Daniel Boone carved his niche in American history in 1775 when he blazed a trail through Cumberland Gap, forging the first continuous route for settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
Within a few decades, hundreds of thousands of pioneers surged through the Gap on the Wilderness Road, the legendary route that brought the first settlers into present-day Kentucky and Tennessee. But two centuries later, the historic road that enabled westward expansion was buried beneath a paved highway.
Now, travelers once again can retrace Boone’s pioneering footsteps, thanks to an engineering marvel—a twin tunnel bored through Cumberland Mountain near the town of Cumberland Gap, Tenn. (pop. 204). Completed in 1996, the Cumberland Gap Tunnel made it possible to remove the portion of old Highway 25E that ran through the Gap.
The world’s most modern tunnel—complete with monitors tracking everything from moisture content to car accidents—serves two purposes: to restore the Gap and the Wilderness Road, and to improve traffic safety. The latter was accomplished with a massive reduction in auto accidents since the days of the treacherous, two-lane highway.
Now, the restoration is generating excitement. “We’re re-contouring the landscape to reflect the period between 1780 and 1810,” says Mark Woods, superintendent of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. That era represents the route’s heyday when improvements were made to the Wilderness Road so wagons could pass through the Gap, making the mountainous crossing easier.
“At the Gap, we’re taking the topography back to its historic appearance as completely as we can, from research and analysis of maps, and surveying,” Woods says.
Native trees, shrubs, and grasses, promulgated from seeds gathered in the park, have been planted along the restored segment of the Wilderness Road, which was dedicated last fall.
Although the name most commonly associated with Cumberland Gap is Daniel Boone, others—including Boone himself—traversed the Gap prior to his legendary passage in 1775. Well-trod by buffalo, the forested trail also had been used by American Indians.
But it was Boone whose name became legendary. Working for Richard Henderson & Co., a land speculation firm, he and 30 men hacked a well-defined trail through the forest. “When he came through, travel was primarily on foot with a horse,” Woods says.
By the 1820s, however, other routes, railroads, and steamboats made the West more accessible, and Cumberland Gap’s importance diminished. Eventually, Highway 25E coursed across the beautiful mountainside, carrying up to 18,000 vehicles a day.
In the 1950s, the National Park Service suggested a tunnel. The idea became reality when workers from six countries joined Appalachian coal miners and construction workers for the first rock blast on June 21, 1991. The project was completed five years later despite great challenges.
Cumberland Mountain contains caves rising as high as 85 feet, as well as a 30-foot-deep lake. It also produces 450 gallons of water per minute from its underground rivers and streams. “A major cavern system had to be re-piped underneath the roadway to maintain natural flow of groundwater through the mountain,” Woods says.
And because the tunnel is within a national park, the work had to be done in an environmentally sensitive manner. For example, construction materials used match existing rocks and other natural surroundings. “From Pinnacle Overlook, you don’t even see the tunnel,” Woods says.
More than two centuries after Daniel Boone’s excursion, trailblazing continues, preserving one of the most significant transportation corridors in American history.