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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. Dietz 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 the pioneers’ 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.
Today’s Kentuckians may have heard about the 2013 meteor explosion above Chelyabinsk, Russia or simply spent time searching for shooting stars. But are we aware how close to home these events actually are, right here in Boone County?
Meteor sightings are not uncommon in our region, documented in almost 30 Kentucky counties, with reports in remaining counties. According to articles posted on www.nkyviews.com, confirmed meteorites were in found in nearby Kenton and Grant counties, in the late 1800s. This web page also reports the experience of 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, also in 1879, 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 reported an earthquake. A 1917 Science Magazine article supports these accounts, comparing the tremors a meteorite impact can cause to an earthquake. The writer explains that a sonic boom can also occur when a meteor enters the atmosphere. In November of 1902, the Boone County Recorder reported another meteor “as large as a flour barrel” landing on the outskirts of Petersburg. In fact, young Billy Stephens was nearly struck by the meteor, and reported noise “like a hot rock thrown into water” and some Petersburg folks thought the “world was coming to an end”. Thankfully, the world didn’t come to an end, and we have some good stories to tell.