HIGH COUNTRY — In a packed conference room at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum on Jan. 23, the life and legacy of the photographer and conservationist Hugh Morton and his family’s alpine attraction Grandfather Mountain was celebrated as part of the museum’s “Scholars and Scones” program.
Jesse Pope, executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit that manages the attraction, spoke on two of his favorite subjects, Hugh Morton and Grandfather Mountain.
Pope, who described himself as Morton’s former camera jockey, spoke on the history of Grandfather Mountain as told through the eyes and viewfinder of its former owner.
Pope noted that he started out at Grandfather Mountain as a backcountry ranger, did trail maintenance and worked in the animal habitat.
“I have hiked, literally, every square foot of that mountain,” Pope said.
The history of Grandfather Mountain goes back to the 1880s with Donald MacRae, who developed the community of Linville. Pope said that Linville was originally called “Stump Town” by the locals due to the major logging that took place in the area.
Grandfather Mountain started taking admissions in the early 1900s, Pope said. Hugh Morton, who was born in Wilmington, spent his summers in Linville and Grandfather Mountain.
“He knew every inch of that mountain,” Pope said.
Morton inherited Grandfather Mountain around age 30, Pope said, and then went to work turning his visions into realities.
One of his early ideas was to extend the road to the top of the mountain and create the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
“He needed $15,000 to build the Mile-High Swinging Bridge, and everyone thought it was a crazy idea,” Pope said.
The bridge was built in 1952, Pope said, opening on Sept. 2 of that year with Charlotte radio personality Grady Cole, then-governor candidate William B. Umstead and his daughter Merle, who was around 10 years old at the time, on hand for the bridge’s opening.
“Merle was the first person to cross the Mile High Swinging Bridge,” Pope said.
Pope said that in the early 2000s, GPS technology confirmed that a point near the center of the Mile High Swinging Bridge is exactly 5,280 feet above sea level.
The bridge was renovated in 1999, replacing its original wood frame with galvanized steel. The renovations cost approximately $300,000, Pope said.
“It doesn’t quite swing as much as the old one,” Pope said.
Pope showed several pictures and talked about Mildred the Bear, who lived at Grandfather Mountain from 1968 until her death in 1993 at the age of 27. Made famous by Walter Cronkite, Mildred is the most famous animal that has lived at Grandfather Mountain, interacting with customers and staff alike in a time when black bears were not commonly seen in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains, Pope explained.
Pope explained that Mildred came to Grandfather Mountain to be released into the wild with a male bear. The male bear ran into the wild, but Mildred stayed around musician Arthur Smith, who was in attendance for the release, along with his brother Ralph.
“The female bear turned around and started licking Arthur Smith’s brother (Ralph’s) boots,” Pope said. “Ralph... just reacted and said ‘go on Mildred, get out of here,’ and so that’s where her name came from.”
There was never an intention of having a wildlife habitat at Grandfather Mountain, but Mildred “convinced” Morton to build one.
“She was the mascot of Grandfather Mountain for years,” Pope said.
Pope said that even though Mildred was photographed at the Mile High Swinging Bridge, she never crossed the bridge itself.
One photo showed Morton’s daughter Catherine playing with Mildred and her cubs. Catherine, who was in attendance, relayed her fear while taking that photo for a cub naming contest.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,’ and he’s going, ‘Shut up and smile,’” Catherine Morton said.
Morton’s photos of the mountain’s animal habitats were also featured. Pope said that each habitat has a unique story of how it was built, including how Lenoir car dealer Silvio Martinat actually brought two cougars in his jeep on a drive to Grandfather Mountain, then struck up a friendship with Morton. Later, the cougars became the first two cougars in the Grandfather animal habitat.
“Mr. Morton was really adamant that when you came to Grandfather Mountain and saw animals in captivity, it’s animals as you would see them in the wild,” Pope said.
Other habitat highlights include the ones for eagles and otters. Pope noted that otters are almost a nuisance in coastal North Carolina and the ones Grandfather Mountain acquired was to get them away from a potentially dangerous situation.
Pope showed photos of Mildred with Hugh’s son, Jim Morton, former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith and his coaching staff.
Morton’s friendship with former CBS News journalist Charles Kuralt was also discussed by Pope, as well as Kitty Hawk Kites’ John Harris, who was the first person to hang glide off Grandfather Mountain. After a number of incidents, hang gliding was banned at Grandfather Mountain in the late 1980s.
“In 1986 I believe, one of the pilots launched at Grandfather Mountain and he kept getting airlift off Grandfather Mountain and kept flying further and further north and he landed at the Virginia Tech campus, over 100 miles away,” Pope said.
Pope highlighted Morton’s ecological causes, showing several photos of acid rain damage in the mountains of North Carolina and explaining how Morton fought for statewide regulations to protect air quality.
“We’ve still got to fight for that,” Pope said. “When things are good, it’s easy to back off regulations ... for our economy and environment, it’s very important.”
The Linn Cove Viaduct story was told, in which Morton fought to keep the Blue Ridge Parkway from traversing up to the peaks of Grandfather Mountain in the 1970s and 1980s. The viaduct, which opened in 1987, was a compromise between Morton and the federal government, Pope said.
“One man fighting the federal government, most people would lose that battle or just get tired of fighting,” Pope said. “He fought it for a long time.”
The biodiversity of Grandfather Mountain was detailed, showing various Morton photos of the flora that is unique to the mountain.
“One of his real passions was introducing people to Grandfather Mountain and its unique diversities,” Pope said.
Pope said Grandfather Mountain is home to 16 different ecological plant communities and more than 70 rare and endangered plants and animals, saying it’s as much as many national parks.
“We have more salamander diversity up there than any other place in the world,” Pope noted.
When Morton died on June 1, 2006, the Morton family sold more than 2,500 acres to the state, which became Grandfather Mountain State Park, and approximately 750 acres remained for the attraction managed by the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
“He wasn’t thinking about today, he wasn’t thinking about yesterday, he was thinking about tomorrow, the next week, the next year, the next century. He was that kind of person,” Pope said. “The Morton family deserves more credit than you all know for the protection and preservation of that natural resource that is Grandfather Mountain.”
Pope said that in the spirit of Hugh Morton, the nonprofit is working to secure the future of the park. Expanding its conservation campus is an ongoing mission. The work will expand the nature museum to approximately 12,000 square feet, including a botanical garden.
“I am happy to report that we broke ground in September and we’ve raised $4.9 million of the $5.5 million we need to raise,” Pope said.
In closing, Pope said that when Morton died, he was given some of his lenses for pictures and soon after, was able to recreate his famous Charlotte skyline photo from Grandfather Mountain. In comparing the photos, Pope noted there was less smog than when Morton first took the same photo in the 1980s, crediting Morton and his conservation efforts for helping make the view more serene.