October 14th, 2016.

CHEMAINUS, Vancouver Island, Canada, how a dying Canadian Town 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 !!



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 divide 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 has to allow time to wait in line before embarking on the ferry.  Certain times of the day have less traffic, but at rush hour one has to 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 was off the ferry and it was being prepared for its return journey



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



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, fuschia and lobelia suspended between pillars and half barrels overflowing with geraniums and trailing  leaves in front of the stores along the sidewalks.



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

Originally founded on timber and logging in the mid Nineteenth Century, Chemainus added the occupations of fishing and mining, all of which gave 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.  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.  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, who had an organized trade network selling furs, tools and decorative items that afforded them a good living.  All these disparate groups melded together harmoniously, forming the population of Chemainus,  contributing jointly to its economy.

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.   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.

Rather than letting the town languish,  the civic leaders courageously decided to diversify out of 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.

 They connected with 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 dye 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 would visit the Horseshoe Bay Lumber Milll regulalarly to beg for a job, where they would laugh at his fractured  English.  Eventually he  was employed in the machine shop sorting lumber at the Mill.   During this time he met and married another German immigrant and five years later they opened a custom furniture business  that did very well.  He invested in land 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,

On an overseas trip to Europe where 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.



One of the many murals in the town of Chemainus.

On returning from Europe, Dr. Schulz worked on a plan to instal hand painted murals, that would  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 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 orignal industries, including forestry, logging and mining, fishing and building the railroad  that 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 drain pipes, doorways and windows that had to be incorporated into the art. The result was an immensely interesting outdoor gallery.

 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.



A selection of  murals found n the walls in Chemainus.

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 forty plus murals by famous artists that continue to attract attention.



Murals on canvas  by Emily Carr.

 The benefits of the increased tourism gave the town a huge boost that revived its economy.    As the project was developed, more famous artists were involved, including  Emily Carr, the most celebrated Canadian artist and her murals, painted on canvas and then transferred to the wall have been the biggest attraction 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.



The Subway Franchise has to be the most unusual presentation of a Subway in the world !!



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 mouth was.  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 include 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, jewlery and clothing, books and sculpture bringing further revenue to support the theatre.



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”  descrbing 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.



Logs having been brought downstream for loading onto ships.

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 salt water of the Bay, waiting to be loaded onto huge freighters that come into the harbor. The mill 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 saw mill 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.



The Water Wheel.

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  “a-ha moment”  had liberated a small community from economic disaster through the Mural Project. turning a declining saw mill town into a cultural tourism destination, 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.



One of the murals.

The visitors office  gives out maps with information on the murals and is located on Water Wheel Square.  Now known as the Horseshoe BayLumber 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


Tel  250/246-3944


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