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BC Archives image of the Chemainus Saw Mill

Chemainus saw mill
Chemainus hospital
Chemainus city sign
Chemainus docks
Chemainus mural
Chemainus theatre

Chemainus
South of Nanaimo

Founded in 1858, Chemainus was already a prominent First Nations village, and quickly became the most prosperous logging town on Vancouver Island. The construction of a mill in 1862 brought even more jobs to the region, and extraction, sawing, processing and shipping of the lumber were all handled out of the town, generating income and jobs for over 500 people. When the Chemainus sawmill closed in 1983, many thought the one-company economy would collapse, but the citizens and town council of Chemainus quickly initiated revival planning, and commissioned the murals for which the town is famous. The subsequent tourism boom built up the town, and now over 5,000 people live in “the little town that did.”

Settlement

Coordinates: 48°55’N 123°43’W

By the 1850s, the burgeoning logging industry on Vancouver Island was beginning to demand more extraction and processing ability than was currently available on the largely unsettled central island. In response, the town of Chemainus was settled in 1858 in order to provide support for the logging industry in the area. The sawmill, which was to operate for more than 100 years, was completed in 1862, and Chemainus quickly became the hub of log processing on the east coast of Vancouver Island. The ability to strip, cut, stack, and ship the boards out of one town was unprecedented on Vancouver Island, and by 1920, over 600 people lived in the town

Middle History

As lumber exports from Canada became more popular, the industry continued to grow. The Chemainus Mill operated at capacity for much of the early 20th century, with reductions in capacity occurring while many men took part in WWI and WWII. By the time the Second World War finished, the mill was over 80 years old, and was showing its age. More modern mills had been built in the area, and production in Chemainus was declining. Despite this, the sawmill continued to run, still providing the majority of the employment in the community of now over a thousand people.

In 1983, after more than 120 years of operation, the mill shut down for good, leaving the century old town without a primary industry or employer. Houses went up for sale, and people began to leave the town, but some quick thinking on the part of the community and town council resulted in a one of a kind investment project. Chemainus commissioned artists to paint the history of the town on the walls of the buildings, the largest mural painting project undertaken in Canada at one time. The murals, still being completed to this day, turned the potential ghost town into a bustling tourist attraction, and they are now known world wide.

Present Day

Since the painting of the murals, the town has grown to over 5,000 people, over 300 businesses have opened, and the community has secured its place in BC history well into the future. The murals have become a major tourist attraction, with many travel companies offering tours specifically to see them, and the four million dollar Chemainus Dinner Theatre, opened in 1993, provides another draw for the community, hosting world class performances in their 274 seat theatre.

Chemainus’ picturesque seaside setting and small-town appeal has also made it one of the more prominent retirement communities on Vancouver Island, with a sizeable percentage of its population over the age of 55. Located halfway between Duncan and Nanaimo, Chemainus is easily accessible off of highway 19.

 

Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.