Morton’s Legacy Endures for Appalachia’s Environment


One of Appalachcia’s most powerful voices has been silenced by cancer at age 85.

Hugh Morton, a prominent North Carolina environmentalist, photographer and real estate developer, died at his home, surrouned by family, on the first of June.
Known as the owner of Grandfather Mountain resort and also as a real estate developer and advocate for clean air, Morton’s careers — conservation, photography and development – blended in a lifetime of public service.

“He was truly one of North Carolina’s treasures,” North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley said.

In recent months, as Morton fought cancer, he left the leadership of Grandfather Mountain to his daughter Catharine and grandson Crae.

Morton also left a widely admired legacy of political moderation and staunch advocacy for the Appalachian environment.

Family background

Hugh Morton was born Feb. 19, 1921 to an influential Wilmington family. His maternal grandfather, Hugh MacRae, was founder of a bank, head of a power company and president of a cotton mill.

Morton grew up in Wilmington, was educated at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and saw action in the Pacific as U.S. Army combat newsreel cameraman in World War II. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals.

He came home from the Pacific and joined the family real estate business. He became involved in a number of civic projects, for example, serving as the president of the first Wilmington Azalea Festival, chairman of the USS Battleship North Carolina Commission, and a member of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse project group.
Morton’s photographic work also appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Time, Sports Illustrated and National Geographic. In 2003 he wrote Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, a widely praised book of photographs and personal reflections published by UNC press.

Morton’s other accomplishments include chairing Western North Carolina Tomorrow (1981-1983), a group that successfully lobbied for the Ridge Law to protect the state’s highest peaks. In 1995-1996 he chaired the North Carolina Year of the Mountains Commission to protect the scenic view-shed of the Blue Ridge Parkway by purchasing or negotiating scenic easements from landholders whose property borders the ridgetop highway.

Grandfather mountain

At an early age, Morton became interested in the 16,000 acre mountain property that his grandfather had purchased in the 1880s.

The property included the highest peak in the Blue Ridge chain called Grandfather Mountain because, from various vantage points, it seems to have a profile of an older man.

The mountain had attracted many people in the past century, including America’s most famous environmental advocate, John Muir (1838-1914), who founded the Sierra Club. Like Muir, Morton fell in love with the mountain and its magnificent view.

When Morton inherited the property, a narrow dirt road led to the top. It was not easily accessible to the public. And its most interesting peak was difficult to climb from the more accessible vantage point nearby. In 1952, Morton solved that problem by building a foot bridge to the peak and, a few years later, had the road to the top paved. In the 1950s, a family on tour through the Blue Ridge would gladly pay the modest fee of one nickel to enjoy the magnificent view.

View from the mountain

Over the years Morton became deeply worried about the view from Grandfather Mountain. It had become increasingly difficult to see the skyline of Charlotte, NC at sunset. Worse, the forests on the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountain peaks were starting to die off.

“There is no question that air pollution is the biggest threat to Western North Carolina tourism,” he told an Asheville audience a few years ago.

“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.”

At a time when many people did not believe that air quality was suffering, Morton proved it by providing the pictures.

In 1993, he produced an hour long documentary film, “The Search for Clean Air,” narrated by former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. The film focused primarily on the health effects of air pollution, especially in hard-hit areas like Los Angeles, Mexcio City and the Czech Republic.

It also showed that forests that were stunted and destroyed by air pollution around the world. Although this was an important motivation for the film, Morton put the air pollution argument in context by saying: “You can show dead trees on the top of mountains all you want to, but unless you relate it to human health, no one will listen to you.”

A few years later, Morton became deeply involved in lobbying for state legislation to help protect air quality.

His pictures, the Search for Clean Air documentary and Morton’s persuasion proved to be decisive in the effort that lead to North Carolina’s path-breaking clean air legislation.

Morton the Photographer

“That was his way of influencing public opinion. He’d use his camera to get things done, to take the pictures to illustrate the problem,” said he daughter Catharine Morton.

As a photographer, Morton loved to stalk the perfect photo of a mountain scene, often with daughter Catharine in the picture. “He would stop the car and ask me to go stand in front of an overlook and take photos.” Unlike most dads, who would snap the shutter and drive on, Morton would wait, sometimes for an hour or more, for the best light or a change in cloud cover.

She didn’t mind a bit. Life was exciting around Hugh Morton.

“I was spoiled,” said Catharine. “There was always something different, something going on. One day [we would be] playing with baby bears, another day meeting some celebrity … Another day watching hang glider pilots jump off the top of the mountain.”

Hugh Morton is survived by two daughters, Julia MacRae Morton of Greensboro and Catherine W. Morton of Linville, and a son, James M. Morton, also of Linville; grandsons, Jack Morton of Raleigh and Crae Morton of Linville, NC.

Morton’s Legacy Endures for Appalachia’s Enviroment

The several hundred attendees at the funeral service for Hugh Morton at the First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro bore clear testimony to who this man was and what he accomplished. Political figures included senators, governors, and university officials. Sports luminaries read like a Who’s Who of North Carolina basketball, including coaches and players from his beloved North Carolina Tarheels. Environmental activists from across the state were there. Many family members were as well.
Family, education, politics, sports, and environment- these were the things around which Hugh’s life revolved and at which he excelled.

Hugh was a traditional “yellow dog” Democrat. I doubt he ever voted for a yellow dog, but he was a great supporter of the Democratic party- at one point, he ran for the Democratic nomination for Governor of North Carolina. Yet I remember many times that he told me about conversations he had with Senator Jesse Helms. They probably disagreed about most every political topic, but Hugh and Jesse talked. Republican Senator Richard Burr was at the funeral, as was a Republican ex-Governor.
Hugh Morton was to me both friend and colleague. While Hugh was a generation older, and perhaps as a result a bit less radical, we shared many of our concerns for protecting Nature. I greatly admired his altruism in protecting his beloved Grandfather Mountain when he gave the Nature Conservancy several thousand acres of the mountain and sold another large parcel to them as well.

His leadership in protecting the Blue Ridge Mountains from unsightly development was an issue in which we were jointly involved- he played a lead role in the passage of the North Carolina Ridge Law. Further, Hugh’s insistence that the National Park Service build the Blue Ridge Parkway in such a manner that Grandfather Mountain was minimally impacted was ultimately successful- the beautiful Glen Cove Viaduct was the result.

But we were closest in our mutual concern for protecting the forests of the Appalachians from air pollution. I remember fondly the many trips we made in his car to political meetings where we would testify about the dying trees, the damaged streams and the clouded views caused by acid rain, ozone and pollution particles in the air. Hugh was always ready to hit the road when I would tell him about some hearing in Raleigh or Asheville where he could show his slides and tell his story.

Hugh’s abilities as a photographer of nature and of people is legendary. It began with his work as photographer in the service in World War II. It would later take the form of the unofficial photographer for University of North Carolina basketball. It extended to pictures of many of the famous people he encountered over his life, the subject of his recent book, Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, a second volume of which will be released this coming September. But for me, the shots he got around the mountains of damaged forests and pollution-fouled views were the most effective.

Perhaps Hugh’s most visible achievement in his air pollution activism was the video he produced, The Search for Clean Air. The viewer was taken to many parts of the United States as well as to eastern Europe to document air pollution’s impacts on nature and also on human health. Hugh was able to get famous television news personality Walter Cronkite to be the narrator of this award-winning, hour long documentary.

Partly as a result of the millions who saw The Search for Clean Air, Hugh played a lead role in the passage of the landmark North Carolina Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002. He testified in public hearings and advocated for the bill with his tourism industry colleagues. But perhaps most importantly, he worked behind the scenes with state officials to ensure that support for the measure went all the way to the top.

The environmental movement and many others will miss Hugh Morton. His connections in politics, the respect he had when he testified at the hearings, his beautiful nature photography, even when it showed not such beautiful subjects, all these things will be missed.

For me the greatest loss is that of a friend and advisor. But he will never be far away when I go to a hearing or take a hike up Profile Trail. I, and many others who labor to protect nature, will be forever in the debt of Hugh Morton.


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