Grandfather Mountain’s forgotten history

Grandfather Mountain’s forgotten history

(Originally posted to Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, October 12, 2008)

(The following piece was written with my husband, David E. Whisnant, and was first published on October 12, 2008 in the Raleigh News & Observer.)

Recent reports have brought welcome news that the state of North Carolina will purchase about 2600 acres of the spectacular Grandfather Mountain for protection as a public park. It’s about time.

The first effort to make Grandfather a park came in 1917 when owner Hugh MacRae tried to give 1400 acres at the top to the new National Park Service. NPS director Steve Mather rejected the donation, judging the acreage insufficient to protect the park from adjacent development by MacRae’s Linville Improvement Company.

The idea surfaced again in the 1920s, when a federal committee was searching for locations for new eastern national parks. Renewed calls for a Grandfather national park failed to sway the committee, which chose the Great Smokies and Shenandoah instead.

News coverage has portrayed the current purchase as the culmination of Hugh Morton’s lifelong conservation ethic and dreams of preserving Grandfather. No one has acknowledged the deeper history, or noted that this purchase comes almost exactly 60 years after the last serious attempt to buy Grandfather for public preservation.

To the degree that they acknowledge history, the accounts root Morton’s commitment to preserving Grandfather (evident in the 1990s and after) in his 1960s deflection of National Park Service plans to route the Blue Ridge Parkway “over” Grandfather. It is only fitting, these stories imply, that Morton’s descendents have finalized the deal by selling the mountain to the public.

This reading of history has the ring of poetry, of everything turning out as it should. But it’s not that simple.

The archival record makes it abundantly clear that the dream of public ownership for Grandfather was last promoted in the 1940s by conservationists associated with the development of the very Parkway that Morton fought, and that their dream was quashed by none other than Morton himself.

In the 1940s, Morton’s grandfather Hugh MacRae’s company, which had developed Linville, was in a financial crisis, and MacRae and Morton’s father sought to sell the mountain to the Park Service or the state. Worried since the 1930s that company-sponsored timbering was scarring the mountain, government officials welcomed the gesture but did not have money to buy the mountain.

In 1945, national parks supporter Harlan Page Kelsey (a Massachusetts landscape architect with ties to Linville) secured an option to buy 5555 acres for $165,000, with the expectation that the land be incorporated into the Blue Ridge Parkway. In the end, he raised only one pledge, $90,000 from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who had helped to buy land for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The year after Kelsey’s option expired in 1947, the state tried again to buy the mountain. But young Hugh Morton, by then at the helm of the family business, declared Grandfather not for sale at any price. Instead, he moved to develop a travel attraction there to cultivate “rich crops of tourists.”

Within a few months of inheriting the mountain in 1952, Morton bulldozed a road to one of its peaks, built his “Mile High Swinging Bridge,” and began to harvest his crops.

Three years later, Morton objected to the Park Service’s projected Parkway route at Grandfather, which, contrary to many a popular account, was never planned to go to or over the top of the mountain. But it was nearer his now lucrative summit attraction than he wanted, and he hoped to force it down the mountainside.

Deploying his political clout, media savvy, and support from three North Carolina governors and the state highway bureaucracy, Morton forced the Park Service to accept a lower route in 1968. More than a decade later, the Linn Cove Viaduct – an engineering triumph conceived by federal engineers – was built along part of the new route with no substantive involvement by Morton.

Morton continued until his death to operate the for-profit swinging bridge, nature center, and animal habitats that he had long billed as “Carolina’s Top Scenic Attraction.”

Interestingly, the state’s purchase leaves that revenue-generating portion of the mountain in the hands of Morton’s descendents’ nonprofit organization, which will run it under a state-monitored conservation easement.

Given this history, some questions arise: Is the most accessible section of the public’s new park to remain locked behind a toll gate? Will income generated (at $14 per visitor) underwrite management of the entire park, or only the Morton travel attraction?

And what of the state-Morton family partnership? We should recall that this purchase –some details of which are still unclear – continues a long state-private alliance that repeatedly placed the interests of one individual above the public good. Let us hope that the public’s interests are being better served today.

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