Chemainus is a community in the Chemainus Valley on the east coast of southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Founded as an unincorporated logging town in 1858, Chemainus is now famous for its 53 outdoor murals.
Within the Municipality of North Cowichan, no other community boasts as long a history and perhaps as strong an identity as Chemainus. The around 4000 Chemainus residents describe their community as friendly, proud of their history and small town character, where people of all ages and backgrounds are respected. Residents enjoy outdoor recreational opportunities while having regard for the environment, and value a variety of employment opportunities.
Chemainus, on Vancouver Island’s east shore, is a little town snuggled in between a mountain range and the ocean, isolated with a river cutting it off from the south and a major highway to the north. A town that was born of the hands of labourers, with its only industry failing, Chemainus showed the world its true spirit and determination, and was to achieve fame through the hands of artists.
Such is the condensed recent history of “The Little Town that Did.”© Mining, fishing and forestry were the original industries that gave work to many Chinese who worked in “bull gangs” struggling to move huge lumber planks to the ships in the late 1800’s, and who arrived to work on the trans Canada Railroad later. Japanese, and later, east Indians blended their cultures with Scots and Germans looking for riches in the mines and staying to work in the forests and on fishing boats. And the beautiful Cowichan Valley has been the home of The Original First Nations peoples and their ancestors for countless generations, whose history and lives have been interwoven since those first white settlers came to the area.
When the lands’ natural resources failed to provide all the necessities of life, a new vision for the future evolved with the inventive people of Chemainus. That vision was to encompass the idea of giant outdoor wall murals in a revitalization strategy. This vision has earned Chemainus worldwide fame as a memorable tourist venue. Such is the incredible story of “The Little Town That Did”©, and the “magic” it has created for all who come here.
Robert Robertson, his wife Janet and sons James and Thomas emigrated from Scotland in 1907. Robert worked in various BC locations, before the family arrived in Chemainus in 1912. Robert worked for the E&N a job he held for 25 years. In 1914 Robert purchased 9 acres of land from Mrs. Charles Bradbury, with the dream of having a chicken farm. The land was a heavily wooded wedge-shaped tract between the old Nanaimo Trail and the old Chemainus Highway. The farm was referred to as ‘Little Scotland”.
In 1918, wind fanned some burning slash, and a wildfire, swept through the area and cleared the land. As the chicken farm didn’t seem to be a successful venture, Mr. Robertson subdivided his property into residential lots, but kept his own home there and started raising honeybees. The first lot was sold to James McKay, (probably who McKay Street was named for). By 1936, there were 19 lots on the original 9 acres. The subdivision was commonly known as Scotch Town.(According to Water Over the Wheel, this appellation was never a very popular one.) Street names came along later and reflected the names of some of the early residents (McKay, Maxwell and of course Robertson)
THEN AND NOW
The area we know today as Waterwheel Park was part of the grounds of the mill manager’s house. The house, built in 1891, was located in the ‘lumber yard’ about where the statue of HR Macmillan stands today. A long tree- lined driveway came off of Mill Street across from St Michael’s Church. The ‘lumber yard’ extended from Mill Street to Cedar Street, down Cedar to Oak and almost down to the water, and was enclosed by a high wooden fence. There was a gate at Mill Street and one on Cedar Street. There were also 2’x2’ openings in the fence, convenient shortcuts for the kids. Inside the fence were piles of lumber, stacked so vehicles could get in to load and unload. Downtown Chemainus was not developed until after WWII, the first buildings to go up after the fence came down were the Johannsen block and the theatre. The manger’s house was torn down in 1952.
When I talk to people who grew up here in the 30’s and 40’s, they always mention the Easter Egg hunt. The manager at the time, Mr. Humbird used to have an Easter Egg hunt on Easter Sunday morning for the children whose parents were associated with the mill. There was one condition; the children had to attend Sunday school before the hunt. The eggs were hidden in the area below the museum.
There were also tennis courts on the grounds, situated about where the Waterwheel is today. The dance to celebrate VL&Mco. 50th anniversary was held on the tennis courts.
The cenotaph was erected in 1920-21 between the Anglican church and the courthouse, and proved to be a bit of a traffic hazard in that location. It now resides in the park. The present Waterwheel is a replica of the original that powered the early mills. This wheel and the first phase of the park were constructed as part of the 1967 Canadian Centennial celebrations.
The new children’s playground area provides our future with entertainment from our past. Children can play in the tall ship, ride the skids and paddle the big canoe, limited only by imagination.
The park contains many of the trees indigenous to Vancouver Island. Some of the trees that have been topped have some of our local wildlife visiting in them.
Charlie Abbot came to Chemainus sometime in the 1970’s and wandered into the forest surrounding the town where he lived until the time of his death in 1989 aged 87 years. Under the the maples and firs of the forest Charlie made a garden covering many acres. Although old and bent with years, he moved rocks and slabs of stone of all sizes, planted wild flowers, made pathways and steps, creating a little paradise of tranquility for all to share. In 1988, a year before his death Charlie whom all knew as the Hermit was honoured by the Pacific Rim Artisans Village who guaranteed him official sanctuary and made him the first resident artist of the Artisan Village.
Like many resource based communities, and communities that are reliant on a single major employer, its future would always be dependent on the fluctuating successes of both employer and environmental resources. British Columbia was in a recession in 1981 as resource revenues fell and affected communities large and small. Chemainus represented the typical mill town whose very existence was a result of the mill itself.
With an impending threat of possible closure of the town’s major employer, Chemainus was faced with that very real possibility of becoming the next ghost town. The fact that the town was off the main highway made it more vulnerable.
Under then BC government of Bill Van der Zalm, community initiative grants were being developed to aid towns in revitalization projects. Our then Mayor, Graham Bruce, was young, enthusiastic and forward-thinking. He presented the concept to the community and they in turn rallied to oversee what was to be the first community to complete a revitalization, and also to become a world-famous example of how even a small town can create substantial change for survival.
The Chemainus Murals have inspired communities throughout the world to explore their roots, to beautify their towns, and instill pride. Using the Chemainus model, some communities have used the mural concept to develop their own revitalization for stronger economic development.
I hope you have enjoyed the photos of a few of the mural. The above information is from the Chemainus official website.