Cumberland’s grand gap
It was nothing momentous. Just another entry in Dr. Thomas Walker’s 1750
journal: “April 13. On the north side of the Gap is a large spring which falls
very fast, and just above the Spring is a small Entrance to a large Cave…On
the south side is a plain Indian Road…A Beech stands on the left hand, on which
I cut my name. This Gap may be seen at a considerable distance.”
Dr. Walker little dreamed that his discovery would become the gateway to
a new world. In the next 50 years, more than 400,000 people would use Cumberland
Gap as their path to homesteads in Kentucky, the Northwest Territories, and, eventually,
the far West. Indeed, until construction of I-75, Cumberland Gap remained the
major route for travelers going north or south through the middle South.
Fifteen years after the discovery, Daniel Boone and 30 men under his direction
blazed a path through the gap, which became known as the Wilderness Road, to guide
the settlers of Henderson’s Transylvania Company to new lands in Kentucky-probably
the single most important event in Kentucky history. Pretty soon, visitors will
be able to literally walk in their footsteps, because the park is restoring the
route to its early 1800s condition, including returning the land to its original
contours as well as reconstructing the wagon road.
Today Cumberland Gap National Historical Park sprawls over 20,000 acres
and across three states-Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Within the park’s boundaries
you’ll find historic sites, artifacts detailing the gap’s importance, campgrounds,
picnic sites, hiking trails, and several interpretive programs.
Begin your adventure at the park’s Visitor Center, where you’ll find maps,
guidebooks, brochures, and information about tours and interpretive programs.
There is a small museum in the Visitor Center that’s well worth a visit. And you’ll
find a display showing the comprehensive plans for restoring Wilderness Road.
Don’t miss the short interpretive film, shown often throughout the day. It will
make your visit much more meaningful.
There are more than 50 miles of hiking trails criss-crossing the park.
They range from short, self-guided nature walks to long, strenuous trails appealing
to the die-hard backpacker. But some of them are the only way to reach historical
sites. White Rocks, mentioned by most early travelers, is accessible for exploration
this way, as is Cudjo’s Caverns, a maze of wandering passages that is likely the
cave mentioned in Walker’s journal. It also played an important role for both
sides during the War Between the States.
A popular trek is the Chadwell Gap Trail, a 3.5-mile path up the side of Cumberland
Mountain to the Hensley Settlement, located atop Brush Mountain.
Begun in 1903 by members of the Hensley and Gibbons families, a dozen farms
and more than 100 people flourished here until 1951, when the last inhabitant
departed. Today you’ll find chestnut-hewn cabins on three farmsteads, where costumed
interpreters use traditional techniques to work the land just as the Hensleys
and Gibbonses did.
For a small fee you can board a park bus for a ride to the settlement,
and be treated to a guided tour. Other interpretive programs range from chats
with pioneers from the late 1700s, soap-making demonstrations, campfire stories,
trail walks, Confederate soldiers reminiscing about life at the gap, and other
special events. Check with the park about scheduling.
No visit to the gap is complete without driving to Pinnacle Overlook. Although
the drive is on a steep, winding road, it provides an excellent opportunity to
view plants and shrubs native to the mountains.
The overlook itself is a short walk from the parking lot. Be sure to examine
the bas-relief mural before heading up the path. It traces the history of the
gap in a very graphic manner.
Halfway up the path is a painted line, clearly marking the border between
Kentucky and Virginia. Many visitors stop to take photographs here, with one foot
in Kentucky, the other in Virginia.
You can explore the gap on your own, but a better idea might be to sign on with
Tom Shattuck’s Wilderness Road Tours. The two and one-half hour tour offers insights
and views of the gap you’ll not find otherwise.
Accommodations within the park are limited to camping. But you can find
numerous restaurants and lodgings in nearby Middlesboro. We recommend The Ridge
Runner Bed & Breakfast, a stately Victorian home offering charming antique-filled
rooms, a spacious porch on which to relax, breakfast, and panoramic views.
For information, contact: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Box 1848, Middlesboro,
KY 40965, (606) 248-2817.
Day Trips & Short Stops
The Real McCoy
Clinging all-but-forgotten to the side of a ridge, Pikeville’s quiet, peaceful
Dils Cemetery is the final resting place for one of America’s most notorious feuding
Spanning three decades, the Hatfield/ McCoy fracas has become synonymous
with blood feuds. Now, as mountain feuds go, it really wasn’t all that bad. After
all, at its completion there were both Hatfields and McCoys still standing. But
it transpired at a time when mass communications were coming into their own, and
the whole world knew what was transpiring.
Several of the McCoys found their final rest at Dils Cemetery.
Reached from the fire department parking lot, you have to ascend 70 wooden steps
to reach the burial ground. Once there you’ll see the headstones of Randolph McCoy,
patriarch of the clan; his wife Sarah, who bore him 16 children; and daughter
Roseanna-a true-to-life Juliet who fell in love and ran away with Johnse Hatfield,
only to die of a broken heart when he rejected her. The gravesites of Randolph
and Sarah’s son Sam, and his wife Martha, are also nearby.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Dils Cemetery was the
first in eastern Kentucky to be integrated. In 1871, Colonel John Dils Jr., owner
of the land on which the burial ground is located, allowed his freed slaves and
their descendants to be buried there.
With the exception of the McCoys and the Dilses, many of the graves are
difficult to find and identify. Sprawling across the ridge as the cemetery does,
walking is not easy either. But the graveyard is still worth a visit. Your best
bet: wear sturdy shoes and carry a walking stick.
For additional information, contact: Pike County Tourism Commission, P.O.
Box 1497, Pikeville, KY 41502, (800) 844-7453.
Best Bet for bluegill
It’s almost a hundred miles from the Ohio River to Richmond. But the northern
Kentucky fly-fishing boys don’t hesitate to make the drive. Not when there’s an
outing to Wilgreen Lake.
What could be bringing them? Could it be leaping rainbow trout? Hard-charging
muskie? Battling smallmouth bass?
Actually, it’s bluegill. Bluegill as big as your hand. Bluegill in numbers
hard to believe.
The big bull ‘gills in Wilgreen aren’t persnickity, either. You can use
a fly rod, if that’s your thing, with anything from poppers and hair bugs to nymphs
and wet flies. But more traditional methods work just as well.
The best bait is a toss-up between red worms and crickets, and you can
get either of them right at the lake. If you haven’t visited it recently, you’ll
find some major changes. You’ll find clean surroundings, restrooms, bait and tackle,
snacks, cold pop, sandwiches, and a brand-new fish-cleaning station. The floating
docks themselves have all been either repaired or replaced. “We are trying to
turn this more into a family place,” says owner Randy Nunley.
Nunley has a fleet of rental boats, or you can bring your own. The new
cement launch can handle any reasonably sized boat. The entire lake, by the way,
is idle speed only, and it is patrolled. So be cautious on the throttle.
There’s limited bank fishing available, by following a path from the dock
to the dam. Don’t sell this idea short. Baskets of bluegill are taken from the
shore any day of the season.
So if you have a hankering for fresh, batter-dipped bluegill fillets, give Wilgreen
a try. To find it, take exit 87 from I-75. Proceed west on Barnes Mill Road exactly
two miles to Curtis Pike. Take that left two miles to Taylor’s Fork Road. Another
left, and you’re at the boat dock in half a mile.
There is no fee for boat launching or fishing as such, but there is a parking
fee of $3. Fishing licenses are not sold at the dock.
For information, contact: Wilgreen Lake Marina, 235 Taylor’s Fork Rd.,
Richmond, KY 40475, (859) 623-1881.