Every community on Vancouver Island displays its own distinctive character and charm, but few population centers demonstrate the creative and artistic energy exhibited on an ongoing basis by the Town of Chemainus. Often referred to as “The Little Town that Did” Chemainus has evolved from a rustic forestry community to one of the Island’s key artistic and visitor destinations.
What began as an isolated logging town in 1858 has grown and changed over the years, switching from a resource-based community into one powered by art, entertainment and tourism. That’s not to say the community has forgotten its forest sector roots – forestry and the myriad industries that support it continue to play a major role in the economy of the town and of the entire region. But it is as an artistic venue that Chemainus has made its presence felt most keenly in recent years.
Located about 30 minutes south of Nanaimo, Chemainus, with a current population of just over 3,000, is situated within the District of North Cowichan. The name Chemainus is believed to come from the First Nation name “Tsa-meeun-is” which means broken chest.
According to native legends, a powerful prophet and shaman survived a massive battle wound to later becoming an inspirational chief and leader of his people. To honor this almost miraculous event his people took his name to identify their entire community, becoming collectively known as the Stz’uminus First Nation (formerly known as the Chemainus Indian Band).
From a simple logging camp situated on Vancouver Island’s east coast, the town of Chemainus really began to grow when the railway first arrived in the region in the 1880’s. By the 1920’s the town had grown to more than 600, with forestry (based around a large scale sawmill) and the shipping of forestry products being among its major economic strengths.
But as the 20th Century progressed, and changing markets and technologies became the norm, the expansive MacMillan Bloedel sawmill was massively overhauled. Thanks to state-of-the-art technology the mill’s staff of more than 600 shrank to less than 150, having a potentially devastating impact on the town’s economy. That’s when vision and an artistic spirit of adventure began to change the town’s face and fortunes.
Capitalizing on the town’s idyllic seaside location and its distinctive downtown core, Chemainus began to evolve from a forestry town into a tourist center in the 1980s with the staging of the first Chemainus Festival of Murals in 1982. That first year five, of what would eventually become more than 40 murals began to adorn walls and structures throughout the community.
Typically depicting scenes from the town’s pioneering days – from its original First Nation’s inhabitants, to the earliest arrivals to its forestry glory days – the murals serve as beautiful reminders of the town’s past and showcase its enthusiasm for the future.
That artistic energy was further enhanced with the opening of the Chemainus Theatre in 1993. An elegant venue for professional theatre productions, the Chemainus Theatre has hosted hundreds of productions throughout the decades, with its 2020 lineup just the latest in its long and creative history.
Today the Town of Chemainus has become the go-to place for visitors from around the Island and across the world. Check it out for yourself when you have the time, the experience is well worth the journey.