Grandfather got its name when pioneers noted that the profile of the mountain's north face resembled that of an old man looking skyward. 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. The original Indian name of the mountain was Tanawha, according to Arthur Huger, an authority on Indian names. Mr. Huger explained in a letter dated 1912 that Tanawha means "a fabulous hawk or eagle."
A 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.
Geologists came here to study the "Grandfather Mountain Window," a hole in time that allows them to discover what the core of the earth was like when time began. The oldest rock exposures on the surface are the "Wilson Creek Gneiss" (granite type) found along Wilson Creek on the eastern slope of Grandfather near US221.
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 effecive.
In 1885, Hugh MacRae graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and set off to pursue to a career as a mining engineer at the mica mines on Bailey Mountain in Mitchell County near Spruce Pine.
He soon found his way on horseback into Avery County and was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he immediately wrote to his father Donald MacRae in Wilmington for the funds 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 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 began development of the first North Carolina mountain golf course and the resort community of Linville at the foot of Grandfather Mountain.
In 1891-92, MacRae built the Honahlossee (pronounced "yon-a-la-see," Cherokee for "trail of the black bear") Road from Linville across the eastern slope of Grandfather to Blowing Rock, opening his resort to personal transportation. He also founded a stagecoach ilne 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 duty as a United States Army newsreel cameraman in the South Pacific and took over his late father's duties as president of the Linville Company. Morton envisioned a road leading to the crest of the Grandfather with a bridge across to Linville Park, but 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, the road to the top and the Mile High Swinging Bridge were dedicated by Governor William B. Umstead. The governor's nine-year-old daughter, Merle, was the first to officially cross the 218-foot suspension span, which is 5,305 feet above sea level.
The 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. The multi-purpose facility features a 2,200 square foot museum exhibit area dedicated to communicating interesting features of the mountain's geology and meteorology, animal and plant life, and local history. The principal designer for the museum was Rolland Hower, former Chief of Exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution.
The museum complex also houses a spacious restaurant and dining area, restrooms, a gift shop which offers high quality, nature-oriented souvenirs, and a 165-seat auditorium where visitors can enjoy free nature movies filmed primarily at Grandfather Mountain.