Murals and More in Chemainus

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Chemainus British Columbia is known as Muraltown

The vibrant murals and charm of Vancouver Island’s “Muraltown”

The town of Chemainus, located in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island’s East Shore, is known as “Muraltown”. This charming town, with a population of about 4,000, has over 40 large and vivid murals scattered throughout town.

About Chemainus

Chemainus, British Columbia is known as "Muraltown"

The area around Chemainus, British Columbia has been the home of the Coast Salish for thousands of years. The current town was founded in 1858. Mining, fishing and forestry were the original industries. A sawmill opened in 1862. The community soon became dependent on a single employer.

In 1981, the town started a downtown revitalization project with the aid of a province-wide redevelopment fund. Planters and benches were installed and public spaces and parking lots improved. There were five murals in 1982.

In 1983, the sawmill shut down and the the town faced an uncertain future. Residents wanted to hold onto their roots in the town and continued with the beautification of downtown. The Chemainus Festival of Murals was born. Murals were painted on the outside of buildings to draw tourists to town. Even though the mill was rebuilt and reopened in 1985, the murals led to a more diversified economic base and brought other services and tourist activities to town. Today Chemainus is a picturesque, creative community with galleries, shops and cafés. The town has trademarked itself as The Little Town That Did ©.

Chemainus British Columbia, the Town of Murals

A Sampling of Murals

The murals depict the town’s history and culture.

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): Native Heritage by Paul Ygartua
Native Heritage by Paul Ygartua

Native Heritage is based on figures from the past and present. A dozen bands of Cowichan people, part of the Coast Salish language group, occupied the Cowichan and Chemainus Valleys for many centuries before Europeans settled here.

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): 1884 Chinese Bull Gang by Ernet Marza
1884 Chinese Bull Gang by Ernest Marza

Many Chinese came to Canada’s west coast in the 1800s as labourers. Some settled in Chemainus to work in the lumber industry. In the mural 1884 Chinese Bull Gang, a Chinese bull gang struggle to move a large timber to a ship. (“Bull gang” is a term for a crew of unskilled labourers.)

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): part of The Thirty-Three Metre Collage, section by Frank Lewis and Nancy Lagana
The Thirty-Three Metre Collage features mural by three artists. The centre section by Frank Lewis and Nancy Laguna shows a boom man sorting logs. The mill is portrayed as it was in 1892.
Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): Lenora Mines at Mt Sicker by Peter Bresnen
Lenora Mines at Mt Sicker by Peter Bresnen

In 1897, Harry Smith and a partner staked the famous Lenora copper claim, named after Smith’s only daughter. Mt. Sicker grew to 400 people. The mine closed in 1907 when copper prices plummeted. By 1908, Mt. Snicker was virtually a ghost town.

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): The Hong Hing Waterfront Store by Paul Marcano
The Hong Hing Waterfront Store by Paul Marcano

In 1915, Fong Yen Lew, known as Hong Hing, opened a business which started as a laundry, but later sold groceries, chickens and second-hand goods. He eventually expanded into bootlegging and running a gambling house. The opening of a government liquor store in the 1950s was the beginning of the end of the business. The original building was declared a fire trap and demolished. This mural looked so real I almost wanted to walk up the steps and into the building.

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): The Company Store by Dan Sawatzky
The Company Store by Dan Sawatzky shows the interior of Victoria Lumber & Manufacturing Co. Ltd store, circa 1917
Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): The Winning Float by Joyce H. Kamikura
The Winning Float by Joyce K. Kamikura

The Winning Float depicts an event from June 30, 1939 when the Japanese-Canadian community had the winning float in a record-breaking parade which stretched over one kilometre. The parade marked the start of a two-day celebration for the Golden Jubilee of the Victoria Lumber & Manufacturing Co. Ltd. By 1942, there was not a single Japanese-Canadian resident left in the community due to the forcible relocation to internment camps during World war II.

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): The World in Motion by Alan Wylie
The World in Motion by Alan Wylie is a montage of historic buildings and events between 1883 and 1939. The mural stretches for over 100 feet along Chemainus Road.
Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): The Keeper of Secrets by Paul Marcano
The Keeper of Secrets by Paul Marcano

In additional to the historic murals, there are also a series of murals inspired by Emily Carr, such as The Keeper of Secrets. The raven is an important symbol in First Nations cultures of the Northwest Coast. Known as the Keeper of Secrets, the raven possessed knowledge of hunting and the world and shared these with First Nations peoples. The inset in the mural by Paul Marcano is a reproduction of Emily Carr’s Big Raven. Emily Carr was a writer and artist from Victoria, British Columbia. She lived from 1871 to 1945. Her main themes were First Nations cultures and the western landscape. She was an independent woman dedicated to her art. She travelled frequently and unaccompanied to isolated First Nations villages, something not typically done by women in that time period.

There are also a few sculptures in town, like the Waterwheel Sculpture by Karl Schulz shown in the photo at the top of this post. It is working replica of the original Chemainus waterwheel. The sculpture I liked the most was Three Generations by Sandy Clark. It is a set of three fibreglass figures with a painted backdrop behind them.

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): Three Generations Sculpture by Sandy Clark
Three Generations Sculpture by Sandy Clark

More to See and Do

Chemainus is walkable. There are a number of galleries and interesting shops to browse through, and cafés, bistros and bakeries to stop at for refreshment. We had a delicious lunch at Owl’s Nest Bakery and Bistro, but that is not your only option. There are a number of varied dining places.

Funky art in a Chemainus bistro
I loved this funky piece of art in the Bistro
Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): Old Town
Street leading into “Old Town”

In Old Town Chemainus, which is just a few blocks from  the downtown core, you’ll find a variety of Victorian homes. You will also find more shops and restaurants and murals.

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown): Oak Street
Oak Street in Old Town

Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown):

"Secret Garden" in Murals in Chemainus, British Columbia (Muraltown)
And we discovered this “Secret Garden” off Willow Street

Visitor Information

Chemainus is 80 kilometres north of Victoria. You take the Trans-Canada Highway (BC) north for approximately 75 kilometres and turn off at Henry Road which connects to Highway 1A into Chemainus. The drive will take about an hour and a quarter. You can get maps of the murals at the Visitor Centre at 9799 Waterwheel Crescent. Or you can use the information provided on the Chemainus Festival Of Murals Society site. Or you can just wander through town following the yellow footprints.

Path to the murals in MuralTown - Chemainus, British Columbia

Footprints lead you to murals in MuralTown - Chemainus, British Columbia
And then stop and take a good look at a mural when the footprints tell you to

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    1. Susan, I think murals on buildings are becoming more prevalent in general, but few towns go into it in as big a way as Chemainus.

  1. I’ve been enjoying the public art posts. I’m sure these murals are even more impressive when you can stand before them and appreciate their size.

    1. Ken, some murals are quite large. I couldn’t easily get the whole mural in a photograph.

  2. I love public art, especially murals, and it has become more of a “thing” world wide. In my home city of Philadelphia there is a vibrant mural arts program which is active even in blighted areas. It was started as a very successful anti-graffiti initiative in 1984 and the city now boasts over 3,600 murals. From your post, it looks like Chemainus has done a good job of reinvention via the mural art form.

    1. Suzanne, I agree that murals have became more of “thing” world wide, which is pretty cool. I don’t think there were as popular when Chemainus started doing them in the 1980s.

    1. Karen, the Native Heritage was one of my favourites too. Also, the Hong Hing Waterfront Store. When I first looked at that one, it looked like that was actually the storefront, not a mural.

  3. I love murals. I heard about Chemainus when I was writing an article about our murals here in Vancouver, WA.

  4. Lovely and what a story behind “The Little Town That Did.” It’s obvious that the town is thriving! I was especially interested in your comment that Canada also had internment camps for its citizens of Japanese heritage. I’m sure that there are many fascinating stories – sad, ugly and inspiring – behind each mural. Anita

    1. Anita, there are certainly stories of all kinds behind each mural. I think it’s worth taking some time to find them – it makes the mural experience richer.

  5. I’ll have to keep Chemainus on my list since it’s within a doable vacation drive for me. I always love public art, and it’s even better when it so directly ties into the spirit of a community.

    1. Jeri, the entire Cowichan Valley and the Victoria area has a lot of great places to visit and things to do – scenic places, wineries, etc. If you wind up going, get in touch beforehand and I can offer a number of suggestions.

  6. Chemainus reminds me of Bellingham, Washington, which also has a logging history (for a paper mill, in Bellingham’s case). The Native American themes and historical subjects of the murals you’ve shown here are similar to some of the murals in Bellingham.

    1. Rachel, I’ve not been to Bellingham. I will have to check the murals out when I do get there.

  7. There’s a big mural as you enter Mt Lebanon from Pittsburgh. I’m intrigued by murals and how an artists keeps his/her perspective while working on something so huge. This sounds like a fun town to wander through.