Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Part 2: Hensley Settlement
I really loved Cumberland Gap National Park: the views were stunning, the hikes were scenic, the trails were empty, and the caves were great, but if I had to pick only one thing I saw as my favorite, I would probably choose the Hensley Settlement. The Hensley Settlement was a remote community of two extended, intermarried families that lived on a 500 acre plateau on the top of Brush Mountain, just north of the Cumberland Gap. The first of them arrived in 1903 and the settlement grew to a maximum of about a hundred people before the last person left in 1951. Located thousands of feet above the valley and with no access by road, no electricity, and no neighbors within miles, the settlers lived a life similar to pioneers in the 19th and 18th centuries: they grew their own food, they raised their own livestock, they built their own houses, they ground their own flour, they made most of their own furniture, they did their own blacksmithing, they made their own whiskey, and they grew their own tobacco. With no roads going up the steep mountain everything that was necessary and could not be made themselves, such as stoves or some furniture or specialty food stuffs, were either carried on their backs or packed in homemade sleds with runners crafted from bent sourwood logs. Needless to say, life was hard and winters were cold, and the ingenuity these families showed in adapting to a completely self-sufficient life was amazing. Today, most of the homesteads, buildings, barns, and fences still stand, preserved by the park service. They are truly works of art and beauty, set amidst the stunning scenery of the plateau. Though completely and totally isolated you can see the appeal of living in such a strikingly beautiful place even though life there was incredibly hard and dangerous.
Because of its remote location, access to the settlement is by tour only which includes a thirty minute somewhat harrowing drive up the mountain on a narrow, twisty, and most-definitely-4-wheel-drive-only road. The hour and a half tour however is spectacular. Amazing. Awesome. It helped that I visited on a Wednesday and had the pleasure of the tour being led by volunteers David and Ancil. Let me just say that the rangers at Cumberland Gap were some of the nicest and definitely most helpful I’ve come across and I have no doubt that a tour on any other day would be wonderful, but David and Ancil went out of their way to let me take pictures, opening doors for me, showing me some of the neat features of the settlement, and taking time to answer as many questions as arose. If I hadn’t been scheduled for a mid-afternoon cave tour and the other couple on the tour hadn’t wanted to get back for a Daniel Boone anniversary celebration, David and Ancil said they would have been happy to stay up there all day. They clearly loved this place and, though it was easy to see why anyone would, they were really just so nice and willing to take their time to share their love of it.