(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth story in a series concerning Harlan County’s first-ever ParaMountain Lecture Series)
The mountains have long been filled with occurrences, and Cumberland Gap National Historic Park Ranger Lucas Wilder can attest that some of those occurrences have been strange. As a park ranger, Wilder has seen and studied the natural and historical happenings of the Cumberland Gap area, but he has also read about and seen firsthand strange occurrences that the doctoral student simply cannot explain.
Wilder makes his living relating the stories of Cumberland Gap to the world. He is currently working on his doctorate in history and often lectures about a variety of historical and environmental subjects. He is a historical re-enactor, he leads hikes and cave tours, is a Civil War buff, and an expert in Civil War weaponry. It is no doubt that Wilder is an intelligent member and contributor to the world of academia, but it is the world of the unknown and strange that most fascinates him.
“These mountains have been here a very long time,” Wilder said. “My family still lives on the land that my ancestors obtained through land grants during the Revolutionary War era in Virginia. While these hills have been here for a while and people have been here for a while, no one really knows what all are in these mountains. These mountains hide things.”
Wilder will be one of eight lecturers who will be speaking about Appalachia’s more bazaar and mysterious heritage, as well as the paranormal, during the “2017 ParaMountain Lecture Series” to be held Saturday free to the public at the Harlan Depot from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wilder’s time behind the speaker’s podium will begin at 2 p.m., and his lecture will be fittingly entitled “Strange Occurrences Of The Cumberland Gap.” Wilder will speak about murder mysteries in The Gap, lost Civil War soldiers, scalping and unexplained deaths.
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park lies along the borders of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, and is a pass through the Cumberland Mountains once used by pioneers headed west. Wilder describes The Gap as a “hubbub of travel” from Thomas Walker’s and Daniel Boone’s explorations in the 1700s on up to modern day.
“It was a major thoroughfare and still is,” Wilder said. “Around 100,000 Civil War soldiers saw the Gap, so there’s been a lot of activity that’s happened here — a lot of stories to tell.”
In his presentation on Saturday, Wilder said it was his intent to “provoke.” He wants to tell his stories of The Gap not only for educational and historical purposes, but to provoke
people too think outside the box in terms of mysterious and unusual occurrences. Wilder stresses that he, himself, is not easily sold on the paranormal. He has to study cases thoroughly to believe.
“I question everything I see,” Wilder said. “I set out to debunk or to prove, and while a lot of stories are just that — stories or tall tales — there are some strange occurrences out there that really did happen and can’t be explained. I’ve seen Civil War Soldiers in the Wilderness Cave.”
Wilder has seen many things he can’t scientifically explain — not only in Cumberland Gap, but in other states while on outings. One of his most unforgettable experiences was on the Gettysburg battleground in Pennsylvania. He and a friend were exploring a section of the battle ground called “Devil’s Den,” when one of the most bazaar things to ever happen to Wilder took place. It was night, and Wilder was sitting on a boulder while his friend was a few hundred feet away talking to his father on his cell phone. That’s when Wilder started seeing gray streaks begin darting into the woods.
“There was one about every minute or two,” Wilder said. “It was like a mist of gray, and I saw about 20 of them pass. Then all of the sudden, I hear what I thought was a train whistle, and there weren’t any trains running in that location. The closer I listened, the more I realized it really wasn’t a train whistle, but a bunch of yelps. The sound traveled on up the hill, and then disappeared. My friend saw it, too. The hairs on my arms were standing up.”
Wilder plans to finish this story during his lecture at Saturday’s ParaMountain Lecture Series. His story did not end on the battlefield of Gettysburg, but while he was later doing research for his thesis paper. The ending to the story validates that occurrences like Wilder has encountered can happen. Wilder also plans to tell of a story during his presentation Saturday that happened in Claiborne County, Tennessee and even occurred in national newspapers before the Civil War, which made the region famous. Wilder will also talk about claimed ghosts in caves in the Cumberland Gap area, including glowing lights that’s been seen by some park rangers.
Wilder feels folklore and the paranormal go hand in hand in these parts, and applauds the organizers of the ParaMountain Lecture Series for creating a program that celebrates mountain culture while provoking people to think more about their surroundings.
“Appalachians are very in touch with their environment, so they notice everything around them,” Wilder said. “They also notice when things are different, or just downright strange. Appalachians know their mountains pretty well, so they realize when things aren’t right or out of place.”
Wilder feels folklore is important to any region because it preserves and promotes stories.
Folklore preserves our history — maybe not scholarly history, but our cultural history,” Wilder said. “And it’s the stories that come out of our folklore that help us identify ourselves and better understand ourselves.”
Wilder will be set up all day Saturday at the ParaMountain Lecture Series with an information booth for Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.
For more information about Saturday’s ParaMountain Lecture Series, contact Tony Felosi at 606-273-9925, Jennifer McDaniels at 606-573-4223, or log onto www.harlanhauntfest.com and click on the 2017 ParaMoutain Lecture Series link.
The next story in the ParaMountain series will feature Harlan County’s own author Darla Saylor Jackson and photojournalist Jennifer McDaniels, and the involvement of the two women in preserving mountain history.