Through the Cumberland GapThe wonder of exploration defines Kentucky’s past and future

By Chuck Beard

{mosimage}White settlers in Colonial America began conquering the East by the 1600s, but the territory to the west remained a great unknown. The Appalachian Mountains formed a natural barrier, neatly but unevenly, dividing the North American continent into East and West.

Lumbering south from Maine to Georgia, this mountain range provided protection to the American colonists from their enemies, the French in Canada and the American Indians to the west. But colonies in a new land tend to expand, and the growing population in the east yearned to see what lay across the hills that had defied crossing for so long.

After following migrating buffalo herds, American Indians had discovered the secret to crossing the mountains long ago – a natural gap in the range that provided easier access than at any other point along the line. (North of the gap, a wall of mountains blocks passage for more than 400 miles.) White explorers first found this gap in 1750 when Thomas Walker and his men came across it while seeking to stake out a land grant. That mission failed, but their discovery of what was soon named the Cumberland Gap had far greater consequences.

A group of about 30 men left Long Island in the Holston River of East Tennessee (then part of North Carolina) on March 10, 1773, charged with the task of marking a path from their starting point to a site in Kentucky that had been claimed by the Transylvania Land Company. Daniel Boone led this group, and later returned alone to explore further. In 1775, after a large portion of the Kentucky country was obtained from the Cherokee Indians under the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, Boone and his men finished marking what came to be known as the Wilderness Trail from Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.

The early trail was rough by any standard, sometimes a barely cleared path marked only by ax blazes on a tree. But immigration began immediately, and by the end of the Revolutionary War some 12,000 people had crossed into the new territory. Like a stream that cuts its own way through slow and steady force, the colonists crossed the gap in trickles, and then the trickle became a torrent. By 1792 the population was more than 100,000, and soon after, Kentucky was admitted to the Union.

Migration and commerce through the Cumberland Gap continued into the 19th century, but by the 1830s human ingenuity overcame the mountain barrier, and waterways provided passages to the West.

{mosimage}Today, visitors to this area, lush with rolling green forests and majestic views of mountains never far off, can get an idea of the pioneer life at Fort Boonesborough, where Boone and about 40 other settlers broke ground in 1775. The fort itself eventually consisted of a rectangle of about 26 one-story cabins with a two-story blockhouse at each corner. The settlers’ greatest concern was staking their own land claims, planting, hunting and exploring, but the fort provided a common meeting place as well as protection from raiding Indians. (The settlers’ greatest foe, however, was the Kentucky River, which frequently flooded and eventually drove them to higher ground.)

A row of cabins at the reconstructed fort shows just how primitive life could be for the settlers, but few comforts arrived slowly to soften the frontier life. Pioneer crafts and skills such as candlemaking, soapmaking and smithing now are demonstrated, and watching the tedious, time-consuming process of spinning and weaving will make you appreciate the fact that you can buy your clothes off the rack.

These Hills are Alive With Music

There’s blue grass, and then there’s bluegrass – and no one does bluegrass better than Kentuckians. The Kentucky Music Hall of Fame at Renfro Valley traces the fascinating evolution of local music traditions from its humble beginnings in the Appalachians to today’s glitzy country rock. The museum begins its story in the 1700s, when handmade instruments were passed along and the biggest stage probably was a front porch. Slave traditions infused an African color into the music, and the slaves’ banjer became the hills people’s banjo.

Famous sons and daughters of Kentucky are honored at the Hall of Fame, including Loretta Lynn, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, The Judds, The Osborne Brothers, Red Foley, Rosemary Clooney and the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe. The museum has a strong educational program with music workshops, and you can even record your own CD in the Hall of Fame Studio.

Renfro Valley is celebrating 65 years of traditional country music and family comedy, and its claim to be Kentucky’s “country music capital” is disputed by none.

“This is what Branson (Mo.) should be like,” said one guest at the Friday-night Barn Dance after a dizzying 90-minute show featuring the most talented singers, players and comedians Kentucky has to offer. You’ll feel like you just saw a show at the Grand Ole Opry, but without the traffic or the hucksterism.

All the big names pass through here, and the coming months’ roster of performers includes such stellar names as Lynn, Loveless, Randy Travis, Larry Gatlin, Charley Pride, Ray Price, Exile, Ronnie McDowell, The Oak Ridge Boys, Merle Haggard and George Jones.

But it’s the in-house stable of performers that will wow you day in, day out. Regular shows include Front Porch Pickin’, Classic Country, Mountain Gospel Jubilee, Renfro Valley Gatherin’, Barn Dance and Jamboree, and are not to be missed. (And hearing Susan Tomes Laws belt out “Cattle Call” at the Friday-night Jamboree was worth the whole trip.)

The Renfro Valley experience also includes great meals, the BitterSweet Cabin Museum, shops, a full-service RV park and outside entertainment.

Hiking In the Appalachians

The Cumberland Gap area is well known to outdoors types, with miles of hiking trails and great river canoeing. The Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail in the Daniel Boone National Forest winds through a dense forest of hemlock, oak and dogwood guarded by enormous boulders and cliff overhangs, but keep alert for ladyslippers, trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits.

The hike is moderately difficult, with steep steps and a few moments of “The trail goes down there?” We started at Cumberland Falls, headed north along Cumberland River to Dog Slaughter Falls near the mouth of Dog Slaughter Creek, and then turned east to hike parallel to the creek – a total of a bit less than five miles.

U.S. Forest Service guide Leif Meadows pointed us to an unassuming little plant shaped a bit like a green pinwheel, maybe 6 inches high. Digging under the plant and cupping the earth in his hand, he produced the Indian cucumber’s tiny white rhizome. He gently cleared away the clinging dirt and popped it into his mouth, and soon we were all craving them. It tastes like a very sweet cucumber, but American Indians knew that a few could act as a diuretic, and in large amounts a purgative.

After all that hiking, rest your wearies in the cool Rockcastle River, one of Kentucky’s five Wild Rivers. Jim Honchell, owner of Rockcastle Adventures Canoe Livery, guided us 11 miles downriver on the Upper Rockcastle, snaking its way through the heart of Daniel Boone National Forest. The current is mostly gentle and forgiving, but a few spots proved too rough and we took the easy way out – by land, via portage. It’s a great river for swimming, as well.

Kentucky boasts 52 state parks, each seemingly more stunning than the last. Somewhere near the top of that list would have to be the Pine Mountain and Cumberland Falls parks.

Pine Mountain has the distinction of being the first Kentucky state park, created in 1924 and located in the heart of the Kentucky Ridge State Forest in the southeastern mountains. The upper lobby of the lodge was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal program funded to put young men to work during the Great Depression. The beauty and workmanship is evident, with the original sandstone and chestnut-log construction proudly in place.

Don’t miss the park’s Hemlock Garden Trail, just behind the lodge; just three-fourths of a mile long, this trail has new “oohs” and “ahs” at every turn. Step over a running rock stream and soon you’ll be ducking under Fat Man Squeeze – a seemingly impossible niche that only becomes believably passable when you’re right there in it. A walking stick is helpful on this one, and we found a stack of 10 or 12 waiting for us by past thoughtful hikers.

The Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. The highlight here is the falls itself, known as the “Niagara of the South.” The waterfall forms a 125-foot curtain that plunges noisily 60 feet below into a boulder-strewn gorge. The mist from the falls creates a “moonbow,” only visible on a clear night during a full moon. Nowhere else in the Western Hemisphere can this phenomenon be found.

Sheltowee Trace Outfitters offers raft rides up to the base of the falls for a close view and a feel of the mist on your face. It’s a 20-minute thrill ride for young and old.

The Dupont Lodge at Cumberland Falls has been recently renovated, and it’s a charmer. Solid hemlock beams and knotty pine paneling frame the massive stone fireplaces in the lobby. Picture windows in the dining room overlook the forest and a steep drop to the river below. For the best view, visit the terrace – and look for the raccoons that keep a masked eye out for thrown handouts.

Recalling the Coal Years

{mosimage}The discovery of coal at the turn of the 20th century led to boom times for southeastern Kentucky. The Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. built the town of Stearns to serve as the hub of a logging and mining empire that, in its 1920s heydays, controlled more than 200 square miles of land. The Stearns company built the Kentucky and Tennessee Railway as well as the world’s first all-electric sawmill, and employed more than 2,200 people in its 18 coal camps. The company town included a freight depot, office building, pool hall, theater, hotel and a company store, where residents could purchase items with company-issued scrip.

By the 1950s, the coal mines played out one by one and soon were abandoned. By 1976, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. sold most of its buildings to the Blue Diamond Coal Co., and in 1987 the last railcar of coal left the Blue Diamond mines.

The McCreary County Museum, housed in a 1907 Stearns Coal & Lumber office building, is a window into the area’s often wild past. (A favorite with guests is the whiskey-still exhibit.) A lot of history is packed into this small, charming museum, dedicated to the memories of the lives of coal miners and their families.

The restored Big South Fork Scenic Railway whisks visitors through the gorge of the Big South Fork, a tributary of the Cumberland River, to the Blue Heron Mining Camp, hugging the cliffline, passing through one tunnel and descending more than 600 feet over 5 miles.

Considered by residents to be one of the best Stearns coal mines to live and work at, the Blue Heron Mining Camp was built in 1937 and then abandoned in 1962. In 1989, the National Park Service restored the camp with “ghost structures” and oral-history exhibits as part of the Big South Fork River and Recreation Area.

Take the time to visit the ghost structures and listen to recordings of past residents who spent their lives at the camp; the voices seem in turn wistful, thankful and proud. A short hike up the hill leads to the abandoned mine opening.