TCS Daily

Grandfather Mountain: Privately Preserved For Public's Pleasure

By J. Bishop Grewell - March 23, 2001 12:00 AM

Rising 5,964 feet above sea level, Grandfather Mountain's Calloway Peak is the highest point in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But this is not the only rarity regarding the mountain outside Linville, N.C. Grandfather Mountain is the lone privately owned preserve in the United Nations' biosphere reserve program. Bought for its beauty in the 1880s by a young engineer named Hugh MacRae, the property remains in the family today while attracting 250,000 visitors each year.

Hugh Morton, son of Agnes MacRae Morton, returned to Avery County in 1946 after serving as a U.S. Army newsreel cameraman in the South Pacific. He took over as president of the family corporation running the mountain and when the company dissolved, he became sole guardian of the property.

In the 1950s, federal road planners prepared to extend the Blue Ridge Parkway higher up on Grandfather Mountain. In order to implement this extension, the planners fought to condemn a portion of Morton's land. (Morton's family had already donated an eight-mile stretch of land for a road lower down the mountain in 1939.) Hugh balked at the federal efforts. He worried that the "cut and fill" techniques used at the time for building mountain roads would destroy Grandfather Mountain's "wilderness characteristics." The fight came to a head in a 1957 televised debate between Morton and Conrad Worth, head of the National Park Service. Morton's passion for the family property helped him win the confrontation as he commented that tearing up the mountain at the higher elevation would be like "taking a switch blade to the Mona Lisa." The quote made headlines across North Carolina, swayed public opinion, and kept the land in Hugh Morton's hands. Morton, an environmentalist before the term was even around, still helps manage Grandfather Mountain today.

J. Bishop Grewell: Tell us about the battle with the Park Service.

Hugh Morton: My family, back in the late 1930s, sold the state the right of way for the Blue Ridge Parkway for eight miles through our property. All the way from Pineola down to where Price Park begins over at the other end. And it basically followed in this area, US Highway 221. Then in the 1950s, the Park Service decided they didn't want to use that highway anymore, they wanted one higher up on the mountain. They wanted it to go above Black Rock Cliff. Well, I knew if they ran it that high, it would mean a scar at that elevation all around the mountain, and I felt that Grandfather Mountain was a mountain that didn't deserve to be carved up that way with cuts and fills and so forth and so on. For 12 years, I talked so much about preserving the natural beauty of the mountain that this new technology for the Blue Ridge Parkway viaduct eventually came along, and so they built that and followed the compromise route that I had agreed to from the very beginning. I agreed that I would donate this so-called middle route -- the low route being the one they already had; the high route being this one that they were trying to take. I had the superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway come up to me at a reception up in Virginia a few years after that, and he said to me, "Hugh, I sure am glad you won." And it was the first time that anybody in the Park Service had given me an encouraging word. We donated 660 acres for this middle route, so my conscious is clear about cooperating with them.

Grewell: Besides the road issue, how do you think you have run Grandfather Mountain different than if it were government owned?

Morton: To begin with I don't know of any facility that they've got which is comparable to this. All our {visitor center} exhibits were designed by people at the Smithsonian, two men who are now retired: Dr. Rolland Hower, who'd been in charge of natural history exhibits for 30 years, and the other man was the curator of minerals for the Smithsonian, John White. And one of the exhibits, the gemstone, is an absolute knockout. You go in there and see it. Maybe it won't appeal to you as much as it does to women, but every time I walk by there now, there's a bunch of women standing around there. John White said, "This is the finest collection of North Carolina material anywhere," including theirs at the Smithsonian. We're rather proud of that. (The government) wouldn't have the Mile-High Swinging Bridge; they wouldn't have the Highland Games and Gatherings of Scottish Clans. They wouldn't have the Singing on the Mountain. They wouldn't have animal habitats, and they wouldn't be open year round. Last time I was over at Mount Mitchell State Park, which is comparable in acreage and potential operation, I asked the superintendent, Mr. Shaw, "How many year-round employees?" He said, counting himself, three. We have somewhere between 20 and 30 year-round employees, and at the peak of our season, we have 70 employees. There's nobody that's operating anything (around here), including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, that's got 70 employees.

Grewell: What capacity are the employees in? Are they doing biology as well as the interpretive type things?

Morton: We've got six or seven people in our administrative office. We've got at least that many at the gate. We've got at least that many here in the restaurant. We got more than that in the two gift shops, the one here and the one on top of the mountain. We've got a maintenance crew that's got more than a half dozen people in it. Then, we've got a trails crew that gets bigger in the summer, but there's five or six more people. And then we've got five people or six more people looking after the animals and the animal habitat. I don't know if that adds up to 70, but we've got a pretty big operation and I think we do a good job.

Grewell: Are there professional biologists on staff?

Morton: All of the animal people are graduates in biology or are studying that. We've got some that are in school over at Appalachian and so on. But Lorie Mitchell Jacobson, the head of it, is a graduate of Auburn in biology. We have a vet from the main veterinary place in Boone that comes over here every two weeks automatically just to check everything out and he's on call whenever needed.

Grewell: And what does the trails crew do?

Morton: They'll maintain the trails, they provide information, and they've made some new trails. My son Jim built the Profile Trail, which you'll see on the trail map. He built that at the same time that the Park Service was building one. And Jim and his crew did not use a single stick of dynamite. They moved tremendous big rocks with chains and pulleys by brute force. You go over here on the Park Service trail and you see drill holes and dynamite used. It might not bother some people, but it bothers me. And I understand the construction costs of the Park trail were out of sight.

Grewell: I also noticed you don't have potholes covering the roads.

Morton: There's a bunch of chalk marks or spray can marks or something out there where our maintenance crew has been marking places for the paving man to come patch in the next few days. And we built a new addition to Black Rock Trail that's a parking lot. It's gravel right now and they're going to come pave that as well.

Grewell: So is that fairly well monitored then? You have people watching the roads?

Morton: We get the pavers in every spring to fix up the cracks. And when it snows, we plow it. We've got a parking lot at Black Rock Cliff and sometimes things get so crowded here at the top that we have to ferry 'em up from this lower level, so we've expanded that.

Grewell: How many acres does Grandfather Mountain have?

Morton: We've got approximately 4,000 acres. We've turned over on top of the mountain 1,766 acres in conservation easements to the Nature Conservancy, so they have everything beyond our parking area on top of the mountain.

Grewell: What's the nature of the easement?

Morton: The easement specifies there are to be no roads and no structures, only hiking trails. In other words, no development and that helped the United Nations decide that we were an International Biosphere Reserve. We didn't even know about the International Biosphere Reserve Program. The Blue Ridge Parkway people said, "Well, what you're doing already, qualifies you, you ought to make out an application to be a Biosphere Reserve." The Great Smokies is one, and there are 330 of them in 80 countries of the world, and we are the only privately owned one in the world.

Grewell: What are the requirements of being a Biosphere Reserve?

Morton: Well, it has to be a unique area in some regard -- geologically, botanically, be a unique area -- and it has to be protected. And there has to be some education programs going on. We have thousands of school children come through here almost every week at this time of year. We don't take more than four busloads a day because more than that would crowd our facilities. For instance, our habitat people take them on a tour of the habitat, explain to them about all the animals and of course they'd crowd the gift shop. So we can't take more than four busloads a day, and so that's all we do.

Grewell: Do you ever have to turn people away other than the buses?

Morton: There are days, big days during fall color or something, where we get too many people and we go one-on-one where one goes out and then we let one in. But I don't guess that'd be more than four or five days a year. By having at least 50 picnic tables and outdoor grills and having habitats in one place and vistas in another and things spread out, we're able to not put pressure on any one area. The one weak spot we've got is parking on top of the mountain. We get a beautiful day, and the wind's not blowing, and people hang around a long time. You don't get the turnover that you need to free up parking space and that's the one place that we get trouble sometimes. This new parking lot that we haven't paved yet, but probably will in the next week, that's going to help that situation.

Grewell: You don't allow in ATVs or snowmobiles. What is the reason you choose to keep them out?

Morton: We are going to preserve the natural beauty of the mountain, and we don't want anybody to tear it up. And I realize it's big sport and we wish them well, but not here. And really this mountain doesn't lend itself to that anyway, it's so rugged and so rocky.

Grewell: What about rock climbing?

Morton: We used to have it, but the insurance thing got so sticky that we backed off of it.

Grewell: Have you had any environmental problems here, like dealing with sewage?

Morton: They made us clear a bunch of land down below the animal habitats for our drain field when we built {the visitor center} and it's about three times overkill as far as I'm concerned, a great big bunch of land. Anyway, we done what they told us.

Grewell: Do you have any new projects on tap?

Morton: We're not looking for too many projects. The so-called man-made improvements are not going to improve on the natural beauty, and so we're trying to keep the mountain as much like it is as we can and not build a whole lot of stuff. We've limited our animal habitats to things that are native. We've had all kinds of people wanting to give us stuff, like lions and tigers, and I tell them, "Thank you just the same, but we're going to stick to the native stuff."

Grewell: Do you have any endangered species on the property?

Morton: We've got over 40 rare or endangered species. It's more than they have in the Great Smokies, and we're less than 1/100th in land area of the Great Smokies. They have 525,000 acres and we have 4,000 acres. We're right on the borderline between the northern species and the southern species.

Grewell: (Grandfather Mountain has an interesting habitat feature where eagles both golden and bald are in an enclosed area but with no top, so conceivably they could fly away and so I asked Hugh about this.) How do you keep them in there?

Morton: I saw an exhibit just like this and I asked them, "How did you get eagles like that?" And they said that there are a lot of them around that are injured and they'll never fly again, but they're still good enough for exhibition purposes. They said you have to go through your congressmen to get a permit, so we applied for a permit. They turned us down saying that we were private and they give permits only to public places. My friend, who's a wildlife biologist, said to me, "Well, what about Disneyworld and Busch Gardens down in Florida. Are you any more private than they are?" And I said, "No, we're not." And so the next time I saw my congressman's assistant, I said, "Either I'm going to get my eagles or have a damn good story on 60 Minutes. One or the other." She took me seriously, and two weeks later, I had my eagle permit. Then Fish and Wildlife came out to check on the eagles, and when they saw we were taking better care of them than anybody else was, they started calling me, saying, "Have you got room for any more eagles?"

Grandfather Mountain is open to all who are willing to pay. Admission is $10 for adults (age 13 or over) and $5 for children ages 4 through 12. Children under four are admitted free. For groups of 20 or more people, rates are $8.50 for adults and $4.25 for children. Driver and escort are free. Information about Grandfather Mountain and directions to it can be found at

TCS Daily Archives