Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, KY/VA/TN

The Museum Junkies have probably visited Cumberland Gap National Historical Park more than any other historical site in the United States. The Park lies a little over half way between our home in western North Carolina, and Elizabeth’s folks’ home in Kentucky. We’ve made just short stops to use the facilities, we’ve gone into Middlesboro and brought back lunch, and we’ve spent hours exploring the trails and Civil War forts along the slopes and at the summit of the mountains. And we’ve been there in every season of the year: fall (our favorite), winter, spring, and summer. We are also drawn to the area. Both Michael and Elizabeth had ancestors who moved out of western North Carolina and into Kentucky in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and they probably used the Gap to pass through. Plus, Michael has a book coming out this year on a Confederate regiment that was stationed at the Gap in late 1862.

There are numerous historical angles from which to view Cumberland Gap. It was a major north-south road for American Indians. Daniel Boone passed through the Gap, leading bands of settlers on the Wilderness Road; the area was important during the Civil War, and changed hands several times; and there were numerous logging enterprises, a railroad, a new tunnel; not to mention that on its northern boundary is a meteor impact crater. Congress recognized the importance of the area and in 1940, created the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. It took 19 years for Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia to purchase the 20,000 acres of scenic mountain terrain.

One of the first stops on entering the Park grounds is the visitor center. The rangers are extremely helpful in answering questions. There is also a small museum inside the visitor center. However, don’t let the small size fool you. The museum walks the visitor through Native American history to the present. There are dioramas and other displays with audio accompaniment that take the visitor on a journey of the area’s history. There are artifacts discovered in the park, along with hands-on exhibits for younger folks. There is also a documentary that airs several times throughout the day. Add to this two different gift shops, and well, you have a really nice facility.

Once outside, only time will limit your exploration. The parking area for the Wilderness Trail area has some great exhibits. There are the remains of a blast furnace, there are tours in Gap Cave, there are tours of the Hensley Settlement, not to mention miles of other trails, two Civil War forts with cannons, wildlife viewing, photography.

We could go on and on. But, let us encourage you to visit the area. You can start at their web site, http://www.nps.gov/cuga/index.htm

From a historian’s point of view: There are a host of historical markers with a lot of good information. Michael’s sure he has not read them all. There are also numerous times of year when different historical interpreters from different areas are on site. Michael does wish the Park had a little more information about the Civil War.

From an educator’s point of view: Elizabeth loves this park. It works on so many levels. The visitors’ center has a great area where children can dress in period clothing. We know from our experiences as interpreters that there is something about wearing the clothes that really makes the experience of history real. This park does a great job of making history a human story. From the beautiful paintings and photographs of excellent interpreters to the exhibits that tell the story of the Gap’s history from the perspectives of different individuals, history comes to life here in a way kids can really understand. Elizabeth particularly loves the area in which visitors walk through an open air exhibit with “footprints” of the Gap’s various travelers—wagon wheels, oxen hooves, moccasins, bare feet (including some very small ones). Visitors can literally walk in the footsteps of those who came here before. This haunting experience is accentuated by the sounds of these travelers and the forest through which they walked.
From an eight year old’s point of view: Nathaniel loves the exhibits that “come to life” with the push of a button, bringing sound and light to wonderful dioramas. He also enjoys visiting the cannons and looking at the fantastic view from the cannon positions.