The terrain of Altapass, which means “high pass,” funneled humans through this area for millennia. Travelers found McKinney Gap, the lowest passage through the Blue Ridge for a hundred miles and the site of good rivers on either side, the best route for crossing the Eastern Continental Divide. But the tranquility of McKinney Gap belies its turbulent past. Early Indians used a Palmer-type spear point to hunt the Wooly Mammoth, Cherokees followed its game trails to battle, Spanish Conquistadors exploited local populations in their quests for fortune and empire, colonial settlers of European descent defied British rule with knives and guns, and railroad workers braved hazardous working conditions to build the Clinchfield Railroad.
In 1780, threatened by the British Army’s Major Patrick Ferguson, settlers turned Indian-style fighting tactics on Ferguson’s regiment, crossing the Blue Ridge at Altapass and defeating him at King’s Mountain. Re-enactors today honor these frontiersmen whom Thomas Jefferson credited with turning the tide of the Revolutionary War.
Charlie McKinney, a settler for whom the gap is named, built the first permanent home here in the 1790’s. He left an indelible mark on the surrounding community over the course of his 85 years, collecting four wives and siring 48 known children. Each wife and their children lived in a separate house, but all attended church together each Sunday. McKinney died in 1856, and was buried in an unmarked cemetery in a quiet rhododendron thicket just off of Orchard Road. The McKinney name is common in the area and colorful stories of the family’s patriarch are frequently heard to this day.