CUMBERLAND GAP PLAYED CRUCIAL ROLE IN TRANSITION OF FRONTIER; SOME 8,000 WHIGS MET THERE IN 1840
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
The small settlement of Cumberland Gap developed after the changing of the frontier from family survival farms to an organized marketable center. The small village was limited geographically but not isolated. It was invigorated by the travel that obviously passed through the Cumberland Gap. Framed by the mountains, the village had little flat land on which to grow crops. Income varied from timber cutting, storekeeping, and foundry work, which allowed the Gap families to purchase food from produce farmers in Powell's Valley.
Cumberland Gap, by 1840, was a thriving Tennessee community and was also a full contributor in the political life of the nation. This year found that the Gap hosted a crowd of from six to eight thousand Whigs who traveled by foot, horseback, wagon, and buggy to cheer for "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!"
Twas the following year that new settlers arrived. Virginian John Newly and his four slaves operated an iron furnace (still in existence, but not used), while other associates of his militia company settled throughout Powell's Valley. Robert Crockett, Daniel Huff, and James Patterson used twenty to thirty slaves each on their large farms in the Valley. The census of 1850 lists approximately thirty-three slave owners in or near the Gap.
East Tennessee African-Americans continued to live in small groups much as they had in the early frontier days. A few free blacks began to settle in the countryside, "in drafty shacks on the most hilly and marginal land" and in the "rabbit town" section of Tazewell, the county seat of Claiborne County. Free blacks "Uncle" Stephen Graham and "reliable" Godfrey Posey drove the stage between Tazewell and the Gap. The weekly stage between these stops carried freight, mail and passengers. This line was a convenient method for the movement of goods and the arrival of people, residents and tourists, which gave the historic village the look of a much larger community.
Slave owners Huff and Patterson operated their farms, started schools for their children, and opened crossroad stores, tanneries and other commercial enterprises in the Valley. Business partnerships were also formed with Newly and another Gap resident, Dr. J.H.S. Morison.
The village of Cumberland Gap changed dramatically during the Civil War with the North and South changing hands four times. As each side moved in and then were forced out, they disabled the mill, the furnace, and the pass above the town. The residents of Cumberland Gap recognized the contrasting armies and accepted them much like the travelers along the Wilderness Road.
Many of the local African-Americans, ex-slaves, followed the creek south, settling in the Tiprell area a mile from the iron furnace. Others remained near the destroyed Huff and Patterson farms
The road across the mountain remained "in terrible shape during the war." It was not immediately repaired, but the community returned to Cumberland Gap by 1870. This census lists white doctors, schoolteachers, and ministers. The African-Americans included blacksmiths, foundry and sawmill operators, and cabinet workers. Many African-Americans, who were forced to leave the Tiprell after Confederate Tip Cockrell's return, joined families in the Gap, constructing their own houses around the large spring and working at the iron furnace. The Morisons, Newlys, and other whites returned to their prewar positions of distinction in the community.
Lack of good roads and access to the railroads caused business growth to come to a standstill. Expansion of the local trade had been discussed for years, but the war interrupted all their efforts. In 1886, local businessman persuaded Alexander Arthur, an agent of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, to consider constructing a tunnel through the mountains. Yellow Creek Valley of Bell County, Kentucky lay across the mountains. The Colson family, largest landowner in the valley, revealed to Arthur virgin forests and coal banks around the border of the valley. Arthur in turn created in his mind a massive development, supported by plentiful natural resources and a connection to rail and onto the world marketplace.
Arthur secured capital from the Baring Bank of London and became President of the American Association, Ltd. Apparently Arthur was presented with a "blank check" and with the assistance of Colson and Morison, the American Association, Ltd. optioned, surveyed, and purchased over 100,000 acres in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Arthur was blessed with enthusiasm, promotional skill, along with business skills, as well as the historic means such as retired British Colonel Railton. Some of the younger investors, who found these less settled areas too distant for their tastes, subsequently assembled at Cumberland Gap.
The Watts Steel Company of England sent the Watts brothers, Edgar and Frank, to manage their business in Middlesborough. At this time, the rough frontier settlement at Yellow Creek proved to be too much for the Englishmen and they therefore set up headquarters in Cumberland Gap.
The townspeople soon cleared small orchards and kitchen gardens for the new business district. Apartments were let over the grocery stores, shoe shops, printing offices, barber shops, restaurants, and other business enterprises served as a living space for newly hired store clerks and delivery men. Overnight visitors had their choice of three hotels and several boarding houses a few blocks from the railroad depot. The Claiborne County newspaper editor made regular trips to the Gap and encouraged the Claiborne Countians to invest in a railroad tunnel through the mountains.
At last the tunneling of the great mountain had begun. A series of tunnel cave-ins hampered its completion. Dr. Morison was often required to treat the injured caused by the cave-ins. He was many times involved in the treating of the injured inside the tunnel or on the side of the mountain in hastily constructed houses or tents.
The African-Americans and poor whites working on the tunnel and railroad made their living quarters on the only land in the Gap not being surveyed and divided into costly town lots. Since the end of the Civil War the African-Americans had moved in and out of town, staying anywhere from a few days to a few years. The largest group of African-Americans migrated to the Gap when the Company needed lumbermen, railroad laborers, and miners. Many of them, like the white laborers, moved to town from nearby farms. African-American workers were "limited by local racial custom in their right to mingle casually with the whites."
While Alexander Arthur and other business investors concentrated on developing the surrounding land resources, Reverend Aaron Arthur Myers and his wife, Ellen, began building a Congregational Church and school in the Gap. They represented the reformers who discovered Appalachia in the late 1890s. Not only did the community support two churches before the Myerses arrived, but nearby Middlesboro built and maintained seven large churches.
The village of Cumberland Gap was incorporated in 1890 and was the largest community in Claiborne County. And by 1900 the ethnically assorted community had withstood the Civil War and the assault of industrial might and evangelical force. The unparalleled growth of the previous twenty years, 1880-1900, tested the community's ability to maintain itself as a separate workable body. However, Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, still survives.
(Material for this article was provided by "Border States," author, Rebecca Vial.)
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