Morton was born on February 19, 1921 in Wilmington, North Carolina. He entered the University of North Carolina in 1940 and took photographs for the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. He left school in 1942 to fight in World War II. In 1942, he joined the Signal Corps (United States Army) as a photographer and was sent to the Pacific Theater. After he returned to the United States, Morton married Julia Taylor in 1945 and they had four children. Morton was well known in North Carolina as a fan of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sports and friend of many influential North Carolinians. Morton authored two books of his photography: Hugh Morton's North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2003) and Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer, which was published in 2006.
Morton's great-grandfather, Donald MacRae, bought the development rights for the 16,000 acres (65 km2) around Grandfather Mountain in 1885 from William Lenoir. Morton inherited this property from Hugh MacRae, his grandfather, in 1952 and immediately set out on making the property more accessible to tourists. In his first year, he built a vehicle road to the top of the mountain and built the now famous Mile High Swinging Bridge. The Mile High Swinging Bridge is a 228-foot-long (69 m) bridge that spans a chasm at more than one mile of elevation. In 1968, Morton bought two black bears, one male and one female, to release back into the wild; however, the female bear, named Mildred, could not readapt to the wild and was required to be recaptured and given an enclosed habitat, which was finished in 1973. It now contains bears, deer, eagles, river otters, mountain lions, and other animals. After Hugh Morton died in 2006, his family sold the mountain and surrounding land to the state of North Carolina for $12 million. It was turned into the state's 34th state park, officially receiving that status in April 2009.
Morton was a prolific photographer who took photographs of all aspects of life in North Carolina. His first published photograph came in 1935, when he was 14; a picture he took of a golfing scene was published as a North Carolina travel advertisement in Life Magazine. During his time at the University of North Carolina, he was a photographer for the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. During World War II, Morton joined as a member of the Signal Corps, where he was assigned the job of newsreel photographer. He was sent to New Caledonia, an island off the coast of Australia, where he was attached to the 37th Infantry Division. Near the end of the war, Morton was assigned to take pictures of General Douglas MacArthur when MacArthur's regular photographer was sick. While on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, Morton was injured by a Japanese explosive and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Upon his return from the war, Morton went to work at the University of North Carolina as a sports photographer. He took pictures of sports at the University of North Carolina for over six decades; one anecdote says that people at UNC basketball games were warned not to block the view of "Mr. Morton's seat." In 1949, Morton was elected the president of the Carolina Photographers Association. The next year, Morton became the chairman of the Southern Short Courses in News Photography. That program continues across the state of North Carolina at college campuses and at Grandfather Mountain as the Grandfather Mountain Camera Clinic.
Morton's work has been featured in magazines such as Life, National Geographic, the Associated Press, Esquire, Time, and many other publications. One of his favorite locations was Grandfather Mountain and one of his favorite subjects was Mildred the Bear. He took thousands of pictures of Mildred alone.
Morton's photographic life's work has been donated to North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives in Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This collection is currently being digitized, a project which is being chronicled on the A View To Hugh blog.
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- UNC-TV, "Biographical Conversations with Hugh Morton." http://www.unctv.org/biocon/hmorton/timeline00.html
- North Carolina Business Hall of Fame biography, http://www.historync.org/laureate%20-%20Hugh%20Morton.htm
- History of Grandfather Mountain http://www.grandfather.com/about/history.php
- Mile High Swinging Bridge http://www.grandfather.com/swinging_bridge/
- Asheville Citizen-Times, "Grandfather Mountain: WNC jewel is now a state park," 5 April 2009. http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=200990402109
- Grizzle, Ralph. "Grandfather's Guardian," http://www.kenilworthmedia.com/cv/ourstate/people/hugh_morton_profile.htm
- Quillin, Martha. "Carolina in his lens: Hugh Morton," News and Observer, 11 June 2006. http://www.newsobserver.com/105/story/449517.html