Chemainus—the Little Town That Did


By Marianne Scott

The approach to the Chemainus Municipal Dock from Stuart Channel is straightforward and is protected from all but strong northerly winds. The only obstacle may be some large log booms often anchored in the harbour. The Dock is immediately south of the B.C. ferry terminal; the ferry runs to Thetis- and Penelakut Islands. Harbourmaster Harmen Bootsma, who has been the cheerful, welcoming presence here for a couple of decades, is ready to catch your lines. For transient boaters, the Dock offers about 400 feet of moorage, along with showers and washrooms. Because of the town’s popularity, boats may be asked to raft. Some buoys are available in the Bay; you can dinghy to the beach or tie up and pay at the Dock.

Chemainus is eminently walkable. The Municipal Dock is centrally located, with the Salish Sea Market just a block away. From there the stores, cafes, restaurants and murals are in close proximity. All the restaurants and cafés are local; a bylaw prevents fast food chains from opening their doors. If you need to rejuvenate your boat legs, the Cowichan Valley Trail is accessible in town (from Garner Street); it’s a multi-use trail—part of the Trans Canada Trail and thus you can amble along for 67 kilometres!

We have always admired the spirit of Chemainus, a seaside village with about 3,000 residents that calls itself “The Little Town That Did.” The town has a long history with Coast Salish people living, hunting and fishing here for millennia. They named their tribe after a legendary chief, Tsa-meeun-is, a name that morphed into the moniker of the present community.

A Chemainus Shopping StreetA typical Chemainus shopping street

White settlers arrived in the region as early as 1859 and built a sawmill using a waterwheel that helped cut the huge logs into building materials. Logging and lumber—supplemented with fishing—provided employment and prosperity for about 120 years. In 1981, the town received provincial funding to give a facelift to its downtown area, but shortly thereafter, the sawmill closed and the town lost its most important job provider. Some specialty lumber enterprises do operate in the Chemainus area, but do not employ the large groups of the past.

In Tune With NatureIn Tune with Nature, by Kris Friesen, Chemainus’ latest mural addition with a working piano




Rather than slowly eroding or shutting down the town as many coastal communities were forced to do, residents and merchants banded together, and with drive and gumption, created the Festival of Murals Association. One by one, the flat surfaces of the town’s one and two-story buildings became canvases depicting local history in paint, and today 55 murals and 9 sculptures recreate the town’s past and present. Forty-four of the murals focus on the town’s history, Emily Carr has inspired five installations and the other six recognize community. The mural project has created a vibrant “art tourism,” and has become an inspiration to towns worldwide looking to reinvigorate themselves. The trademark mural, Native Heritage by Paul Ygartua, is at the town’s entrance (from the highway) and honours Indigenous people and heritage; the mural is flanked by carved poles and sculptures.

Resting in Front of the Steam TrainResting in front of the Steam Train On Bridge Over Chemainus River mural

Many of the other murals depict the forestry and shipping industry so important to the town’s past economy. Thus, Harold Lyon’s Logging with Oxen shows the slow plodding of these strong beasts dragging massive trunks. Harry Heine’s H.M.S. Forward portrays the ship’s 1863 arrival to search for the murderers of William Brady and the Marks family. The other murals can be seen on foot by following the yellow footsteps painted on the sidewalks around town. I saw a just unveiled mural under the eaves of the Chemainus Public Market, across from Waterwheel Park. Named In Tune with Nature, an actual piano has been painted to match the wide blue-dominated scene depicting a gray whale and a family of orcas, fringed by kelp. The mural was painted by Duncan-based artist Kris Friesen. Just as I approached this latest mural, a young girl perched on the stool and began playing the piano.

Waterwheel Park features a full-sized, red cedar replica of the original Chemainus waterwheel, and water still powers it. Next to it, a wood carving commemorates the timber industry, with its hand-sawn log, power winch and draught animal. A huge 500-year old red cedar stump shows the girth of the forests’ trees that once covered the region. The cedar had grown to a height of 200 feet with a width of 11 feet. The stump’s survival reveals how past fallers cut down a massive trunk. They cut notches that could support steel-edged planks a few feet above the roots; then two fallers stood on the planks on each side of a tree and using axes and double-bit saws, they’d manage to chop down even the largest trees.

Indigenous HeritageIndigenous Heritage by Paul Ygartua

The Chemainus Museum is also housed in the same square. It reveals much of the history of the town, with Indigenous art and artifacts, a host of early logging tools and their subsequent improvements, as well as household items from the families that once lived here. It’s located adjacent to the Chemainus Visitor Centre where you can pick up your mural map. A few steps further, a bronze statue pays tribute to H. R. MacMillan, whose forestry company, MacMillan Bloedel (known as “MacBlo”) was a long-term local employer. The company lost some of its luster when it became caught up in the protests against clearcutting the ancient Clayoquot temperate rainforests.

Chemainus’ streets are filled with small emporiums enticing visitors looking for art, antiques, beads, second-hand goods, clothing, or a bite to eat. Utopia is a Dutch/European bakery at 9780 Willow Street. I indulged in “krentebollen,” delicious buns with raisins reminding me of my childhood. I also bought some scrumptious “appel flaps,” reminiscent of apple turnovers. To make sure the boat was properly provisioned, I also brought along some traditional ginger cookies and whole grain bread. For those less interested in traditional Dutch baked goods, you can find donuts, pasties and meat pies at the Oak Street Chemainus Bakery on your way back to the marina.

We had lunch at the Owl’s Nest Bakery and Bistro and really liked the crispy croissant with egg salad with a side of fresh fruit. But as I walked further down the streets, I had to stop again and again to admire more murals.

Post Office
Post Office

One that caught my attention was the depiction of the first telephone company. It was housed in a private residence and run by the owner Daisy Bonde, assisted by telephone operator Sophia Horton. Painted by Cim MacDonald, we learn the telephone appeared in Chemainus in 1908, and had 30 customers. It’s hard to imagine how these two women would look at tiny smart phones today that can communicate with people and websites around the globe. Another favourite is the mural on the side of the Post Office. It features soldiers and those at home connected through the mail during the First World War. Entitled Lest We Forget, by David Goatley, it also portrays Lt. General Arthur Currie, commander at Vimy Ridge and red poppies. Another favourite is a reproduction of Emily Carr’s Big Raven by Cim MacDonald.

After enjoying the scenes and shops, I decided to check out Scoops that hand-crafts its own ice cream, and wandered over to one of the numerous benches at Waterwheel Square to enjoy it slowly. The ice cream was delicious.

Chemainus' First SawmillMural of Chemainus’ First Sawmill

Chemainus’ make-over didn’t stop with its murals and sculptures. It also invested in a new theatre, the Chemainus Theatre Festival, that attracts patrons from all over the region — 70,000 in 2019—the year before the pandemic. This is not a group of amateurs indulging in a hobby, but professional actors who produce live theatre year-round. The theatre itself, with 275 seats, is intimate and has excellent acoustics. There’s not a bad seat in the house. Over the years, we have enjoyed such plays and musicals as the Dunsmuirs – Alone at the Edge, a play documenting some of the 19th century problems of coal mining and greed on Vancouver Island. We have also attended first-class productions of South Pacific, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof, and I recommend you take advantage of these unique live theatre plays.

H.M.S. ForwardH.M.S. Forward by Harry Heine

Each time we’ve visited, we have indulged in the buffet in the Playbill Dining Room, held before the night’s performance. The buffer offers something to please every palate. We liked the Mongolian chicken, salmon bake and lamb stew as well as the many fresh salad selections. The desert table was laden with choices and attracted the biggest line-up, tempting diners with sweets ranging from apple pie to chocolate trifle.

The Telephone Company






The Telephone Company – Circa 1915, by Cim MacDonald

Chemainus is a delightful place to visit. It’s got a bit of everything, good places to eat, an intertwining of art and history, a fun place to shop for unique gifts and antiques. In contrast to the boating destinations that closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, or limited their marinas to locals only, Chemainus welcomes visitors as long as they follow the health precautions laid out for all British Columbians.


Chemainus Municipal Dock. Foot of Oak Street. Reservations recommended. VHF 66A. Day and overnight moorage, 30 & 50-amp power, water, washrooms, showers, garbage drop, pump-out and Wi-Fi. Call or text the marina at (250) 246-4655, or Harbourmaster Harmen Bootsma at 250-715-8186, or email him at harmen.chemainus.munimarina@gmail.com. Phone calls are best. Bootsma invites boaters to come, stay at the marina and spend time and money in town. “We rely on boaters to support the coastal communities as they travel along the coast,” he said. “Covid-19 has impacted our town. Come and stay a while.”

By the BayBy the Bay – Inspired by Emily Carr

The Older GenerationsThe Older Generations by Barrie Shaw-Rimmington

Mooring buoys. At the entrance of the bay, eight mooring buoys are available. Each buoy can handle a single boat up to 45-foot. Pay at the Chemainus Municipal Dock office or by leaving $ in the mail slot.

Due to Covid 19, the buffet dinner and a play at the Chemainus Theatre were cancelled for the 2020 season. The theatre hopes to reopen in 2021. Check for updates and programs at chemainustheatrefestival.ca/.

The Public Market is open daily and sells artisan products, local produce, baked goods and antiques. It’s located on the square by Waterwheel Park and inside the former grocery store.

The shops and restaurants are open as long as physical distancing is maintained.

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