The area around Smithers, called the Bulkley Valley, has been home to the Wet’suwet’en people for thousands of years. In fact a 1997 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that they have the Indigenous title to the area. The name Wet’suwet’en roughly translates as People of the lower hills.
Throughout Smithers today, you can find Wet’suwet’en artwork in the downtown core of the community, including a stunning totem pole display at the Coast Mountain College campus.
The founding of Smithers came about thanks to the railroad, as with so many other places in Canada. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was being built and there was the plan to have two major divisional points in British Columbia in 1913. Prince George was chosen as the first divisional point, but a second one was needed. After going through various options, news came that there would be a second divisional point built in the Bulkley Valley. Developers and speculators then believed that the divisional point would be built five kilometres east of Telkwa, in a place called Bulkley by developers. The speculators began to promote the area as a future city and a major trade centre, even though the spot had not been chosen yet by the railroad. What the speculators had not considered was that 15 kilometres to the west of Telkwa, at the foot of Hudson Bay Mountain, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway established its headquarters in a new town that would be named Smithers, after Sir Alfred Smithers, the chairman of the board for the company.
The Vancouver Daily World would state quote:
“Smithers was selected after a most thorough study of the great empire traversed by the Grand Trunk Pacific, not only as the most suitable spot for railway operation, but as the only logical place for a city of importance.”
That same year, the railway commission approved the new site to be the second divisional point. By April 1913, surveying had begun and by August 100 of 160 acres for the townsite and railyards had been cleared. The rail reached the area in July, and the first passenger train arrived in October. As soon as the first passenger train came through, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway began selling plots. People quickly began to stream in, but they soon found that it was not easy to build at the townsite due to the subsoil being layers of quicksand and clay, requiring pile driving for building foundations. They would complain to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway but the railroad company did little to remedy any concerns. Landscape architects would design the street layout in a design created to accommodate upwards of 10,000 residents. For decades, the community would follow the initial layout created when Smithers was first founded. By 1914, Smithers had two newspapers, two banks, three churches, a hotel, several stores, a telephone and electrical system, six rooming houses, five restaurants, four stores, a doctor, dentist, hardware store, two lumber yards and much more. At this time, and for decades to come, the railroad would be the largest employer in the entire community.
In order to keep up with the building boom, the Seymour Lake Lumber Company was established, producing 10,000 feet of lumber every single day.
In 1913, the St. James Anglican Church was constructed by residents of Smithers and for the next 60 years it would serve as the spiritual centre for the community, as well as the main location for community events in Smithers. In 1975, the parish would move to a new home and the church was left empty and soon fell into disrepair. Thankfully, it was not demolished and in 2005, the building was restored and turned into a community hall. From that point, the church would become an important part of the community, hosting weddings, lectures, parties, meetings and more. You can see the church to this day, arguably the oldest building in the entire community.
In 1914, an event would spur on the growth of Smithers when Telkwa, a town near to Smithers, was hit by a terrible fire that destroyed 13 downtown buildings. This would cause many business owners to relocate to Smithers. By this point, Smithers had 125 permanent buildings and 700 residents. Developers expected the community to have 5,000 people by 1915 but the population would actually fall to 350 by 1918, and rebound only slightly to 520 in 1920. It would not be until 1991 that the town would reach 5,000 people.
In 1915, a temporary train station was built and four years later in 1919, a new and permanent train station was built. This new two-and-a-half storey building became a defining structure in the community, and was rare for being a custom-designed station by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. This was also the largest train station built in northern British Columbia. This building remains in the community to this day and is the second oldest building in Smithers. For its importance to Smithers and the surrounding area, it would be made a Heritage Railway Station in 1989.
In December of 1921, Smithers became the first incorporated village in British Columbia. The Interior News would report quote:
“Smithers is now officially declared a village under the Village Incorporation Act and the ship of state of this community emerges from the placid inland waters into the sea of the unknown, and whether her course will be tempestuous and her progress barred by rocks in the uncharted channels is right up to the people of Smithers who are now members of the crew of that ship.”
In 1921, Smithers would go through two nearly disastrous fires. The first would cause $10,000 in damages and was contained at the power plant and the cold storage plant. Then, only a few months later two hotels burned to the ground. While both of these fires were tragic for the buildings lost, the quick work of residents and firefighters kept the fires from getting out of control.
In 1930, there would be a sudden bit of gold fever in Smithers when gold was found in the Glacier Gulch, about five kilometres to the west of Smithers. This quickly sparked up mining attention in the area as prospectors began to arrive in the hopes of finding gold. The Vancouver Sun would report quote:
While there would be no Klondike Gold Rush to Smithers, mining and the search for gold and other minerals would become a major economic driver for the community for decades to come.
An issue from Smithers would reach the British Columbia Legislature in March of 1932 when Stephen Hoskins was let go from public employment as a government agent after 30 years, losing the salary he had relied on for years.
The Vancouver Sun would state quote:
“Practically every resident of the district, regardless of political affiliation or religious belief, had signed a petition protesting against this action.”
There was no suggestion of inefficient work, or failure to perform his duty. Dr. H.C. Wrinch, the MLA for the area took this issue to the Legislature, stating that Watt had been let go so that a friend of a government official could be given the job instead. He would say quote:
“This was a remarkable and unjust method of rewarding party friends.”
Unfortunately, it seemed to fall on deaf ears and nothing more was heard about the issue.
In 1973, Smithers would get a new mascot in the form of Alpine Al, a seven-foot tall structure carved from a chainsaw that featured a man with a long alpine horn to welcome residents into the community.
The resolution from the town stated quote:
It was adopted as a symbol of the new alpine theme of the community. The statue would soon become a symbol and mascot of the community. Unfortunately, time would take its toll on the structure, which resulted in a fibreglass coating in 1996. It was then replaced in 2016 with a new seven-foot statue that was carved from a 1,000-year-old red cedar.
Smithers has also made its mark on television and in movies. Eight Below starring Paul Walker and Jason Biggs was partially filmed in the community, as was The Grey starring Liam Neeson. The Comedy Network show Alice, I Think was set in Smithers, and Smithers was referenced on the show How I Met Your Mother.
If you would like to learn more about Smithers, you can visit the Buckley Museum in the community. This museum preserves historical artifacts from the community’s history. First established in 1967, the museum has over 3,400 items that date back over a century in Smither’s history. There is also the St. James Anglican Church maintained by the museum that I mentioned earlier in the episode, which is a centerpiece of the community and continues to be used this day. There is also the self-guided walking tour that will take you along a route that highlights the history of some of Smithers’ oldest buildings. You can find a guide online and at the museum and town office. It is a great way to spend a sunny day and to learn about the history of the community first-hand. I will close out this episode by looking at an interesting fact of Smithers. Despite its small population, it has produced a surprising number of NHL players. Joe and Jimmy Watson would play for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1973-74 and 1974-75, both winning the Stanley Cup with the team, while Jimmy would appear in five All-Star Games and played for Team Canada at the 1976 Canada Cup, often considered the best team ever assembled. Joe would appear in two All-Star Games and both brothers are members of the Flyers Hall of Fame. It doesn’t stop there though. Alan Kerr played for the New York Islanders, Detroit Red Wings and Winnipeg Jets, while Dan Hamhuis played for Nashville, Vancouver and Dallas and won gold with the 2014 Canadian Olympic Team. Michael Wall played for Colorado and Ron Homenuke played for the Vancouver Canucks. Lastly, there is Ron Flockhart, who played in the NHL from 1980 to 1991, playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues.