Culture and history is literally around every corner in Chemainus.
"The Little Town That Did" is internationally celebrated for its more than 40 large-scale murals depicting the Cowichan First Nations, European exploration and settlement, fur trading, railway development, and more.
Cowichan First Nations
The Cowichan First Nations, a multi-tribe branch of the Coast Salish, lived off the land and sea here for millennia. Chemainus is an anglicized version of "Tsa-mee'-nis," the name of a band that lived at the mouth of what is now the Chemainus River.
European Settlement and Industry
Spanish explorers arrived in 1791 and trading began with the Hudson Bay Company in the 1820s. The first European settlers cleared land here in 1858. Four years later a water-driven sawmill was operating at the edge of Horseshoe Bay, the deep-water port on the town's south-east side that in time would be home to a succession of increasingly large lumber mills. Chinese immigrants (aka "The Bull Gang") were a major part of the local work force.
A library and hospital had been established by 1904 as Henry Croft and other miners excavated iron ore from the rocky ground. Lumber remained the town's lifeblood, however. When the mill was on the verge of closing in the early 1980s, local residents turned to tourism as a means to create jobs and save the town. The award-winning mural program was what Chemainus needed to survive and prosper.
Images of First Nations people, maritime adventurers, steam engines crossing trestle bridges, pioneer settlers, and town legends like the Chinese merchant and bootlegger Hong Hing adorn almost every available brick wall locally. The Chemainus Festival of Murals Society continues to invite artists to paint new wallscapes and has launched a series of reproductions of paintings by famed Vancouver Island artist Emily Carr.
Follow the yellow sidewalk footprints on a self-guided tour of the murals. Or join a highly entertaining mural walkabout that departs regularly from the centre throughout the summer. Guided tours are also available via horse-drawn carriage and the Chemainus Express, a blue and orange trolley car fashioned after a steam engine. Both depart from Waterwheel Park.
For more information on the region's social history, check out the Chemainus Valley Museum or drop into the Olde School House Museum for insights into the timber and mining history of nearby Crofton.