History of Grandfather Mountain
The name Grandfather came from the profile of the Mountain's face resembling that of an old man.
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.
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.
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 effective.
In 1885, Hugh MacRae graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and began work as a engineer at the mica mines on Bailey Mountain in Mitchell County. While at this engineering job he made several trips by horseback and discovered Avery County. He was so taken by the natural beauty of the area that he immediately convinced his father Donald MacRae, 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 Donald 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 designed the Golf Course community called Grandfather Country Club at the foot of the mountain. It was the first Mountain golf course community in North Carolina.
In 1891-92, MacRae built the Honahlossee (pronounced "yon-a-la-see)" Road from Linville across the eastern slope of Grandfather to Blowing Rock. This opened his resort to personal transportation. He also starteda stagecoach line 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 the service as a United States Army cameraman in the South Pacific and took over his late father's duties as president of the Linville Company. Hugh dreamed of a road leading to the crest of the Grandfather with a bridge across to Linville Park. However, 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, Governor William Umbstead held a ceremony and dedicated the Mile High Swinging Bridge and the roadway to the top. The governor's nine-year-old daughter, Merle, was the first to officially cross the suspension bridge. The Bridge is 5,305 feet above sea level.
This spectacular suspension 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.
In 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.