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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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