Notes from the Landscape: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

The first time I visited Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was in January 2013. It was freezing and rained the entire week. I also picked up a nice cold on the drive down, which meant I spent a miserable week sniffling in the park archives. I returned last week to continue my dissertation research and was met with sunshine, warm temperature, and long days. I gladly explored the park and surrounding area in the evenings.

View from the Pinnacle

View from the Pinnacle

I met Natalie Sweet immediately upon arriving in Harrogate, Tennessee, for coffee and a tour of Lincoln Memorial University and the town of Cumberland Gap. Natalie was very gracious and knowledgeable of the area, and I enjoyed learning about her research projects.  After lunch, I met with Carol Campbell and Michelle Ganz at the LMU Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. They, too, were knowledgeable and gracious and gave me a list of contacts as I picked their brains about the local area.

I dropped my bags off at the hotel in Middlesboro and set off to explore park. I travelled up the windy road constructed by the Sky Land Company in 1929, leading up to the Pinnacle. The observation deck at the top offered stunning views. I next parked my car at the Thomas Walker parking area and hiked a portion of Object Lesson Road, a macadamized road built in 1907 with USDA funds for demonstration roads, to the saddle of the gap. New growth marked where the NPS has undertaken restoration work in the past dozen years after US-25 was relocated. I hiked up to Tri-State Peak where the three governors of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee signed a pact to acquire land for the national park.

At the saddle of the gap

At the saddle of the gap

Standing at the intersection of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia

Standing at the intersection of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia

Tuesday morning I started work in the park archives. I pulled files that had information on the area before the park was created, including newspaper clippings on Alexander Arthur and the American Association. I also found records of the Kentucky National Park Commission, which provide much needed insight into the land acquisition process throughout the 1940s and 1950s. It appears that the commission used condemnation pretty frequently at Cumberland Gap.

I met with new park superintendent Sula Jacobs on Wednesday morning to talk about my project. She was enthusiastic and happy to hear that I plan to be finished in May. Martha Wiley, the park historian, continued to be of invaluable help. She burned a disc with a number of oral history transcripts that I cannot wait to read. I also had the chance to listen to a ranger program given by a descendant of one of the families that used to live in the park. In fact, her extended family came that day to hike to the old home site.

Wayside marking home site of Beason family

Wayside marking home site of Beason family

In the evenings I travelled to Pine Mountain State Park and Kentucky Ridge State Forest. Both were New Deal projects and are located near Pineville, Kentucky. When the park was proposed, Kentucky officials really wanted the NPS to absorb both sites into the national park, but the NPS dodged that request. Both are cool New Deal landscapes to explore today. Laurel Cove Amphitheater, home of the Laurel Festival, took my breath away when I first saw it.

Laurel Cove Amphitheater at Pine Mountain State Park

Laurel Cove Amphitheater at Pine Mountain State Park

Entrance gates to Kentucky Ridge State Forest, originally a Resettlement Administration project during the New Deal

Entrance gates to Kentucky Ridge State Forest, originally a Resettlement Administration project during the New Deal

I also had the opportunity to ground truth some Job Corps resources in the park landscape.  Similar to Mammoth Cave and Catoctin, park administration regularly uses Job Corps buildings for maintenance and other staff uses. Unfortunately, none of the barracks or education buildings remains. I think the Job Corps administrative building now forms the core of the current park headquarters, however I need to look into that some more. The gymnasium is now used for storage and some of the recreation area remains open space while the rest has been converted into wetlands.  Job Corps work projects may still be seen in the park, such as the Sugar Run picnic area and the restoration work at Fort McCook.

Maintenance shop constructed by the Gap Job Corps

Maintenance shop constructed by the Gap Job Corps

Civil War-Era Fort McCook was restored by the Job Corps

Civil War-Era Fort McCook was restored by the Job Corps

On Friday, I joined a small group tour of Hensley Settlement led by Ranger Matthew Graham. Ranger Graham has worked for the park for nearly thirty years and it was a treat to attend his tour. To get to Hensley, we rode in a van nearly an hour–half of which was up an old logging road. Our tour lasted about two hours. It was a beautiful day with a nice breeze and it was very quiet at 3,200 feet. Twelve to fourteen families lived on this five hundred acre plateau from 1904 to 1951. The Hensleys have a reunion every August. The Job Corps restored a number of buildings back in the 1960s. The NPS used to operate a working living history farm there, but has since scaled back because of resources. It was interesting to learn from Ranger Graham how interpretation has changed at the site.

Willie Gibbons Farm at Hensley Settlement. First restored by Gap Job Corps.

Willie Gibbons Farm at Hensley Settlement. First restored by Gap Job Corps.

Ranger Graham at the grave of Sherman Hensley

Ranger Graham at the grave of Sherman Hensley

Colleen, Volunteer in the Park, gives living history program on Hensley Settlement tour. The NPS has greatly scaled back its living history program at Hensley.

Colleen, Volunteer in the Park, gives living history program on Hensley Settlement tour. The NPS has greatly scaled back its living history program at Hensley.

Overall, I think I made significant progress in filling in some gaps for the area’s Progressive-Era history and the park’s development during Mission 66.  I am also starting to build the regional context for the New Deal and the Great Society.  I have a lot of material to analyze now and many more questions, but this was a very productive trip.

Thanks to all my friends who graciously responded to my last post about historiography issues. I received great feedback. In this case, blogging is way better than being in a seminar class!

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