My primary objective this summer has been to flesh out a regional context for the creation and development of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. It is easy to treat parks as islands by only looking at what occurs inside the boundary. I think one of the hardest challenges for administrators is to reach outside the park to forge meaningful relationships with surrounding communities, while also guiding regional environmental and cultural policy. That is why when I research park histories it is critical that I understand the various historical drivers in the surrounding region that shaped the park. Furthermore, understanding these drivers and past relationships can help guide a park toward better public engagement and resource policy in the future.
Cumberland Gap NHP poses a unique challenge because it lies within three counties in three different states. My research looks at the relationship of social reform, environmental conservation, and historic preservation–charting changes in these relationships over time. My time frame covers three major periods of twentieth century reform: the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society.
This post is about methodology. How am I building this regional context? Well, first I turned to secondary sources and those historians who have already written about the area. Next, I scoured the local newspaper, looking for important events in Bell County, Kentucky, Claiborne County, Tennessee, and Lee County, Virginia. I focused mainly on articles relating to New Deal and Great Society programs. Park records often include newspaper clippings related to the park, which I have already scanned. I was looking for less obvious connections to the park.
For example, I learned through the newspaper that the Bartlett Park area was developed in the 1920s by the local chapter of the Playground Association of America. It was subsequently developed as a Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal. This is important information, because it was later developed into the Gap Job Corps Center. To me, this shows that the Bartlett Park area was heavily shaped by human conservation ideas as early as the 1920s and continued until the 1960s.
I also sought out local historical organizations in each county for help. Unfortunately, only the Bell County Historical Society responded to my inquiries. I spent some time at their museum and the Bell County Public Library. Much to my surprise, the library had a whole folio of Job Corps material, mostly camp newspapers. I have talked to historians at Lincoln Memorial University, which have helped in understanding the Claiborne County perspective. However, my understanding of Lee County is thin and no one from the Lee County Historical Society answered my messages.
What could I do? Well, I took a drive. I left Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and drove through towns I have seen in the records: Rose Hill, Ewing, Jonesville, and Pennington Gap. I stopped briefly at Wilderness Road State Park, which interprets the frontier period. I gazed upwards to White Rocks. It’s a good four to five hour hike to the top—well worth it I hear. I stopped at the Thomas Walker Civitan Park, which serves as a trailhead to White Rocks and Sand Cave. The Civitan group developed the park in the 1960s, and later I found a newspaper article reporting the club’s opposition to the NPS’s 1967 wilderness proposal.
I drove a bit further outside of Lee County to Big Stone Gap in Wise County to explore Southwest Virginia State Park. Although the museum mostly focused on Wise County, the exhibits gave me a better picture of the region’s history of absentee land ownership, coal mining, conservation, and historic preservation in the area. It was well worth the stop.
Many of my questions have led to new questions, but at some point I have to remind myself to not lose track of my objectives. The challenge now is to pull all these threads together in a narrative that enriches the complex history of the park. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to understand so many different aspects—some of which may not appear to be related—but I find it works best when you are able to ground these ideas in the landscape.