CHEMAINUS, Vancouver Island, Canada, was a dying Canadian Town. Then it was resuscitated through its art program.

Ruth asked if I would like to visit Chemainus – like I knew what Chemainus was!!  So I said: “Let’s go!”

Off we go!

The Ferry

Next morning, we were in line for the ferry that would take us and the car from Gabriola Island across the Bay to the Nanaimo Ferry Terminal on Vancouver Island. Island time runs according to ferry time, what time the ferry arrives and what time it departs.


I compared the ferry crossings to the 101 freeway in California – except this was a water freeway and we were not left in “parking lots” unable to move because some maniac hit the center divider and spun around, causing the traffic to back up for miles.

The ferry is operated by BC Ferries and the crossing of three nautical miles takes about twenty minutes, but one must allow time to wait in line before embarking on the ferry.  Certain times of the day have less traffic, but at rush hour one must be in line early.

This is an efficient service, that operates like Swiss clockwork most of the time, the exception being bad weather. I was impressed how competent the men who work the ferries are and how quickly the cars are loaded and unloaded on and off the ferry because of the way they direct the traffic. Within ten minutes every car and every passenger were off the ferry and it was being prepared for its return journey.

Disembarking from the ferry at Nanaimo Ferry Terminal, it was a 45 minute drive before we arrived in Chemainus.

Center of downtown

The center of town, Chemainus.

This is a charming seaside town with a permanent population of about five thousand people swelling with tourists in the holiday season.  It reminded me of small seaside towns in England, with a couple of streets of antique and tourist shops and a generous number of places to eat.

There was a proliferation of flowers growing everywhere, not just in people’s gardens, but baskets with bushy petunias, fuchsia and lobelia suspended between pillars and half barrels overflowing with geraniums and trailing leaves in front of the stores along the sidewalks.

Early History of Prosperity

View of the Chemainus River and the logs waiting to be loaded on to vessels for export

Originally founded on timber and logging in the mid Nineteenth Century, Chemainus added the occupations of fishing and mining, giving jobs to the people who arrived to live here because of the growing job market.

First came the Chinese in the early 1800‘s, who were involved in the logging industry. They were extremely hardworking and poorly paid, performing the tough job of moving logs down the river and onto the ships waiting to take them overseas.

Mural showing early Asian townspeople

Another wave of Chinese arrived in the 1860’s to work on the Trans Canada Railroad, arduous work in a tough climate and poorly paid (how things have changed; today the Chinese are financing and building Railroads all over the world for other nations!).

Subsequently Japanese, East Indians, Scots and Germans came seeking wealth in the mines. Most of them did not fulfill their dream of becoming rich, but they stayed on to work in the forests and logging and on the fishing boats.

Homage to the First nations

Prior to the influx of immigrants, there had been a group of indigenous Fist Nations People, the Salish, living off the land  for hundreds of years. They had an organized trade network selling furs, tools and decorative items affording them a good living.  All these disparate groups melded together harmoniously, forming the population of Chemainus, contributing to its economy and culture.

The Decline

No one saw it coming, but in the early 1980’s the logging industry that had been the mainstay of the economy, collapsed due to shifting global conditions. Japan had been the predominant buyer of quality logs from Chemainus that were used in high-end construction.

A Chemainus mural

Due to a change in Asia’s demand, the Horseshoe Bay Lumber Mill of Chemainus went out of business. There was an oversupply of logs and no one to buy them.

Seven hundred people lost their jobs overnight with the closing of the mill and the result was devastating. Chemainus almost became a ghost town.

The logging industry did recover but never to the extent that it had originally dominated the town.  From the Water Wheel Square, one has a view of the river with the logs that have come downstream from the forests and are stored in the saltwater of the Bay, waiting to be loaded onto huge freighters that come into the harbor.

The mill today produces the highest quality knotless wood logs mainly for the Japanese market, filling a niche that was needed.  Rather than creating a surplus of logs as was done when the industry collapsed, only enough logs are cut to cover existing orders. The Mill owns the surrounding forests and they are environmentally conscious of their logging responsibilities.

The revitalized mill is the longest running sawmill operating on the same spot in the world today. Presently about one-third of the town’s population is employed in the logging industry so it is still very relevant to the town’s economy.

Enter the Dreamers

Rather than letting the town languish, the civic leaders courageously decided to diversify away from timber. Fortunately, a new young mayor, Graham Bruce, took the initiative, formed a committee and together they decided that tourism was the way to go to rebuild the economy.  A Downtown Revitalization Committee was formed, known as the “Group of Seven” – because it had seven members.

Dr Karl Schultz

One of the early dreamers, Dr. Karl Schultz

They contacted Dr. Karl Schulz, a resident of Chemainus who had ten years earlier suggested an arts project to attract tourists.  At that time, it was rejected outright but with the failing economy it was decided to look into it again.

Dr. Schulz arrived in Chemainus as a penniless German immigrant in 1951 seeking a better life. Trained as a tool and die maker in his native Heidelberg, Germany, he took a job on the railroads that passed through Chemainus, as did many other immigrants in search of a living.

Barely able to speak English and wanting to upgrade his employment, he visited the Horseshoe Bay Lumber Mill regularly to beg for a job. They laughed at his fractured English, but eventually he was employed in the machine shop sorting lumber at the Mill. He met and married another German immigrant, and five years later they opened a custom furniture business that did well. He invested in land purchases, and between his real estate investments and the success of the furniture manufacturing, he was able to retire at forty. He had achieved the Canadian dream.

Now in his eighties and still living Chemainus, Dr, Schulz is world-renowned for leading the movement to revitalize the heart and soul of communities worldwide. He has worked in sixty-one countries on more than one hundred projects consulting and offering similar programs and is known internationally for his contributions to Economic Development through Arts and Tourism.

He has written a book about the Chemainus Mural Project called: “Mural Magic, The Little town that Did, Chemainus BC.” He describes how that project transformed the town. Tours are available for visitors and “The Saw Mill Tour” as it is known has turned Chemainus into an international destination. Schulz is recognized as the genius behind the Chemainus Mural Project and revitalization.

These days, Dr. Schulz speaks, coaches and lectures internationally on this method to advance tourism through art.  Although he has been celebrated all over the world, perhaps his most treasured honor was being made an Honorary Member Emeritus of the Chemainus Festival of Mural Society where he was honored in 2014.

A Vision is Born

An early mural

On an overseas trip to Europe the Schulz’s visited Northern Moldavia and Romania. Dr. Schulz was impressed by the number of international tourists coming to visit the Monasteries and Churches, attracted by their hand painted frescoes and ornate decorations. This was his inspiration for the Mural Project that he would later develop for Chemainus: to attract tourists and revive the economy.

On returning from Europe, Dr. Schulz worked on a plan to install hand painted murals to represent the history of Chemainus, painted by recognized artists on the walls of the downtown buildings. This was to be real art, not graffiti.  His intention was to attract tourists through art, inspired by what he had seen in Europe.

At first his suggestion was ignored but ten years later, when Chemainus was in its economic death throes because of the mill closure and failing economy, his plan was reconsidered by the Mayor and Committee of Seven and given the go ahead.

A program was initiated to select well-known artists to draw wall size murals on the downtown buildings representing the history and culture of the town, its original industries, including forestry, logging and mining, fishing and building the railroad. It would embrace all the ethnic groups that made up the community, including the First Nations People – this would bring a whole new look to the town and hopefully attract attention.

Throughout the town as the plan unfolded, wall sized murals were painted on the walls of the buildings – not an easy task, as the walls were uneven with outlines of brickwork, external drainpipes, doorways and windows that had to be incorporated into the art. The result was an immensely interesting outdoor gallery.

Mural of the early days

It was anticipated that the murals would bring a new look to the town and attract attention in the way the Churches had done in Europe.

And did they ever!  In 1982 when the first murals were released, it attracted crowds, bringing fame to Chemainus and its murals.

Over the years, more murals have been added and there are now 40+ murals by famous artists that continue to attract attention.

The Subway franchise joins the mural brigade!

The benefits of the increased tourism gave the town a huge boost and revived its economy.  As the project was developed, more famous artists were involved, including Emily Carr. A celebrated Canadian artist, her murals were painted on canvas and then transferred to the wall. This one of the biggest attractions of all, due to her celebrity.

The Chemainus “Festival of Murals Society” continues to invite artists to paint new scenes for the remaining walls. After the “Tourism through Art” became a success, Dr. Schulz was recognized as the genius behind the transformative Chemainus Mural Project.

Chemainus, Canada
The Theatre, an imposing building in the downtown area.

The Theatre.

In 1982 a theatre was built that has further put Chemianus on the map with a Theatre Festival and continuous performances. Funding came mainly from donations and venture capital and a few private citizens who believed in the project and put their money where their mouths were.

The Theatre is part of the West Coast Campus of a drama school in Alberta and affords their students a place to perform with professional actors.  The Theatre is an imposing building in the downtown area.  It has a full-time accountant who manages the finances and the theatre programs that run all year.  It also has a “Theatre getaway package”, that includes overnight stays, bed and breakfast in one of the hotels and a tour of the Murals.

The Playbill Dining Room serves buffets and dinners with music and The Gallery Gift Shop sells original art and fine crafts, pottery, paintings, jewelry and clothing, books and sculpture bringing further revenue to support the theatre.

End of Tour

Waiting Ferry

Tour over, Ruth consulted “Ferry Time” and we made our way back to Nanaimo Ferry Terminal to catch the ferry to Gabriola Island. I could not stop thinking how one man’s “AHA! moment” rescued a small community from economic disaster. The Mural Project transformed a declining sawmill town into a cultural tourism destination, by using the arts to resuscitate the entire economy and life of this town and it citizens.

It is extraordinary, to think that a town of four thousand people can attract tourists from all over the world, through its mural art.

The visitor’s office gives out maps with information on the murals and is located on Water Wheel Square.  Now known as the Horseshoe Bay Lumber Mill Tour, named after the Horseshoe Bay Lumber Mill, one can see all the murals by trolley car, horse-drawn carriage or self-directed walking tour, following the yellow footprints on the sidewalk. Our visit revealed that almost every building has murals, encompassing all the people who made up the legacy of this town, as well as their occupations and the town’s history.

Tours leave from:

  • Chemainus Visitor’s Center.
  • 102-9799 Waterwheel Crecent
  • Chemainus BC VOR IKO
  • Canada.
  • Tel  250/246-3944

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the road less traveled