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HISTORY

— always a bright future —

The past is filled with vision and drive fostering in an artistic allure seen throughout the town today.

OUR STORY

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Photo courtesy of the Chemainus Valley Historical Society 

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Photo courtesy of the Chemainus Valley Historical Society 

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Photo courtesy of the Chemainus Valley Historical Society 

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Photo courtesy of the Chemainus Valley Historical Society 

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Photo courtesy of the Chemainus Valley Historical Society 

CHEMAINUS NAME ORIGINS

The origin of the name Chemainus is rich in Indigenous culture telling a tale of a shaman prophet called Broken Chest (Tsa-meeun-is) when translated to English. His name came to tell the legend of a massive chest wound that had been inflicted upon him, surviving, he became a powerful chief leading his people for many prosperous years. His people, the Stz’uminus First Nations, took this name to honour their chief.

AREA ORIGINS

The Chemainus area started as a series of quiet bays in the area inhabited by Indigenous people. The Stz'uminus people settled in Kulleet Bay due to the rich abundance of herring and shellfish establishing a permanent village called Shts’emines (English translated name of Chemainus).

FIRST SETTLEMENTS & HISTORY

As the area's abundance began to be discovered by English-speaking and island inhabitants, a small town (what you see currently and know as the heart of Old Town Chemainus) began to form. The congregation of the town was slow and steady for many years, establishing their first foray into the forestry industry. As water flowed along the banks and lush forests surrounded the town of Chemainus, it was only natural that this industry would be exploited, bringing with it opportunity and success.

Longshoremen gangs in the early 1930s worked along the coast and Indigenous folk made up a large part of the workforce. They would gather at daybreak and come by boat to Chemainus from Penelakut Island. 

ADDITIONAL HISTORY

The years that followed were prosperous. In 1863 the sawmill that drove this industry was erected and opened on the outer banks of the ocean inlet. A powerful waterwheel driven by a steady stream and waterfall embankment provided the power they required to mill the trees harvested into wood products.

With such success throughout the years, Chemainus was officially incorporated as a logging town in 1858. With an ode to heritage, the aptly named Waterwheel Park sits alongside the inlet in which such an impressive structure used to stand and where the forestry industry continues to this day, to process wood and paper products.

In the later part of the 1800s, many migrant workers had made the treacherous journey from China to the island for work, helping to establish the industry's foothold by moving huge lumber planks for transport by sea. As the area began to take shape, mining, fishing, and forestry were the main industries surrounding the town alongside the rail line which was moving through the area. Many other migrant workers flocked to these parts to obtain work and settle within the community. East Indian people and Japanese workers blended their cultures with the Germans and Scottish who had arrived to work the rail line and dig for riches within the mines.

As the years drew forward, many industries weaned away from the area moving to other towns and cities within the region. Meanwhile, Chemainus continued to steadily thrive, the town becoming heavily reliant upon the mill and forestry industry to support the residents within. However, over the many decades, the naturally abundant resources began to wean as any would with such heavy gathering. The town started to struggle leaving residents and business owners grasping to keep the town alive. What futile attempts that were made, did not sustain the population. A new vision was needed to keep the town alive, and in 1981, it did just that.

Benefiting from a province-wide redevelopment fund using the full extent of the costs to revitalize the face of its core. Once again the town welcomed guests with brimming flowers in bloom, generous public parks, and freshly painted facades. 1982 ushered in the visionary first few murals. These few murals, five in total, were simply an added beauty to the downtown sector, as the mill ceased to thrive as it once did.

In 1983, the mill closed its doors after 120 years in operation. Fearing the loss of the town, residents, businesses, and core groups gathered to idealize a vision to keep the town alive. One particular resident and local business person, Karl Schutz, idealized a vision full of artistic influence and pride after the murals had won a prestigious award the ‘New York Downtown Revitalization Award for redevelopment’. The Festival of Murals was born with the support of the Mayor, Graham Bruce, alongside the Municipal Council. The town rallied, seeing how advantageous a town of murals could be, alongside the ability to showcase local artisans. This attracted new business ventures, and thousands upon thousands of visitors a year, but more importantly, the town was alive and thriving once again. In this milestone, the town was titled “The Little Town That Did”©.

The Festival of Murals exists to this day with more than $350,000 put forth into this initiative by a slew of funding sources including private businesses and federal, provincial, and municipal investors. To this day, the 50+ murals are kept alive with constant revitalization. While other murals are planned for the future; sculptures, carvings, and other beautifully artistic embellishments have been added throughout the years. The town continues to grow and change with municipal funding continuing to see the value and benefit Chemainus holds. In 2016 several revitalization projects have already been completed. These include the park’s entrance space plus visitor centre and museum alongside the downtown beautification project; newly cobble stoned alcoves, beautiful public spaces to sit and enjoy the town, fresh paint on business fronts, abundant flower boxes ready for the season, and lofty plans for the future to come.

CHEMAINUS DOLLARS

Idealized by the Chemainus Monetary Fund in 2010, the Chemainus Dollar was created as a form of legal Canadian currency. Used successfully for many years, it was removed from circulations in 2021. The dollars have been made available as souvenirs to visitors alike. 

CHEMAINUS TODAY

Thriving as a small-town tourist destination, those who come are mesmerized by the local artistry that can be seen in everything throughout the town, not just the 50+ murals. Storefront windows hold local handmade objects and gifts, artisan food destinations dot the town, the parks are lovingly adorned with carvings in homage to our heritage, and a slew of festivals and events seen throughout the year all hold those artistic elements close. Keeping large chain businesses away, the authenticity of this town stays true to its values of being a small town. The dreams of what could be taking shape more and more every year.

Chemainus is a town where dreams do come true, and a town where daily life is truly idyllic.

If this is a place you would like to learn more about living in, please feel free to click here.