Sunday, June 30, 2002

Trails replace deadly Cumberland Gap road

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        MIDDLESBORO, Ky. — Older maps still show a crooked line that denoted a paved road over the Cumberland Gap.

        That's about the only evidence left of a 3.2-mile stretch of U.S. 25E that had earned a reputation for being one of the most dangerous roads in the Appalachian Mountains.

        The ribbon of asphalt has been ripped away, dirt has been hauled in to restore the natural grade, and now signs of new life are springing up on the mountain that had come to epitomize death for families who lost relatives in traffic crashes.

        “It's unbelievable to realize there was a road there less than eight months ago,” said Sue Richards, owner of The RidgeRunner bed and breakfast in Middlesboro. “You can't tell. The grass is growing, trees are growing. It's absolutely gorgeous.”

        Walking trails now meander through the area that came to be known locally as Massacre Mountain.

        “The difference really is remarkable,” said Park Ranger Matthew Graham, standing near a trailhead on the Kentucky side of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park that straddles the borders with Tennessee and Virginia.

        “The road came right through here,” Mr. Graham said, looking at the narrow strip of grass be neath his feet. “You wouldn't dare stand here before the road closed, unless you had a death wish.”

        The Federal Highway Administration spent about $5 million to remove all traces of the road on the Kentucky-Virginia border, where an average of five people a year were killed in traffic accidents before it closed about five years ago.

        Officials with the National Park Service cited the high death rate when they lobbied for money to dig twin tunnels through the mountain. Those tunnels were completed in 1996 at a cost of $240 million.

        When the tunnels opened, 18,000 motorists who crossed the mountain each day were rerouted and the road closed. Middlesboro police Chief Jeff Sharpe said that ended the melee on the mountain. Not one fatal crash has occurred since the tunnels opened, he said.

        Work crews, using descriptions from old journals and maps for direction, have restored the Cumberland Gap to nearly the same appearance it had when Daniel Boone and 30 men first marked a trail across in 1775 to open the nation's midsection for settlement.

        “It's so much more peaceful now,” said Arthur Boggs of Harlan, who visited Cumberland Gap and toured the Gap Cave a week ago. “The last time I was here, cars and big trucks were passing right by the entrance to the cave.”


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