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.
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 ©.
A Sampling of Murals
The murals depict the town’s history and culture.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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