Gap Cave

Cumberland Gap Saltpetre Cave - Cudjo's Cave - Soldiers Cave - King Solomon's Cave


Useful Information

Location: Wilderness Rd Trail, Ewing, VA 24248. Meeting Point: Daniel Boone parking area.
Virginia, Lee County. 250 m from Hwy 25E at Cumberland Gap, 5 km south of border to Kentucky. From Knoxville take 75 north to exit 134 at Caryville, then go north on 63 to Harrogate. Take 25E-N thru tunnel, first right out of tunnel.
(36.6027754, -83.6670180)
Open: APR to SEP daily.
Reservation by phone or personally mandatory.
[2024]
Fee: Adults USD 8, Children (5-12) USD 4, Seniors with Golden Age Passport USD 4.
[2024]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave
Light: LightLED Light
Dimension: L=11,104 m, D=145 m, A=459 m asl, T=17 °C.
Guided tours: L=800 m, VR=70 m, ST=183, D=120 min, MinAge=5, Max=20.
Photography:
Accessibility:
Bibliography: John Townsend Trowbridge (1864): Cudjo's Cave. Boston: Tilton, 1864. online at google Cudjo's Cave by J. T. Trowbridge - Project Gutenberg
Address: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Cudjos Cavern, US 25E South, P.O. Box 1847, Middlesboro, KY 40965-1847, Tel: +1-606-248-2817 (Visitor Information), Fax: +1-606-248-7276. E-mail: contact
Daniel Boone Visitor Information Center, State Rd 872, Ewing, VA 24248, Tel: +1-606-248-2817.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Visitor Center, 91 Bartlett Park Road, Middlesboro, KY 40965, Tel: +1-606-248-2817.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1750 first written account of the Gap Cave by Dr. Thomas Walker in his journal.
1861 during Civil War Union and Confederate troops found themselves stationed here and explored the cave.
1888 opened to the public.
1920 Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) acquires the Gap, the show cave and surrounding land, show cave renamed Cudjo's Cave.
1934 artificial entrance tunnel and electric light installed.
1959 Cumberland Gap National Historical Park established.
1992 purchased by Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (Department of Interior, National Park Service).
2000 reopened to the public.

Description

Gap Cave is located at the base of the Pinnacle Mountain in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, just beneath the Cumberland Gap, the first "doorway to the west". Several mountain ridges run along the borders of the three states Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Cumberland Gap is one of the lowest passes in the area and was the best possibility to cross the mountains for the treks of the early settlers on their way west. This is the tristate area of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, just over the border into Virginia.

Throughout the years, this cave had numerous names. First it was named Gap Cave by Dr. Thomas Walker, as it is located in Cumberland Gap. He wrote the first description of the cave after he travelled through the Gap in 1750. Walker was the guardian of the later president Thomas Jefferson, after Jefferson's father's death.

In the following years, the cave became known for the constant stream of water and cold air it issued from the face of Cumberland Mountain. Daniel Boone passed through Cumberland Gap in 1775, and while it is unknown if he visited the cave, he must have seen the cave entrance. Later it was called Soldiers Cave and King Solomon's Cave. Some are different entrances of the same cave system, which currently has six known entrances. The name Cumberland Gap Saltpetre Cave recalls the time when saltpetre was mined for gunpowder in the cave. Due to the legend about the runaway slave Cudjo it was dubbed Cudjo's Cave. But the present owner, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, renamed the cave several years ago to Gap Cave, its original name. However, it seems most people still know it as Cudjo's Cave.

Cudjo was a runaway slave, who is said to have hid in the cave during the Civil War. The point with the legend is that Cudjo got killed by Confederate soldiers inside the cave. This is only 5 km from the border to Kentucky, which was a neutral state, and so would have been the rescue for Cudjo. So the fictional story tells about failure in looking distance of the goal.

This story is in the book Cudjo's Cave by John Townsend Trowbridge (*1827-✝1916). It was first printed in Boston 1864 and is a historical novel about the Civil War, telling much of the story of this cave. The pass was of strategic importance, connecting east and west, and so it was secured immediately with the outbreak of the Civil War. Union and Confederate troops found themselves stationed here, each controlled the Gap twice during the war. But there were only skirmishes and no major battles at the cave. The cave was most likely used to mine saltpeter, potassium nitrate (KNO3), which was needed to produce black gunpowder, the most important good during the war. The main deposits where nitrogen and potassium-rich bat guano accumulations on the floor of caverns. However, archaeological remains or documents which would prove the mining were not found.

The cave was opened to the public after land-owner Major Cockrill blasted an entry into the caverns in 1888. He discovered large chambers and decided to open it as a show cave under the name King Solomon's Cave. Major Cockrill claimed to have explored about 25 km of cavern beneath the Pinnacle. He cleaned the floors to allow a rather comfortable walk through the cave and built 183 steps for the steeper parts. But still the floor was uneven in many points, and sturdy shoes were recommended. By the turn of the century he installed electric light in the cave, but as far as we understand only at the spectacular points of the tour.

The cave was acquired by Lincoln Memorial University in 1920 and renamed Cudjo's Cave. LMU then leased all but the lower level of the cave to two entrepreneurs from Cumberland Gap, who operated the show cave. The lower level is the water-filled river cave and has a resurgence at the foot of the Gap. It seems the University acquired the cave mainly for the water rights, so they could use it for drinking water. In 1934, the nearby Soldiers Cave was connected to Cudjo's Cave with a tunnel and electric light was installed. The commercial tour operators took steps to preserve and protect the cave, it was actually their source of income. But as their highest priority was profit, there are reports that up to 100 persons were permitted to tour the cave under the supervision of a single tour guide. Also, security was a big issue, as vandals frequently broke into the cavern, drawing graffiti and breaking formations. They operated the show cave with concessionaires for more than 70 years, until 1992 when it was acquired by the National Park Service. But the University kept the water rights and the ownership of the river cave.

After the NPS had taken over, they had the highest priority to protect the cave and to allow public visits only if there was no harm to the cave. At first there was the idea to clean the cave of graffiti and other damages, but actually this is highly discouraged by cave preservationists. The chemical and physical cleaning processes often create undesirable side effects. Much of the graffiti was more than 50 years old, and thus had changed its status from vandalism to protected remains under the federal Antiquities Preservation Act. So they carefully removed rubbish, broken railings and electric wiring. In the first years, between 1992 and 2000, the cave was closed to the public, while it was cleaned. As far as we know, the cave was for several years not lighted, lanterns for the visitors were provided by the guides. It seems the electric light systems of the concessionaires were old and thus completely removed. But some years ago the NPS actually developed the cave carefully, with better trails, stainless steel railings and a new LED light system.

While the commercial operators were quite lax, the NPS is strict and pedantic. They offer tours only after reservation, either by phone or personally, by noon the day before the desired tour date, and not more than one month in advance. Also, no matter when the tour starts, it is necessary to come to the Visitor Center in Middlesboro Kentucky and pay for your tour before 9:30. Just to make this clear: the starting point for the cave tour is the Daniel Boone parking area with the Daniel Boone Visitor Center, but the tickets are sold on the other side of the pass in Kentucky. It's just a 6-minute drive, but probably a little confusing.

A highlight of the cave visit is the Talking Stalactite or Gurgling Stalactite. It is a rather common stalactite with one specialty: it makes a strange sound like a tree frog or a chirping cricket. The sound is produced by water, probably a drop of water falling through a hole, so the air produced the strange sound.

The Cumberland Gap was a major highway, but the narrow and winding road caused in average five deaths every year. In the 1990s, the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, a four-lane twin-bore mountain tunnel was built. It replaced the pass road, which was subsequently not only closed but also removed and the land restored to its original beauty. The Federal Highway Administration spent about $5 million to remove all traces of the old road. However, the road once led to the show cave. Now there is only a walking trail which starts at the Daniel Boone parking area at the foot of the hill. It's a 1 km hike to the cave entrance.