John Wellington and the C&O Canal – by C. Gilchrist

The following was written by C. William Gilchrist for the 1972 exhibition in Hagerstown, MD.


The works of John L. Wellington follow in the tradition of many distinguished American artists of an earlier, less hurried era. They show his love of the land and his understanding of the beauty that lies in quiet rural scenes and in commonplace events of the countryside, the village and the town.

Born in Cumberland, Maryland, in 1878, he graduated from Princeton University in 1901. He wanted to study art in Europe, but his father, United States Senator George L. Wellington, dominant figure in two Cumberland banks, inevitably directed his career into the banking field which he followed until his retirement.

Obviously talented and deeply interested in art even in his student days, John Wellington found art an absorbing release from business routine, and devoted much of a long life to the production of hundreds of sketches, watercolors and oils of the areas and the people he knew best. Denied the formal training he wished, and largely self-taught, he spent his vacations taking instruction in various phases of art. He enjoyed working with other artists in such summer colonies as Cape Cod, Provincetown and the Berkshires, and the winter one at Sarasota.

His paintings reflect the variety of his interests. He found his subjects in a crowd of shoppers on a Cumberland street, on the dock in Provincetown, by the country roads, streams and moun­tains of Western Maryland and in the South Branch Valley of the Potomac. He painted railroad locomotives, children playing, circus scenes and lonely old log houses. But most of all, he delighted in painting and drawing the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, its boats and its boatmen.

The canal, begun July 4, 1828, as President John Quincy Adams turned the first spade of earth at Georgetown, started to die as it began to live. On the same day, at Baltimore, Charles Carroll of Carrollton laid the first stone of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The two sought the same end, a way to the west for trade in an expanding nation, and competed for the same route, an easy water-level grade through the ridge and valley country to the west of Baltimore and Washington. The com­petition was bitter and difficult, and the winner was predestined. The railroad reached Cumberland in 1842, and the canal not until eight years later. The one hundred and eighty-four miles from Georgetown involved twenty-two years of back-breaking toil, epidemics, turmoil, and financial and political maneuvering from which the canal could never recover. Steam and speed doomed mules and barges. The network of canals linking all parts of the nation, envisioned before the advent of steam rail­roads, dwindled to regional waterways hauling bulk cargoes, such as the coal of Western Maryland, flour, grain and building stone.

Yet the canal had its days of importance. Over seven hundred boats were in service in the early years, each capable of carrying more than 100 tons of coal. In the season of eight or nine months, a boat could make 25 to 30 round trips between Cumberland and Georgetown. The boats were shallow draft barges, about 90 feet long, built to accommodate to narrow locks and aqueducts. In the bow was a stable for the mules, which worked eight hour shifts. In the center was a cabin for supplies and feed, and at the stern the living quarters of the crew, frequently a husband, wife and children. The family often spent the entire season working up and down the canal. Home for the winter might well be their cabin on the boat, laid up until spring in a boat yard at Cum­berland, Georgetown, or along the way at Williamsport or Harper’s Ferry.

As a child, John Wellington saw in the canal a busy waterway for commerce, and as a mature man he watched its decline and abandonment. He drew and painted what he saw and felt–the placid waters of the canal, the massive but graceful aqueducts, the portals of the Paw Paw tunnel, the slow-paced, unsophisticat­ed life of the canal people. He captured the misty haze that so often hangs over river and canal, shimmering reflections in still waters and the stillness that is natural to the land. His colors are the muted tones of earth, stone, wood and foliage, brighten­ed by sunlight and sky.

John Wellington was truly a native artist, who painted for his own self-development and knowledge, without thought of finan­cial gain or recognition. A severe stroke in 1939 forced his re­tirement from business. His right side paralyzed, and speech difficult, he trained his left hand to replace the skill of his right, and continued his search for excellence in painting until his death in 1965.

Best known as a watercolorist, Mr. Wellington exhibited numerous times in New York and Philadelphia. His work has been shown in several annual exhibitions of the American Watercolor Society at the National Academy Galleries, New York, and also in several exhibitions with the Allied Artists of America in New York. Wellington entries have been given prom­inent places in the Philadelphia Watercolor Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and in shows of the Wash­ington Watercolor Club. He appears in Mallett, Index of Artists, and in Who’s Who in American Art.

John Wellington has left us a happy legacy. Quiet, nostalgic, even wistful, his canal paintings present a charming recollection of a bygone era.