Friday, August 28, 2009

chemainus ~ the little town that did

Chemainus...'The Little Town That Did' located on Vancouver Island's east shore...snuggled between a mountain range, the ocean, a river and a major highway.

Chemainus was a town built around forestry...and when it's only industry failed a few decades became a town rebuilt through the hands of artists. Through the vision of using giant outdoor wall murals to revitalize the town...

...Chemainus has gained worldwide fame as a tourist destination. Famed artists from all over the globe were commissioned to come to Chemainus...and paint pieces of history on the walls of the historic buildings. The work began in 1982...and murals have been added regularly since that time. There are now 39 murals and 13 sculptures...attracting about 400,000 tourists annually.

We visited Chemainus while on our tour of Vancouver Island a few weeks ago...and quite enjoyed our time there. We started a self-guided tour...following the footprints painted on the sidewalks...but decided we could learn a little more if we had some commentary to accompany our wanderings. And so we joined a German tour group on a trolley bus...and learned a lot...both in English and German.

I'll give you a capsule version of the history of the town...and then leave you with the images of some of my favorite murals. They all tell a wonderful story...but I'll let you hear those details in person when you visit Chemainus!

Mining, fishing and forestry were the original industries in this area...that gave work to many Chinese people. They worked in 'bull gangs'...struggling to move huge lumber planks to the ships in the late 1800's...and later to help build the Trans Canada Railroad. Later the Japanese and the East Indians join the Germans and the Scots who had come to find riches in the mines...and stayed to work in the lumber industry. The Cowichan Valley had been home to the First Nations people for countless generations...and their history was intertwined with that of the first white settlers. And so Chemainus has a colourful and multi-cultural past...little bits and pieces of which can be seen on the giant murals as you tour the lovely town.

Join me on a mural tour of "The Little Town That Did"!

I wasn't going to tell you the story behind each picture...but I just have to tell you this one. These were the two gals who were the local operators for the telephone a time when most residents did not have a telephone in their home. The bike was used to sprint throughout the town in search of John Doe who was wanted on the phone. That gives a whole new meaning to the 'mobile phone' business.

Heavy equipment has long since replaced these hard-working teams in the lumber industry.

Can you tell which is art...and which is real life in the photo above? They did a great job of blending the paintings into the landscape.

The Company Store...circa 1917...and painted by artist Dan Sawatzky who moved his family to Chemainus after painting this mural. He grew up in Castlegar, B.C. and has painted historical murals across North America...and has this to say about Chemainus...
"There's no place in the world I'd rather be! I can feel the sparkle in the air just approaching the town. I've never been so involved in a community".

This mural depicts a celebratory street scene from Chemainus...circa 1939.

The Hong Hing Store...a front for a bootlegging and gambling enterprise.

The Chemainus Hospital...a mural by artist Doug Driediger of Calgary. The hospital was built in 1899...and is still an important part of the community today. I was on the lookout for this mural...since it happens to be painted by my step mom's nephew.

Chemainus Harbour ~ 1910

The H.M.S. Forward ~ Royal Navy Vessel in Chemainus in 1863.

These 'sculptures' are actually crafted from paper mache'...and stand outside the muraled wall of the bakery (and a fine bakery it was!). So ends our tour of the murals for today...but I'll just show you a few other spots that caught my eye.

We brought our bed with us...but how fun would it be to stay in the Little Inn on Willow? It was once an old barber shop...and now it is billed as 'the World's Smallest Luxury Hotel'. It's rather a famous little place...since it was listed as one of the "Best Places to Kiss in the Northwest." So they say!

It may have have been summer vacation...but the Japanese students came in uniform...and looking quite serious about their tour.

And so ends our tour of Chemainus...along the waterfront, where it was quite obvious that the forest industry is still very much a part of this town.

Such is the incredible story of "The Little Town That Did"! I've just scratched the surface...but if you ever have the opportunity, be sure to visit Chemainus...the town with the giant murals.

Enjoy the weekend...


  1. This little town is one of my favorite stops when I head up Island. The murals take me to another time and place - but I'm also drawn by the antique stores and the ice cream parlour! I'm glad you had such a nice day in Chemainus.

  2. I remember it well. I was in sixth or seventh grade and through a visiting saleman, my dad purchased a set of World Book Encyclopedias. I would sit and read through them, looking at the many pictures, and wanting to learn what I could. Let me tell you something, this is far more interesting to me. I just visit your blog, and watch the world open up before me, in a more fascinating way then studying the World Book Encyclopedias. I love your blog!

  3. Judy . . .it's almost gotten to the point that when we take our trailer on it's next outing . ..your travel brochure will be our guide.
    What a great little town . .I never knew.

    I love those murals.. we have a few in our town. . .

  4. What an amazing place to visit. I love the story of the telephonists!

  5. I'll never think of Chemainus in the same way again. Was ther anything real in this little town?
    Like, could you get some lunch to eat? =)

  6. Thanks for the fascinating tour! I see that there are a LOT of new murals in Chemainus since we last visited......time to go again soon : )

  7. What a marvelous tribute to a town who had lost so much of its economy. I have never seen a place like that. I agree with Judy it is better than an encyclopedia and from first hand knowledge. Great post.

  8. Love your photos Judy. My guy just got my computer to work again but I don't know if it will last Ugh! Hey my daughter and I are thinking of hopping up to Vancouver for a day in late September. Are there any spots you can recommend to eat or take tea? Have a great weekend..

  9. We have been to the island many times but somehow Chemainus has escapted us. We'll have to make time for it next time we go.

    Your photos are so interesting. And I smiled at the literal 'mobile phone' That was in the 'good ol' days' , right?

  10. What a fantastic place to visit! I love all of the murals. Thanks for a great post. I'll have to visit that town one day!!

  11. I enjoyed the tour Judy. I especially love the one of the native Indians. I have a fondness myself for drawing our native Indians.

  12. I enjoyed reading this post Judy --it was so informative and the photos are all wonderful. Chemainus looks like a town I would enjoy visiting. I had to smile when I saw the mural of the hospital -- my nursing school's uniform looked exactly like the nurse in the mural -- same cap too!

  13. What a neat town! I really enjoyed looking at all those wonderful murals and reading some of the stories. Those operators were dedicated gals. I can't believe that you'll have to wait to find out if it's true about the "best kissing" place. I take it that you have other thoughts.

  14. What a delightful post!
    We visited Chemainus last year, and I am finally getting around to processing my photos. I was happy to find the information you have put on here, and have referred back to this post - though it might be some weeks before I publish the relevant blog.


'The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.'
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson