Minding the Gap
The National Park Service moves vast quantities of earth to restore
Cumberland Gap to what the first settlers saw.
By Chris Fordney
Centuries ago, buffalo streamed through the Cumberland Gap, seeking
the salt licks of today's eastern Kentucky. Later, long lines of
wagon-borne pioneers, yearning for virgin lands, bounced and jolted
through the rugged notch in the southern Appalachians. In the 20th
century a two-lane road known as the "Dixie Highway," between Detroit
and Miami, brought tens of thousands of vehicles a day through the
gap, with legions of NASCAR fans causing major backups on race days
in more recent years. Chiseled into the mountains at the point where
the southwest tip of Virginia meets the border of Tennessee and
Kentucky, the pass has always been a key link between the Southeast
and the Midwest. Now an ambitious new project has peeled back those
layers of transportation history to take the gap back to a time
when it was the only way to go west.
Throughout that history, the slopes and ravines of this narrow
passage through the mountains were dug out, filled up, fortified,
and manipulated in other ways to suit the people who used it, from
Civil War soldiers to interstate truckers. But no amount of earthmoving
could straighten the hazardous curves of the highway through the
gap, often ice covered in winter, which claimed many lives. So six
years ago the road was rerouted via a twin-bore, four-lane tunnel
under the adjacent mountain, leaving a two-mile remnant of two-lane
highway through the gap and creating an unprecedented opportunity
for the National Park Service (NPS) to recreate an iconic American
landscape. Over the past year the old highway remnant has been torn
out and the topography of the gap reconstructed to something close
to what the early settlers saw as they made the hazardous trek over
the Appalachian divide into Kentucky.
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