When I was in third grade, my mother gave me a book whose stories told about mountain passes in history. As a result I became fascinated by mountain passes. Once I started to drive and travel across the US, I encountered mountain passes in person and became even more interested in their location and importance.
Years ago I wrote the manuscript of a nonfiction picture book on twelve important mountain passes in US history. For each mountain pass I wrote a poem, boxed statistics, and prose. The manuscript was almost published, but ultimately wasn’t, because to produce it the way the editor envisioned it would have cost too much. I then rewrote the information as a nonfiction Middle Grades book, but there was no interest in the subject among the publishers I queried.
All the information I collected on mountain passes is still in storage. But this is the era of the blog, and my blog is titled “Much to Write About,” and so I’m going to write briefly about mountain passes. Not all at once, but off and on.
The first important mountain pass in US history (the land wasn’t the United States yet) was the Cumberland Gap, which was formed in the Appalachian Mountains by wind erosion over hundreds of thousands of years. For tens of thousands of years the pass was traversed by animals, and for thousands of years by Indian tribes such as the Lenape, Cherokee, Miami, and Shawnee, as they crossed from one side of the mountains to the other to engage in trade and also warfare.
The pass, or rumors of it, was known to English colonists as early as the 1670s. But it wasn’t until 1750 that Thomas Walker (physician and explorer, and the man appointed guardian of young Thomas Jefferson after the death of Peter Jefferson) mapped the location of the Cumberland Gap.
Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 1,601 feet above sea level
Grade: about 4%
Location: Near the point where the states of
Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee meet.
As soon as the Gap’s location was made known, a few hardy men and women began to walk westward into the land of Indian tribes, taking the barest of possessions with them: a knife, a gun, and the clothes on their back. Everything else they needed, they found or built on the other side of the mountains, or traded for with the Indian tribes.
Most people, though, wanted to take some possessions with them. Bedding, perhaps, and cooking utensils. So in 1775 the Transylvania Land Company hired Daniel Boone to hack a road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone and his crew of thirty men cleared away brush, axed small trees, and hauled away fallen logs, blazing the steep, rough, and narrow Wilderness Road. The cleared path allowed people to cross on horseback. Twenty years later, the Wilderness Road was widened so that wagons could pass through.
More than 300,000 people poured through the Gap (into Indian lands) and claimed the land as their own. In 1792 Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains.Today the Cumberland Gap and area surrounding it are part of Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, visited by more than one million people each year.
Nature’s wall blocked
but not for long.
Carts, cattle, people —
through the breach
To cross a mountain pass is to enter another world. To read a book is to enter another world, too. Jack and Larry, one of Barbara Gregorich’s many books, opens into the world of 1910-1920 major league baseball.