Painter For Whom Cameron Hill Was Named Met Dreadful End After Move To California

Friday, July 1, 2022 - by John Wilson

One of Chattanooga's most famous painters is still remembered today as what is left of the hill where he once lived bears his name. James Cameron was disillusioned by the toll the Civil War took on his former homeplace, and he moved to California, where he met a dreadful end.

Cameron was born in 1817 in Greenock, Scotland, and came with his family to Philadelphia
about 1833 when he was 16. It was there he began the study of art and married Emma Alcock.
The couple made a tour of Europe soon after their marriage, and Cameron began specializing in landscapes. They also traveled extensively in the United States and finally settled in Nashville. It was at a time when Chattanoogan James A. Whiteside was a leader in the Legislature.

Col. Whiteside made the acquaintance of Cameron and was so impressed by the artist that
he induced him to come live here about 1850. The brick Whiteside home was on the side of the
hill west of town, and a small house on the grounds was converted for Cameron's studio.
Col. Whiteside helped secure a number of commissions for the painter. In addition, he painted
portraits of Whiteside family members. One of these was painted in 1859 at the Point of
Lookout Mountain, which was then owned by the Whitesides.

Col. Whiteside called on Cameron's artistic knowledge while designing the Lookout Mountain Hotel, which he built at the Summertown section in 1857. When the Whitesides began spending more time in Nashville because of obligations with the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, the Benjamin Chandlers moved into the Whiteside home and the Camerons lodged with them.

Cameron was captivated by the lovely landscape at Chattanooga and decided to build a permanent home on the hillside above the Whitesides. Not long before the outbreak of the war, he constructed a low, rambling one-story house. It was finished in stucco and plaster and was said to have been influenced by homes he had seen in Italy. The house was just above West Sixth Street and faced east, though it had a fine view to the west, also. Cameron's mother joined them at their new Chattanooga residence.

A Cameron brother, William Cameron, had made his way to Texas and fought in the Mexican War. He was a leading official at Brownsville and Cameron County was named for him.

Historian Penelope Johnson Allen described James Cameron as "of a genial, friendly temperament. He was fond of anecdote and sometimes went in for practical jokes. He was devoutly religious and at one time served as superintendent of the Sunday school of the First
Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Through his efforts, it is said, the attendance was raised
from a small number to several hundred.''

When the Civil War began, the painter and his wife retreated to Philadelphia, though his mother was still living here when she died during the war. She was laid to rest in the Citizens Cemetery.

When James Cameron returned to the city and saw all the desolation that the war had done to the hill that by then bore his name, he was so disillusioned that he switched from painting to business. But the firm of Cameron, Greer and Co. was not a success. The Camerons on June 1, 1870, sold their 33 acres on Cameron Hill to W.P. Rathburn, Theodore G. Montague and T.R. Stanley of Chattanooga, Isaac Tower of Boston and Dudley Baldwin of Cleveland, Ohio. They then returned to Philadelphia to fall back on the fortune of Mrs. Cameron's family. The Cameron home on Cameron Hill had burned in the spring of 1866.

The former painter decided to become a minister, and he moved to California and had pastorates at San Francisco and Oakland. He was minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Oakland in early 1882 when his wife mistakenly gave him a dose of carbolic acid. She had thought she was giving him medicine for a bone abscess in the foot. Mrs. Cameron went into a back room where the medicine was kept. The room was somewhat dark, the blinds being drawn, and Mrs. Cameron took a bottle off the mantel, not noticing any other or thinking of any other, and filled out a dose in a wine glass. She brought it to him and he drank about half of it. Then he stopped, saying, "It tastes very strong. Is there anything in it?" Then he swallowed the balance of the dose. Mrs. Barber (with whom the Camerons were living) said, "Could it be anything else?" Then Mrs. Cameron perceived the odor of carbolic acid, and remembered that the bottle of carbolic acid was also on the mantel. Though an emetic was quickly obtained at a nearby drug store, Cameron died
within 15 minutes. He had returned to painting and was working on two oil portraits at the time
of his death.

Mrs. Cameron later made visits to Chattanooga, but she died in Oakland. The couple had no children.

The painting by Cameron of the Whitesides at the Point is probably Chattanooga's most famous painting. It was saved by Harriet Whiteside during the war and remained in the family for many years. It now hangs at the Hunter Museum of Art, which also has a Cameron landscape of Moccasin Bend.


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