Hugh Morton, Preservationist and Naturalist - April 2, 1998



On a soft spring night. a queen and her court watched as Hugh Morton, an internationally famous photographer, preservationist and naturalist, pulled a velvet coverlet off a star carved to honor him as one of Wilmington's own.

With Azalea Queen Alla Korot, Festival President Bill Rudisill and a crowd of approximately 150 people looking on, Celebrate Wilmington! honored Mr. Morton as its third inductee into the Walk of Fame. The induction was held April 2, 1998 in conjunction with the 51st Azalea Festival.

Among the spectators were Julia Taylor Morton, his wife of 53 years, and long-time friends Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Sprunt. The event was moderated by Joe Augustine. Don Fishero, executive director of the Arts Council of the Lower Cape Fear and UNCW Chancellor James R. Leutze offered brief remarks.

Mr. Morton is recognized by many Wilmingtonians as the president of the first Azalea Festival (1948) and as the first chairman of the USS Battleship North Carolina Commission. He has contributed much of his time to enriching and preserving history in North Carolina by developing such projects as Save the Battleship and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Project. An internationally-recognized photographer, Mr. Morton served as U.S. Army combat newsreel cameraman in World War II in the Pacific and received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals. His work has appeared in many magazines including Time and National Geographic.

In 1974, Mr. Morton moved to Linville, North Carolina, to supervise and develop his family's resort properties at Grandfather Mountain, which he inherited from his grandfather, Hugh McRae.

As Seen on:



Morton: Area planning is key to battling air pollution

Editor's note: Hugh Morton is a denizen of the Blue Ridge Mountains best-known for managing scenic Grandfather Mountain, speaking out on regional environmental causes and promoting North Carolina. He is also an award-winning, nationally known photographer.

Staff writer Geoffrey Cantrell recently interviewed Morton about the local tourism industry. Morton made a presentation at the "Creating the Spirit of Community: Cultural and Heritage Tourism" conference held Nov. 15 at Western Carolina University. The 300 people in attendance listened to community leaders speak on the critical elements of cultural and heritage tourism as related to Western North Carolina.


Hugh Morton

QUESTION: What is the biggest threat to Western North Carolina tourism?

ANSWER: There is no question that air pollution is the biggest threat to Western North Carolina tourism. First off, the medical community has emphatically shown that air pollution adds significantly to the asthma rate in young people and respiratory problems of seniors.

Add to that the death or stunted growth rate of millions of trees in our forests, the limited visibility in viewing our scenery and the acid rain that is so harmful to our trout and other wildlife - all this makes it clear that tourism is being dealt a severe blow.

Q: How has WNC's air quality changed in the past 20 to 30 years?

A: Air quality has deteriorated significantly, steadily getting worse over the past 50 years.

For instance, a photograph made in the mid-1950s by a Mount Mitchell State Park employee showing a broad sweep of the crest of the Black Mountain Range south of the Mount Mitchell Tower was studied by scientists at N.C. State University. The picture showed two dead trees, but there are literally thousands of dead trees in that same broad sweep of Mount Mitchell today.

Readings of water quality in mountain lakes and streams show a steady increase in acidity, attributed to air pollution, and this is harmful to highly sensitive fish such as trout.

Q: Is the growing problem of air pollution having an impact on tourism in Western North Carolina?

A: Tourism surveys by chambers of commerce in the mountains, and at the State Travel and Tourism Office in Raleigh, indicate that the No. 1 reason that visitors come to the mountains is to see scenery.

If air pollution limits the visibility of scenery, and if dead trees are there to be seen instead of healthy trees, this undoubtedly has a negative impact on mountain tourism.

Q: Do you see air pollution as a threat to WNC's tourism industry in the future?

A: Unfortunately I do because leaders don't lead, they follow. Until public opinion is so overwhelming that polluters are forced to take more meaningful corrective steps, they will continue to procrastinate, and leaders will sadly watch air pollution that harms tourism become worse.

Q: What must Western North Carolina tourism-related businesses do to stay viable?

A: Careful public and private planning is essential for tourism-related businesses to remain viable. The North Carolina Year of the Mountains Commission that I chaired learned early that 10 of our 30 mountain counties had no planning at all. While we were told that hell would freeze over before some adopted planning, all ten of the counties that then did not have planning now have some level of planning.

This will help assure quality tourism development and enhance the general quality of life in the mountains.

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And this as seen at:


Linville, North Carolina 28646

Grandfather Mountain's Calloway Peak is the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountain range at 5,964 feet above sea level. Of the 59 peaks in North Carolina above 5,000 feet, Grandfather is one of only six in private ownership. There are several other peaks in North Carolina higher than Grandfather Mountain, with Mt. Mitchell being the highest in eastern America at 6,684 feet, but they are not in the Blue Ridge range. Most are in the Great Smokies. Mt. Mitchell is in the Black Mountain range.

Natural Habitat
78th "Singing on the Mountain" at Grandfather
2002 Calendar of Events - Grandfather Mountain
Mile High Swinging Bridge

Hawk Perches Atop Grandfather Mountain


  Grandfather got its name when pioneers noted that the profile of the mountain's north face resembled that of an old man looking skyward. Some local residents have different opinions over which is the "official" profile, but the one most frequently mentioned can be seen from the village of Foscoe, seven miles north of Linville and ten miles south of Boone on NC 105.

The original Indian name of the mountain was Tanawha, according to Arthur Huger, an authority on Indian names. Mr. Huger explained in a letter dated 1912 that Tanawha means "a fabulous hawk or eagle."

A 1962 US Geological Survey reported that some of the rock formation on Grandfather are 1.05 billion years old, dating back to the Precambrian period. The mountain itself, in its present character, is 620 million years old.

Geologists came here to study the "Grandfather Mountain Window," a hole in time that allows them to discover what the core of the earth was like when time began. The oldest rock exposures on the surface are the "Wilson Creek Gneiss" (granite type) found along Wilson Creek on the eastern slope of Grandfather near US221.

Gold was mined from three shafts on Grandfather prior to the 1849 California gold rush, but the high grade ore was played out long ago and even at today's prices, mining is no longer cost effecive.

In 1885, Hugh MacRae graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and set off to pursue to a career as a mining engineer at the mica mines on Bailey Mountain in Mitchell County near Spruce Pine.

He soon found his way on horseback into Avery County and was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he immediately wrote to his father Donald MacRae in Wilmington for the funds to purchase 15,750 acres encompassing Grandfather Mountain, parts of Sugar Mountain, Grandmother Mountain and Flattop Mountain. Most of the tracts purchased between 1885 and 1890 by MacRae belonged to Walter Waightstill Lenoir, grandson of General William Lenoir, for whom the town of Lenoir is named.

In 1889, Hugh MacRae founded the Linville Improvement Company and began development of the first North Carolina mountain golf course and the resort community of Linville at the foot of Grandfather Mountain.

In 1891-92, MacRae built the Honahlossee (pronounced "yon-a-la-see," Cherokee for "trail of the black bear") Road from Linville across the eastern slope of Grandfather to Blowing Rock, opening his resort to personal transportation. He also founded a stagecoach ilne across the 20 mile scenic route that today is known as US 221.

By 1913, Linville was one of the smaller stations on the Eastern Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, affectionately known as "Tweetsie" for the shrill whistle of her narrow gauge steam engines. Those same engines now operate at the Tweetsie Railroad attraction.

There was a horseback trail up the slope of Grandfather to an overlook known as "Cliffside,", and in the early 1900s, MacRae's son Donald and Julian Morton, husband of Agnes MacRae Morton, widened this path into a one-lane road that was passable by automobiles. A wooden viewing platform was constructed and a nominal toll was charged to those who wished to travel to the spectacular view from Grandfather.

In 1946, Hugh Morton, the eldest son of Julian and Agnes, returned from duty as a United States Army newsreel cameraman in the South Pacific and took over his late father's duties as president of the Linville Company. Morton envisioned a road leading to the crest of the Grandfather with a bridge across to Linville Park, but family stockholders disputed Morton's premise that more people would pay to see the view from the top of the mountain. Morton was successful, however, in widening the existing road to two lanes and improving the quality of access.

In 1952, the Linville Company was dissolved and its assets distributed among the family members. Hugh Morton, whose love for Grandfather had been life-long, became the sole guardian of the mountain and he immediately went to work on fulfilling his dreams.

Six months later, on September 2, 1952, the road to the top and the Mile High Swinging Bridge were dedicated by Governor William B. Umstead. The governor's nine-year-old daughter, Merle, was the first to officially cross the 218-foot suspension span, which is 5,305 feet above sea level.

The bridge was constructed by architect Charles Hartman, Jr. to withstand three million pounds. Most visitors find this figure too large to believe, so a sign was posted suggesting a load limit of 40 persons as a more believable capacity.

Iin 1968, a local wildlife club asked Grandfather Mountain to participate in a black bear propagation program. Visitor Center Manager Winston Church was sent to the Atlanta Zoo to bring back a pair of bears for release the following spring. It was not until his return to North Carolina that Church realized he had two male bears. Arrangements were made to return to Atlanta for a female. By accident he was given the zoo's pet, which was raised by the office staff.

The two bears were retained in a holding cage until spring, when the male was released. He ran into the forest, never to be seen again. The staff waited to release the friendlier female because the Arthur Smith television crew was filming a show and wanted to use her in a video version of a tune called "The Preacher and the Bear." It was Brother Ralph Smith who gave his new co-star the nickname "Mildred."

Mildred preferred human company and refused to depart for the woods. She hung around and pestered the camera crew all day and when they finished filming, Mildred strayed into the valley in search of companionship. After several days of upturning trash cans at local homes, Mildred was returned by wildlife officials to Grandfather Mountain for safe-keeping.

For several summers, Mildred and her cubs, Mini and Maxi, posed for pictures three times a day, returning to their cages between "shows." Then, in 1973, Mildred and her family moved into a spacious environmental habitat built in one of the most picturesque spots on the mountain. The large enclosure allows the bears to make real dens and to seek privacy when they need it. Considered the most humane concept in zoo enclosures, the Grandfather habitats are truly the most natural setting possible for these bears.

The displays were expanded to include a separate enclosure for a mother bear with cubs, a cougar habitat, a deer habitat, and two small, open-air habitats for bald eagles and golden eagles.

On July 13, 1974, John Harris of Kitty Hawk, NC became the first man to fly a hang glider off Grandfather Mountain. In the decade that followed, hang gliding flourished at Grandfather.

Professional pilots gave demonstrations four times daily during summer, when weather would allow. Competitions were also popular, prompting Grandfather to host a U.S. Open tournament and to sponsor the international Masters of Hang Gliding Championship.

By 1986 the gliders had evolved into much faster, high-performance wings. The small landing areas at Grandfather became increasingly unsafe for the larger gliders, and demonstration flights were suspended in 1987.

The latest chapter in the history of Grandfather Mountain is highlighted by the opening of its new Nature Museum in late May of 1990. The multi-purpose facility features a 2,200 square foot museum exhibit area dedicated to communicating interesting features of the mountain's geology and meteorology, animal and plant life, and local history. The principal designer for the museum was Rolland Hower, former Chief of Exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution.

The museum complex also houses a spacious restaurant and dining area, restrooms, a gift shop which offers high quality, nature-oriented souvenirs, and a 165-seat auditorium where visitors can enjoy free nature movies filmed primarily at Grandfather Mountain.





Listen to this one hour radio show   ( Mike Collins Archived Show, hosted by WFAE's Scott Jagow with guest Hugh Morton: Preservationist and Naturalist, Photographer and owner of Grandfather Mountain in Western North Carolina )


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