By Mike Steely
Almost everyone in our nation knows of the Cumberland Gap pass, made famous by Daniel Boone, and many in our region visit the national park there. Cumberland Gap is also the name of a small Tennessee town that is surrounded on all sides by the park there. You can drive down into the little town during the season and visit the Old Mill store there or marvel at the old houses.
From the Mayberry-like town, many choose to walk one of the two paths leading to the Three State Marker where you can literally stand in Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia all at the same time. One path, as you start into town from Highway 58, leads the walker up and past Cudjo Caverns, where U. S. Park Rangers give tours of the historic old cave.
Many others choose to drive through the broad Highway 25E Tunnel and visit the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park office, with its small museum, and then drive atop Cumberland Mountain to the Pinnacle. There you can look off across the Tennessee Valley and see the Smoky Mountains far away. Or you can stroll along the Union Army’s Fort Lyon and note the many Civil War signatures in the rocks there.
But the most overlooked or seldom visited site in Cumberland Gap is back downtown at the end of downtown road near the old railroad tunnel. The Iron Furnace is just a brief hike up the ridge there and has a history that reflects not only the early history of the town but also the Civil War.
Today only a small portion of the once huge iron furnace still stands. Built in 1819 the vast complex was powered by steam generated from the stream that flows from what is known as Cudjo Caverns. Huge limestone blocks were used to construct the furnace and it was lined with hand-made bricks. A waterwheel powered the blower and the furnace included a large hammer that beat the iron from rocks mined nearby.
Originally known as Newlee’s Iron Furnace, the facility sold its finished iron to local blacksmiths and also shipped the material down the Powell River to Chattanooga. In 1863 the Union Army raided the town and destroyed most of the buildings and supplies at the furnace, leaving only the furnace standing.
Today a well-marked path leads up to and inside the furnace, giving visitors an idea of what a huge facility the complex must have been.
There’s a full day of things to do in and around Cumberland Gap. Just to the east is a reconstruction of Virginia’s Martin Station Fort. In Middlesboro there’s a museum and a “Coal House” built entirely of coal mined in the area. Middlesboro is a wonder by itself. The city sits in the middle of an ancient meteor crater.
Four Civil War fort sites are found on the mountain within the national park. Park rangers give lectures and offer guided tours of Cudjo Caverns.
And, of course, you can walk the ground where Daniel Boone and many others walked.
If you’d like more information on the area and the national park you can find information on the internet or call the park at (606) 248-2817.
You can also get area information from the Cumberland Gap Regional Tourism Association, located in nearby Tazewell, Tn. by calling (423) 259-8406 or online.