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Chemainus British Columbia

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Murals and Musicals

There’s good reason why the town of Chemainus on Vancouver Island is known as The Little Town That Did. After all, it almost became British Columbia’s newest ghost-town…

The Chemainus Theatre

Since 1858, this small community was known as a thriving centre for mining, fishing and forestry. Thanks to the arrival of the railroad the population of the area had inflated to 600 by the early 1920s. By this time, forestry had become the backbone of the area’s economy. But by the early 1980s the province was in the grip of an ugly recession. And as the mill closed, as the lifeblood of this town of 4 thousand dried up, a tragic end seemed inevitable for Chemainus. Enter Mayor Graham Bruce, a young visionary who envisioned an unconventional if not effective way to save his community, which had been proposed by Karl Schutz 10 years earlier. What followed was one of the most successful revitalization projects of any town in the history of Canada… The vision of Bruce and Schultz was this: to turn the faltering town of Chemainus into an exhibition of outdoor murals, painting every available wall with large, colourful pictures that celebrated the rich and beautiful heritage of the area and the industries that originally gave it life. Local artists as well as artists from across the globe congregated to realize this dream. By 1982, the first five murals were created. Today, the town boasts 44 murals and 12 sculptures which, in the early days, attracted over 400,000 visitors annually (and is still very popular), who enjoy the art both through walking and heritage horse-drawn carriage tours. This little mill town didn’t just survive – it boomed. The Little Town That Did is now undergoing another revitalization to boost it into the next phase of it’s life.

Today, this al fresco gallery has helped sustain over 300 businesses from antique shops to restaurants by turning this once dying town into a thriving tourist destination. And interestingly enough, the name Chemainus originates from the name of a First Nations shaman and prophet named Tsa-meeun-is, a name which translates as Broken Chest. According to legend, this hero survived a terrible chest wound to become a great chief – a metaphor for the town of Chemainus’ against-all-odds survival.

Chemainus Mural featuring striking Native Portraits

Chemainus has a population of 5 thousand residents but enjoys many visitors yearly, thanks in part to its proximity to the provincial capital city of Victoria, only 80 kilometers south. One of the most famous tourist-oriented businesses that has prospered from the Chemainus mural renaissance is the Chemainus Theatre – an institution whose Italianate-styled building is noticeable the moment one drives into town. The lobby’s domed rotunda is just the beginning of this impressive and entertaining experience. Imagine being greeted by melodic musical accompaniment as your senses are assailed by the aromas of a gourmet buffet dinner wafting from the Playbill Dining Room. Imagine browsing through the wares of 100-plus British Columbia artisans at the Gallery Gift Shop… enjoying the magnificent art as you ascend the spiral staircase to the upper lobby. Picture dining to the accompaniment of live music, treating yourself to delectable morsels from the dessert bar then enjoying some of the best theatre in the country in the intimate 273-seat theatre.

A beautiful mural of a maiden waiting for a ship to return

But there’s much more to Chemainus than its amazing murals and exquisite theatre. Outdoor enthusiasts can make fishing or swimming memories at Fuller Lake Park, only a 3-minute walk from Chemainus as well as the idyllic Waterwheel Park or catch a few rays at Clark or Kin Beach. Day trips or even overnight camping excursions to the Gulf Islands of Thetis and Kuper are also possible courtesy of the BC Ferry terminal located in the centre of town that’s serviced by a small car and passenger ferry. And if scuba diving’s your passion, experience the unforgettable subterranean adventure of exploring the artificial reef that is a sunken Boeing 737!

Chemainus has a relaxed side, too. Amble down Willow Street and sample the amazing ice cream at the legendary ice cream parlour. Browse through the antique and collectables shops that showcase the Island’s finest pottery and native art. Stroll through the numerous gift shops and art galleries.

Main Street in Chemainus

The rich Chemainus heritage is accessible to visitors via several events and venues. The small Weyerhauser Mill is a high-tech tribute to the town’s earlier days, making high grade wood to order and offering tours of the entire process. The Chemainus Valley Museum provides a veritable parade of the mill town’s early archives. On the last weekend in June, the Festival of Murals celebrates the art that saved this community with outdoor theatre, puppetry, music, arts & crafts and folk dancing.

For the avid golfer, the Mount Breton Golf Club provides all the challenges and excitement of any excellent par-71 golf course.

Chemainus is something special. You get the big picture…


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