The discovery of the Cumberland Gap in 1750 brought nearly 300,000 overland pioneers through the pass during the Westward Expansion. This “break” in the wall of the Appalachian Mountains had been both a buffalo trail and a migration route used by Native people and was widely known to have been formed by water erosion. In 1966, geologist Robert S. Deitz discovered unique rock patterns that were an indication of a meteor impact site, adding a new facet to our understanding of how the Cumberland Gap was formed. 

The impact site, now called the Middlesboro Crater (named for the town that occupies its center) is approximately 300 million years old, and three to four miles wide. Experts agree that the impact caused debris expulsion, which widened the gap and allowed for additional erosion to occur. The space created allowed for pioneers, with their wagons and pack animals, to fit through the pass and continue their push to the West. The historic settlements of early Kentucky may owe a debt to the stars. 

Meteor sightings are not uncommon in our region, with impacts documented in almost 30 Kentucky counties and undocumented reports in remaining counties. Confirmed meteorites were found in nearby Kenton and Grant counties in the late 1800s. One such event was chronicled by Ohio River steamboat pilot “Eph” Talbot in July of 1879. Talbot described the “purple illumination” of the sky, followed by an object that crashed into the water very near his vessel causing a “boiling and hissing” in the river, all as he stood on deck in his long underwear. 

Later that same year, a December issue of the Boone County Recorder told of thunderous noise, the “rattling of doors and windows”, frightened livestock, and “immense globes of fire” witnessed in the sky. Some residents even reported an earthquake. A 1917 Science Magazine article supports these accounts, comparing the tremors a meteorite impact can cause to a significant earthquake. This was explained by the occurrence of a sonic boom generated when a meteor enters the atmosphere. In November of 1902, another meteor “as large as a flour barrel” landed on the outskirts of Petersburg. In fact, young Billy Stephens was nearly struck by the meteor, and reported hearing noises “like a hot rock thrown into water!” Some folks in Petersburg thought the “world was coming to an end,” but it didn’t, thankfully. If not for the meteor that created the Cumberland Gap, Daniel Boone may not have found his way through. Then what would our county be named after today? 

Written by Hillary Delaney