Mural #12 – Native Heritage – Chemainus First Nations
Named for a legendary chief, the town of Chemainus, in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island‘s east coast, has a rich First Nation cultural heritage.
Painted in 1983 by Paul Ygartua, Vancouver, B.C.
Do you remember The Little Engine That Could? The story about the little blue engine who took on a job that was far too big, but through positive self talk (“I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can”) succeeded in pulling a long train over a high mountain pass?
Well, this is a story about The Little Town That Did.
Once upon a time, nestled between a mountain range and the Salish Sea, in the temperate Cowichan Valley Regional District on the east coast of Vancouver Island, there was a small town called Chemainus.
This small town always had a big spirit: it was named for the native shaman and prophet “Tsa-meeun-is” (Broken Chest), who, according to legend, survived a massive wound in his chest before becoming a powerful chief to his people: the Chemainus First Nation.
The rich natural resources of the Cowichan Valley provided all the necessities of life, first to generations of First Nations people, and then to the immigrants who came looking for riches and a better life.
Mining, fishing, and forestry were the original industries in the area, and the port of Chemainus was one of the first ports in the Pacific Northwest. Germans and Scots came to make their fortunes in the mining and lumber industries. Chinese worked in ‘bull gangs’, struggling to move huge lumber planks to the waiting ships. A sawmill was completed in 1862. Then the railroad arrived in the 1880s, bringing more work, and a wave of Japanese and East Indian labourers.
Life was good, and the people believed the riches would last forever.
But, with lumber the only viable industry, the town’s fortunes rose and fell with the price of wood products. By the late 1970’s, MacMillan Bloedel, who owned the mill, estimated losses of more than CD$15M in a two year period. The town was on its last legs.
Fortunately, Chemainus was still home to people with strong spirit and big vision. Using a grant from a provincial redevelopment fund, community leaders and a young Mayor Graham Bruce agreed to a proposal from local German immigrant Karl Schutz. Since the early 1970s, Schutz had been promoting the idea of having large, outdoor murals painted around the town. In 1982, the time was right and the first five murals were completed.
The next year, the mill, which had operated off and on for 120 years, closed for the last time.
But, the people of the Cowichan Valley didn’t lose hope. The Festival of Murals Society had been established, local and international artists had been commissioned, and the beautiful murals – all portraying local life, heritage, and history – were on track. The little town of Chemainus had put itself back on the map – this time as a popular tourist destination.
Tour operators take visitors around the murals by horse-drawn carriage or by small steam train. During high season, locals dress in period costume to enhance the visitor experience.
Mural #11 – Temporary Homes
Even chains get the local treatment!
Painted in 1983 by David White, Nassau, Bahamas
Mural #18 – Julia Askew – first child of European ancestry born in Chemainus (February 22, 1871)
An old school house gets a new treatment as a boutique fashion store.
Painted in 1986 by Elizabeth Smily, West Vancouver
Mural #31 – 10th Anniversary Mural – The Lumber Barons
JA Humberg (left), mill manager from 1924 shaking hands with HR MacMillan (right), who bought the mill in 1944.
Painted in 1992 by Constance Greig-Manning, assisted by Bill Manning, Kenilworth, Ontario (now residing in Chemainus).
Mural #36 – The Hermit
Every laneway holds history… This one tells the story of Charlie Abbott, a long-time Chemainus character, who wandered into town in the 1970s and created a garden of paths and trails in the forest nearby. The Hermit Trails are now popular walking paths.
Painted by Paul Ygartua (Vancouver BC) in 2004.
Trinkets for Sale
Local shops attempt to benefit from the influx of tourists ~ selling a range of trinkets.
Old-Timers on a Bench
Not all of Chemainus’ art-works are murals – a number of sculptures are installed around town.
Mural #22 – Leonora Mines at Mt. Sicker (right panel)
Copper was mined at Mt. Sicker from May, 1897 to November, 1908. Today, virtually nothing remains of the once-thriving community.
Painted in 1988 (with additions in 2001) by Peter Bresnen, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Mural #13 – Billy Thomas
William Ishmael (Billy) Thomas, was the first male child of European ancestry born (1874) in the Chemainus Valley. He lived there for all of his 102 years.
Painted in 1984 by Sandy Clark and Lea Goward, Victoria, BC
Bits of old machinery grace the flowerbeds around town.
Mural #1 – Steam Donkey
Hauling logs out of the forest was a difficult and dangerous task. This steam donkey started work in Chemainus in 1885.
Painted in 1982 by Frank Lewis and Nancy Lagana, Victoria, B.C, based on a 1902 photograph.
Mural #35 – 20th Anniversary Mural – First Chemainus Sawmill 1862 – Waterwheel Crescent
This waterwheel is a replica of those that powered the early mills. Originally part of the grounds of the mill manager’s house, Waterwheel Park is now open to the public and includes a children’s playground.
Painted in 2003 by Sylvia Verity Dewar, Chemainus, BC, with construction assistance from her husband Russ Dewar.
Mural #7 – Logging With Oxen
In the 1890s, oxen were one of the main forms of “power” in logging.
Painted in 1983 by Harold Lyon, Fountain Hills, Arizona
Mural #28 – No. 3 Climax Engine
This little steam engine, painted on the side of what was an artist’s studio, hauled logs out of the Chemainus Valley in the late 1880s.
Painted in 1991 by Dan Sawatzky, Chemainus, (now Chilliwack, BC).
Mural #26 – Chemainus – The War Years – Circa 1915 (detail)
Farmers watch as soldiers go off to war. By the end of 1915, over fifteen percent of the local population had gone to fight – many never returned.
Painted in 1989 by Susan Tooke Crichton, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Mural #19, “Mill Street in 1948”,
Old shops and buildings lead down old Mill Street to the wharfs on Chemainus Harbour.
Painted in 1986 by Mike Svob, Coquitlam B.C
Doll on the Stoop
An old “character” welcomes us to one of many coffee shops.
Mural #3 – Steam Train On Bridge Over Chemainus River
Locomotive No. 4 steams across a log bridge over the Chemainus River.
Painted in 1982 by Paul Marcano, Victoria, B.C. (now Chilliwack)
We enjoyed following the yellow foot-prints along the sidewalks as they guided us to the various artworks, and we liked what we saw – but we didn’t get to see all of the forty-plus murals scattered around the town. Part way through the afternoon, the autumn skies closed over, the rains came, and we had to escape back to our car.
I’m not sure if the people of Chemainus will live happily-ever-after.
But, they’ve given themselves a new lease of life and determined their own path to the future.
I think that is pretty cool.