Claiborne County and the Cumberland Gap figured prominently in the Civil War strategy of both the North and the South, changing hands four times. Today, traces of the old military road that connected battlements on the pinnacle above Cumberland Gap can be discerned. Battery No. 6 still remains at the Tri-State peak facing Cumberland Gap. Rifle pits dug around most batteries can be located with little difficulty. Although no major battles were fought in the county, there were several bloody skirmishes. On November 11, 1862, a fire broke out in Tazewell and destroyed some twenty buildings including the courthouse, a large hotel, and several brick storehouses.
On February 12, 1897, the State of Tennessee chartered Lincoln Memorial University, named for Abraham Lincoln, who had urged O. O. Howard of the Freedmen's Bureau to do something for the people of the area. Howard accepted Lincoln’s charge and played an important role in the creation of the institution. The university proved a boon for tri-state area residents who could not afford college tuition but were able to work their way through LMU by working on the college farm. Today, LMU rents the farm for pasture. The 1,000-acre campus, which presently serves two thousand students, incorporates traditional architecture and modern technology. The Abraham Lincoln Museum, which holds one of the largest Lincoln collections in the country, is located on the campus.
Present-day Claiborne County consists of 277,963 acres. Its population grew from 13,373 in 1880 to 23,286 by 1920. The rapid growth was attributed to intensive mining developments and logging operations. By 1950 the population had increased to 24,788, but over the next decade, Claiborne County began to experience out-migration as people left the area for industrial employment in the Midwest. The population dropped to 19,067 in 1960 before beginning a slow rise that boomed in the 1980s and 1990s. The 2000 population was 29,862.
Claiborne County has a mixed economy with a growing industrial sector. County farmers produce tobacco and vegetables, and the largest industrial employer is Bushline, a furniture manufacturer. Other furniture manufacturers in the county include Brooks Furniture Manufacturing and Oakwood Furniture Manufacturing. Four textile manufacturers, two pre-built and mobile home manufacturers, and a large medical supply manufacturer (DeRoyal Industries) keep the county's unemployment rate low. The 1996 opening of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel on U.S. Highway 25W, a model of transportation planning, promises to further enhance the economic outlook of the county in the twenty-first century.
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