By Mike Steely
When explorer Dr. Thomas Walker entered the territory outside Colonial America in 1750 and crossed the mountains he eventually passed through what the Cherokee called “Ouasioto” which meant “mountain gap.” Walker, on his way into what was to become Kentucky, didn’t name the place on his first trip but later called it “Cumberland Gap.”
The Cumberland name stuck, not only for the gap but also for that long ridge that stretches from upper New England to upper Alabama and Georgia. Walker named The Cumberlands to honor English Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland. The name goes back even before Augustus to a former county in the northwest of England once called Cumbria. The first record found of Cumberland dates back to 945 AD. There were several “Dukes” of Cumberland prior to Augustus.
Walker noted what is now Cudjo’s Cavern as he passed and noted the spring flowing from the cave and a “constant stream of cool air issuing out.” He also said the stream was sufficient to turn a mill and, in fact, a mill was established there and one remains even today.
Walker’s party, financed by the Loyal Land Company, also discovered limestone and coal outcrops, crossed what became known as Cumberland Ford at today’s Pineville, Kentucky, and moved along the old Native American trail that Daniel Boone would eventually widen to become the Wilderness Road.
He paused along the Cumberland River at what is now Barbourville, Ky., and instructed his crew to build a cabin. A reproduction of that cabin stands today on land claimed by Walker. It’s now the Dr. Thomas Walker State Historic Site. Information about the cabin can be found on the internet or by calling 606-546-4400.
The historic site has two picnic shelters, a miniature 9-hole golf course, a basketball court, and bathroom facilities. Touring the cabin and the grounds there is free year-round and a gift shop operates there April through November.
Dr. Walker returned to Virginia but came again to our region at age 64 to run a survey line between the claims of Virginia and North Carolina that stretched to the Mississippi River. The “Walker Line” came into dispute as it missed the actual boundary by several miles. He and his survey party found the Cumberland Mountains so rugged that they abandoned the survey, went down the Clear Fork River to the Cumberland River and proceeded westward to what is now the Nashville area, estimating the boundary back to the east.
If you’d like to take the family to the Thomas Walker Cabin the easiest way, to keep off the interstate, is to travel north on Maynardville Highway to Tazewell, Harrogate, Cumberland Gap, and on to Middlesboro and Pineville, Ky. There are lots of sites of interest to see along the way including the remodeled Lincoln Memorial Museum in Harrogate, the remodeled gasoline station in Tazewell, and Cumberland Gap National Park. Your kids might thrill at the Cumberland Gap Tunnel between Harrogate and Middlesboro.
You can return by I-75 if you like or drive back to Tazewell and cross the Clinch Mountain to stop at the breathtaking overlook of the Tennessee Valley.