The painter for whom Cameron Hill was named met a terrible end after moving to California
One of Chattanooga’s most famous painters is still remembered today because what remains of the hill where he once lived bears his name. James Cameron was disillusioned with the Civil War’s toll on his former home and moved to California, where he met a terrible end.
Cameron was born in 1817 in Greenock, Scotland, and came with his family to Philadelphia
around 1833, when he was 16 years old. It was there that he began studying art and married Emma Alcock.
The couple toured Europe shortly after their wedding, and Cameron began to specialize in landscapes. They also traveled extensively in the United States and eventually settled in Nashville. This was at a time when Chattanoogan James A. Whiteside was a leader in the Legislative Assembly.
Colonel Whiteside met Cameron and was so impressed with the artist that he
he enticed him to come and live here around 1850. The Whiteside brick house was on the side of the
hill west of town, and a small house on the land was converted into Cameron’s studio.
Colonel Whiteside helped secure a number of commissions for the painter. Additionally, he painted
portraits of members of the Whiteside family. One of them was painted in 1859 at Pointe de
Lookout Mountain, then owned by the Whitesides.
Colonel Whiteside called upon Cameron’s artistic knowledge when designing the Lookout Mountain Hotel, which he built in the Summertown section in 1857. When the Whitesides began to spend more time in Nashville due to obligations with the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, the Benjamin Chandlers moved into the Whiteside house and the Camerons lodged with them.
Cameron was captivated by the beautiful scenery of Chattanooga and decided to build a permanent home on the hill above the Whitesides. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he built a low, rambling one-story house. It was finished in stucco and plaster and would have been influenced by houses he had seen in Italy. The house was just above West Sixth Street and faced east, although it also had a good view to the west. Cameron’s mother joined them at their new residence in Chattanooga.
A Cameron brother, William Cameron, had traveled to Texas and fought in the Mexican War. He was a high official in Brownsville and Cameron County is named after him.
Historian Penelope Johnson Allen has described James Cameron as “of a genial and friendly temperament. He loved anecdotes and occasionally indulged in practical jokes.
Chattanooga Presbyterian Church. Thanks to his efforts, it is said, attendance has increased
from a small number to several hundred.”
When the Civil War began, the painter and his wife retired to Philadelphia, although his mother was still living here when she died during the war. She was buried in the Citizens Cemetery.
When James Cameron returned to the city and saw all the desolation the war had inflicted on the hill which then bore his name, he was so disillusioned that he turned from painting to business. But the firm Cameron, Greer and Co. was not a success. On June 1, 1870, the Camerons sold their 33 acres on Cameron Hill to WP Rathburn, Theodore G. Montague, and TR Stanley of Chattanooga, Isaac Tower of Boston, and Dudley Baldwin of Cleveland, Ohio. They then returned to Philadelphia to fall back on Mrs. Cameron’s family fortune. The Cameron House on Cameron Hill had burned down in the spring of 1866.
The former painter decided to become a minister, and he moved to California and had pastorates in 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 thought she was giving him medicine for a bone abscess in his foot. Ms Cameron went to a back room where the drugs were kept. The room was a little dark, the blinds drawn, and Mrs. Cameron took a bottle from the fireplace, not noticing or thinking of any others, and poured a dose into a wine glass. She brought it to him and he drank about half of it. Then he stopped and said, “It tastes very strong. Is there anything in it? Then he swallowed the rest of the dose. Mrs Barber (who the Camerons lived with) said: ‘Could it be something else?’ Then Mrs. Cameron caught the smell of carbolic acid, and remembered that the bottle of carbolic acid was also on the chimney. Although an emetic was quickly obtained from a nearby pharmacy, Cameron died
within 15 minutes. He had returned to painting and was at the time working on two oil portraits
of his death.
Mrs. Cameron later made visits to Chattanooga, but she died in Oakland. The couple had no children.
Cameron’s painting of Whitesides at the Point is probably Chattanooga’s most famous painting. He was rescued by Harriet Whiteside during the war and remained in the family for many years. It now hangs in the Hunter Museum of Art, which also has a Cameron landscape of Moccasin Bend.