Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

I successfully defended my dissertation on Cumberland Gap National Historical Park in March 2015. Below is my abstract for “Recreating Appalachia: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, 1922-1972.” The full text may be found on ProQuest, or you may contact me for a copy.

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (NHP) is situated at the intersection of three states—Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia—at the narrow pass in the mountains used by eighteenth-century pioneers travelling along the Wilderness Road. This dissertation examines the development of the park from 1922 to 1972 and reveals how the National Park Service sought to remake the Appalachian region by reshaping the landscape. Outsiders defined Appalachia as being socio-economically and culturally different from the rest of the country, which prompted reformers to focus their efforts on the area throughout the twentieth century. They sought to correct the socio-economic problems of Appalachia by restoring degraded physical environments and romanticizing the local culture, which made the NPS an important federal agent for land and social reform. Park planners conceived of Cumberland Gap NHP late in the New Deal (1933-1942) and developed a vision to recreate an eighteenth-century wilderness. The park came of age in the Great Society (1964-1969) when a new discourse emerged at the park that reflected post-World War II concerns of fighting a War on Poverty, creating wilderness areas, and preserving historic sites. Chronicling changing attitudes towards nature, history, and social policy at Cumberland Gap NHP will help us understand how the NPS sought to remake and modernize the Appalachian region.

This study utilizes ideas from cultural landscape studies to examine the park’s changing physical landscape as part of the historical record. I juxtapose field observations with evidence found in government records, historic photographs, maps, drawings, newspaper and magazine articles, oral histories, and archaeological data. I draw upon secondary literature in twentieth-century U.S. social history, environmental history, Appalachian studies, historic preservation, and public history to provide the necessary context for evaluating the primary source material.

This dissertation offers a critical framework for interpreting national park landscapes by examining the relationships between and among Cumberland Gap NHP’s natural, historical, and recreational qualities and how they have changed over time. It is critical to understand these relationships, because they shape how a park looks, feels, and functions and often reveal larger cultural values embedded in a park’s landscape.

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