Park service projects restore
caves in the Gap to natural state
October 25, 1999
By Morgan Simmons, Knoxville News-Sentinel staff writer

Natural Resource Manager Jimmy Johnson
checks out the Pillar of Hercules, centerpiece
of Cudjo Cavern's Big Room in Cumberland
Gap National Historical Park,
Photo by Paul Efird/News-Sentinel Staff

There are weeds  growing out of cracks in the road, and the  absence of traffic is downright eerie.

U.S. 25E, the two-lane ribbon of asphalt that once carried motorists through the Cumberland Gap, is now deserted, having been rendered obsolete by the completion of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel in 1996.

Sometime in 2001 --  that's when funding is expected to come from the Federal Highway Administration -- a two-mile portion of U.S. 25E through the gap will be torn up and replaced with a replica of the Wilderness Trail, the route used by pioneers between 1780 and 1810 during the height of western expansion.

But even as the bulk of the Cumberland Gap restoration work remains on hold, a handful of projects is already under way thanks to local National Park Service funding and grants.

Most notably, the National Park Service is in the midst of restoring Cudjo Cavern as a "wild cave"  suitable for guided tours illuminated by lantern light.

On a sunny afternoon last week Brice Leech, a cave specialist with Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, stood at the mouth of the cavern, located on the Virginia side of the Cumberland Gap,  a stone's throw from the now-abandoned U.S. 25E.

"Even though a lot of the formations inside have been vandalized, it's still pretty inside, just not pristine," Leech said.

Inside the cavern, just beyond an iron security gate installed recently by the National Park Service, the temperature dropped to the mid-50s, and Leech switched on his flashlight.

Farther into the cavern, past a large section of steeply slanting breakdown, Leech aimed his flashlight on some of the cave's extensive natural decorations -- fern-like crystal growths, straw-shaped stalactites, and all manner of dripstone and flowstone. Leech said Cudjo Cavern is actually comprised of two connecting caves, King Solomon's Cave at the
lower level, and Soldiers Cave above.

The cavern is situated in the lower member of the Newman limestone formation, a 275 million-year-old outcropping along the southeast face of Cumberland Mountain's Pinnacle Peak.

The cavern was first opened to commercial tours in the early 1890s.

In 1934, electric lighting was installed in Soldiers Cave, and shortly afterward a tunnel was dug to connect Soldiers Cave with King Solomon's Cave.

From the 1930's until 1992, Lincoln Memorial University owned the Cudjo Cavern and continued using 1,200 feet of the passage for commercial tours.

Leech said the National Park Service is going to cover the cavern's old asphalt walkways with concrete, and -- with the help of caving clubs -- will remove trash and graffiti from Cudjo Cavern.

Wooden bridges and rusted iron handrails are being removed in favor of stainless steel safety structures, and the cave's commercial lighting has been removed so that when the cavern opens -- hopefully this spring -- visitors can tour the passageway using flashlights or lanterns.

Farther into the cavern, the path meandered through open rooms with 50-foot ceilings.

Slowly, the walkway was climbing up to Soldiers Cave.

At the top of three flights of newly-installed stainless steel stairs, Leech shined his light on Cleopatra's Bathtub, a clear pool that contained a wiggling black speck he identified as a cave salamander larva.

Later, Leech identified a single bat hanging from the wall as an Eastern pipistrel.

Though most of the graffiti was modern, Leech said one of the cavern's remote passages contains a signature dated 1812.

On April 13, 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker, who explored the region surrounding Cumberland Gap, was the first to describe in writing the existence of a small cave entrance just above a large spring  gushing from the mountain.

Saltpeter was mined from the cave system in the early 1800s, and during the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops used the cave system for storage and as a military hospital.

The end of the tour was marked by a climb up a steep flight of stone steps that led to a chamber called the "Big Room," which contained Cudjo Cavern's most-photographed feature -- a 45-foot totem pole stalagmite known as the "Pillar of Hercules."

"We're about 100 vertical feet higher from where we started," Leech said.

"Water works its way down, so the older passages are at the highest level," Leech said.

"You can see the formations are bigger here than they were below."

Morgan Simmons may be reached at 423-521-1842 or

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