Fifteenth anniversary of Cumberland Gap Tunnel

By: Kendall Downing Email
By: Kendall Downing Email

Fifteen years ago life for those living in the Cumberland Valley forever changed when the Cumberland Gap Tunnel finally opened.

The tunnel was 17 years in the making and since 1996, it has transformed the tri-state area.

WYMT anchored its broadcast live from outside the tunnel on October 18, 1996. Now fifteen years later, the tunnel is still an engineering marvel.

"When the tunnel was first open, it was touted as the most modern tunnel in the world," said John Burke, Tunnel Manager.

About 30,000 cars now pass through the tunnel every day. What you see on the outside looks just as it did fifteen years ago.

"As our systems got a little older, we have upgraded and kept the tunnel as it was in 1996, new," said Burke.

Tunnel staff watch traffic from a main control room. They have more than 20 cameras they can zoom with the click of a mouse.

Staff also monitor weather conditions and watch traffic patters on Interstate 75 in London and Corbin.

The tunnel was one of the first in the United States to use ventilation fans, which help prevent fires inside the tunnel in case of an accident.

Both Tennessee and Kentucky run the tunnel, which is also owned by the national park.

"It's a unique partnership between the National Park Service, the states of Tennessee and Kentucky in the management and operation of the tunnel," said Mark Woods, Park Superintendent.

One welcome side effect has been the economic development of the area.

"Middlesboro has become the tri-state retail hub because it's so easy for those in Virginia and Tennessee to come across the state line," said Rob Lincks, from Bell County Chamber of Commerce.

A hazardous mountain road was finally made much safer. And it's a change many here will treasure for generations to come.

With the construction of the tunnel, the national park was able to restore the Cumberland Gap by demolishing the asphalt on Old 25E back in 2002.

They used rock to build the road back and give it the appearance of a wilderness trail.

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