown, cross the lake and head to Bean Station, then up the mountain on both Old 25E and the Old Kentucky Road before a hike along the Wilderness Road. And I guess I’ll drive through the tunnel too while I’m there.