Canada has so much to offer every visitor, with cosmopolitan cities for culture vultures and vast landscapes for the outdoor explorer. It also has something in between as the country is littered with small towns that each have a unique identity. An honest flavour of what life is like in Canada can be found in these semi-rural communities, and they are perfect pit stops when you hire a car in Canada.
Chemainus is a vibrant town and is perfectly situated for anyone looking to explore Vancouver Island. The town is close to the port of Nanaimo, so it’s easy for those on their way from Vancouver to the popular surf town of Tofino on the west side of the island or heading to British Columbia’s capital city of Victoria in the south. Gemma Taylor, half of the couple behind the Off Track Travel Blog recommends the town as a perfect stop off:
“Chemainus is a Vancouver Island community with a lot of heart. The small-town atmosphere that is lost from so many communities is still alive and well in Chemainus with so many independent businesses and artisans present in the downtown area.”
What has brought Chemainus to the fore as a popular destination are its dozens of unbelievable murals. These artworks, painted straight onto the sides of buildings, have turned a town that was reliant on a sawmill into a beautiful open-air gallery. 39 murals have been added since the sawmill was closed in the early 80s and some of the most renowned North American artists have travelled to this out-of-the-way town to leave their own mark.
The 39 murals that decorate the town all have very different themes but they make up a patchwork that paints the town’s history. Each scene recounts an element of the town’s past, whether it portrays the everyday inhabitant of Chemainus or depicts famous figures. David Goatley, one of the painters, told us how the murals helped save the town:
“The initial drive behind the Chemainus murals project was to inject new life into a dying town. Chemainus had been at the centre of the logging and milling industries and, as these began to change and the mill closed, the town needed to reinvent itself to survive. Karl Schutz suggested turning it into an outdoor gallery to attract tourists by filling the walls with murals. His drive and inspiration got the project started and it has proved to be the tourist draw he promised.”
The Steam Donkey – Willow Street
‘The Steam Donkey at Work’ is mural number one and displays a brief glimpse of the town’s logging history. It was painted by Frank Lewis back in 1982 and is based on an older photograph. The man who operates the lever on the steam donkey is Herbert M Olsen who later became a prominent figure worldwide for his lumbering ventures.
Native Heritage – Mill street & Chemainus Road
Mural number 12 offers a glimpse of the native heritage of the area. The Cowichan Valley has long had a presence of First Nations people, with archaeological evidence dating back 4,500 years. This is reflected in the name of the town which means ‘broken chest’ due to the legend that a shaman and prophet survived a massive chest wound and went on to become a powerful chief. His people took his name which was “Tsa-meen-is”.
It is not only the name of the town that reflects this First Nations heritage. Mural number 12 exhibits three important figures including Ce-who-latza who was a village chief, a constable of the native police and a native pilot for the Royal Navy.
No. 3 Climax Engine – Alder Street
The introduction of the railway was as important to the town as the logging industry and mural number 28 depicts a steam engine powering its way towards the town. The E&N Railway was completed in 1886 and while smaller engines worked nearer to the mill, the larger engines hauled the logs along the rails of Chemainus Valley. This mural was painted slightly later in 1991 by Dan Sawatzky.
World in Motion
This mural is a testament to the historical buildings and events in Chemainus between 1883 and 1939. The left shows three buildings ‘The Lewisville Hotel, Store, Saloon and Barber Shop’ while to the right, A. Howe’s Meat Market and Rufus Smith’s Blacksmith Shop are depicted.
There are also scenes of the Horseshoe Bay Inn alongside the proprietor and two of its famous guests (J.D Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie). A street scene captures the festivities of the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Victoria Lumber & Manufacturing Company. Alan Wylie, the artist behind the piece, told us about painting the piece:
“I was asked to do mine in 1986, which was Expo Year in BC. Thus busloads started to arrive, and each day I was working under the gaze of 200-400 tourists from all over the place. The project was made into a film titled “The Little Town That Did” which won an award in New York, stimulating more tourists coming to Chemainus. Working on this one led me travelling through the tears to many small towns in Canada, but more so in the USA to do the same historical projects.”
Letters from the front- Willow & Mill Streets
Very few places were untouched by the First World War and David Goatley’s mural on the post building remembers the effects of WWI on this small community. It highlights the one link that connected soldiers on the front with their families back home: the post. David Goatley spoke to us about his design:
“My design centers around a portrait of the Post Master of the time against a backdrop of an official notice of the loss of someone in action, surrounded by scenes of fighting at sea and on land, the commander of Canadian forces at Vimy, a trench postman and mail wagon, a village postman on his bike and a mother and daughter reading a letter, along with a typical card of the period, contemporary stamps and a vignette of historical Chemainus.
“The war dominates the right of the mural, the domestic scene the left. The painting, fittingly, is situated on the wall of the Post Office and draws home and the battlefront together through the mail in a powerful way. I dedicated the mural to both my grandfathers and the millions of others who fought in that dreadful war in a small inscription at the bottom right.”
The Hong Hing Waterfront Store – Oak & Esplanade Streets
This mural depicts the multicultural history of the town. With many Chinese workers immigrating to Vancouver Island in search of work, Fong Yen Lew came to Canada and set up his shop in Chemainus in 1915. What began as a laundry expanded into a business that sold groceries, second-hand goods and even livestock.
Fong Yen Lew was known as Hong Hing, the name of his shop and was well liked around the town for his easy credit terms and friendly manners. In the 1950s the government opened a liquor store and Hong Hing’s business began to decline. Hong Hing returned to China and lived happily ever after – he married a woman 40 years his junior and settled with a family!
Donna who is the author of the Destination Detour Dream Blog felt moved by this mural: “The “Hong Hing Waterfront Store” mural also intrigued me. This one is photorealistic. It covers the entire wall of a building and at first glance looked as if it was a real store with a historical facade instead of a painting of a store from years gone by.”
The Unknown Miner
This recent 3D mural was created in 2012 by Terry Chapman, but despite its modernity, it depicts an industry that died out over a century ago. The Lenora Mines near the base of Mt Sickler, Chemainus’ local mountain, was a source of copper, silver and gold. After 229 tonnes of ore was extracted (mostly by hand) the mines closed in 1907.
This piece is not only life-size, but also seems to jump out at the viewer as the cart protrudes 18 inches from the mural. This, coupled with the sounds of mining that echo from a hidden speaker, help transport viewers into the past.
The Telephone Company – Willow Street
Although many of the murals depict historical scenes, the technological advances that have shaped the modern have found their rightful place in key murals in Chemainus. Mural number 32 displays the private house on Maple Street that was home to the first telephone company in the town. The home of Daisy Bonde, who was the supervisor of the exchange, is shown in the mural before the company moved to larger premises seven years later. The other woman is Sophia Horton, the first paid operator to work at the exchange.
There are many more murals than those mentioned above, and the town loves to welcome visitors who have taken an interest in these beautiful and significant works of art. The outdoor murals have moulded Chemainus into something of an artist’s community, and with a lively theatre as well as many events throughout the year, it is a great place to break up the drive through Vancouver Island’s lush cedar forests. You can find out more about all the murals by following the yellow footprints around the town on the self-guided tour that was created by the Chemainus Festival of Murals Society.
Donna from the Destinations, Detours, Dreams Blog thinks there is more to the town beyond the murals: “Today, the town is picturesque. The murals are a large part of the beauty, but the setting along the sea and the well-maintained downtown buildings containing unique shops and restaurants are also factors.”
Do not be put off visiting Vancouver Island as it is a destination that has a lot to offer! Once you have landed in Vancouver, there is a Car Ferry that departs from Horseshoe Bay and takes you to Nanaimo in under two hours. Chemainus is just a half hour drive from where the ferry drops you off in Chemainus.
Once on Vancouver Island, there is so much to explore. If you continue heading south from Chemainus, you will reach Canada’s most romantic city in an hour and a half. Alternatively, head West and cross the width of Vancouver Island to explore Tofino and it’s surfing community.