Cumberland Gap retrospect

Jadon Gibson

A scant 132 years ago, in June of 1886, Harper’s Magazine published an article titled, “Through Cumberland Gap on Horseback”, written by James Lane Allen.

In the article Allen wrote of the incalculable mineral and timber resources of the tri-state region and described his impressions of the Gap where he slept beneath the shadows of the Pinnacle.

“It was late in the afternoon when our tired horses began the long, winding, rocky climb from the valley to the brow of the pass.<!–more–

“As we stood in the passageway of Cumberland Gap, amid deepening shadows of the twilight and the solemn repose of the landscape, the air grew thick with ghostly utterances – primeval sounds, undistinguishable and strange, of creatures nameless and never seen by man; the wild rush and whoops of retreating and pursuing tribes; the slow steps of watchful pioneers; the wail of dying children and the songs of homeless women; the muffled tread of routed and broken armies, all the sounds of surprise and delight, victory and defeat and hunger and pain, weariness and despair, that the human heart can utter.

“Here passed the first of all the white race who led the way into the valley of the Cumberland; here passed that small band of fearless men who gave the Gap its name; here passed the long hunters; here rushed the armies of the Civil War; here has passed the wave of westerly emigration, whose force has spent itself only on the Pacific slopes; and here in the long future must flow backward and forward wealth beyond the dream of avarice.”

Alexander Arthur read the article and within days he rode into the area by horseback on the pioneer route from Bean Station.

He recognized the vast resources available and returned to England to secure working capital. The American Association was formed.

Arthur knew a transportation network had to be built. Early in 1888, he and his subordinates contracted to have the railroad from Knoxville to Cumberland Gap laid and August 1, 1889, was set as the completion date.

Road crews worked along the 65-mile stretch and tunneling work began on both the Kentucky and Tennessee sides of Cumberland Gap. A crew comprised of hundreds of white laborers, blacks, Italians and a hodgepodge of other nationalities, were hired and began excavating beneath Cumberland Mountain.

Tents and houses were quickly put up. Stores, saloons, sawmills, blacksmiths, hotels and boarding houses were built. They prospered due to the influx of workers and it resulted in a new town that took its name from the famous pass, Cumberland Gap. Within two years a dozen other towns were spawned in the immediate area.

The year 1889 was prosperous with the tri-state area a beehive of activity. In addition to tunneling and railroad work, Middlesborough was being laid out and built.

Thousands of adventurers and seekers of fortunes came to Cumberland Gap and to Middlesborough on the opposite side of the mountain. Engineers, scientists, capitalists, historians, writers, actors, con men, gamblers – men and women in all walks of life converged on the area of new development.

The directors of the first World’s Fair considered `the valley near Cumberland Gap’ as the site. Although included in the final vote, the area of the historical pass was not selected.

When it appeared the Cumberland Mountain railroad tunnel project would fall behind schedule Arthur considered running a temporary rail line over the top and through the saddle of the Gap. This was forgotten when the 7/8’s mile tunnel was completed on time.

Arthur was on hand the night of August 8, 1889, when the crews digging from both sides of the mountain met beneath the gap. It had taken 18 months, a monumental task. The moderately new highway tunnels beneath Cumberland Mountain took much longer to complete.

In 1889 the two crews worked from opposite sides and met midway beneath the mountain, setting off a massive celebration that sent nearly everyone on a spree. Train whistles screamed and rifles and pistols shot into the air. The saloons in Middlesborough and along Cumberland Mountain in Virginia were busy with revelers.

The western tip of Lee County, Virginia, reaching up to the Pinnacle became known as Hell’s Half Acre. Drinking, gambling, carousing and debauchery were rampant. Officers couldn’t maintain order because violators would step from one state jurisdiction to another.

It was a dangerous time as highwaymen lurked along the mountain and held up and, at times, assaulted those passing by.

Crossing the gap through Hell’s Half Acre became so hazardous that few ventured across without being well armed. Many people discontinued use of the road and chose to hike through the railroad tunnel instead although several lives were lost in doing so.

The tragic financial collapse of the 1890’s brought on by the failure of the Behring Bank of England and the panic of 1893, shattered the dreams of many area promoters and businessmen. Alexander Arthur and the American Association had a pipeline to the Behring vaults and when the bank was hard hit financially the foreign investment stopped and the tri-state area began its downward spiral.

Middlesborough became a ghost city whose population shrank from 10,000 to 2,000. Half-built industrial plants were left sprawled over the area. The magnificent, newly-erected, 700-room Four Seasons Hotel in Harrogate, on the present site of Lincoln Memorial University, was razed and sold for salvage.

The importance of coal to a growing industrial system and the new railway system to and through the Cumberland Gap passageway, led to stability in the tri-state economy for awhile.

In addition to its rich history, the mountainous tri-state area of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, is one of the most beautiful in the United States.

The magnificent twin tunnels beneath Cumberland Mountain and the four-laning of Highway 25E and Highway 58 has led to a large increase in traffic through the region – signaling an era of new prosperity.

*Jadon Gibson is a free-lance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read regularly at Don’t miss a single posting!

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