100 Years of Smithers’ Main Street
On March 28, 1913 the Smithers Interior News announced, “The board of Railway Commissioners at Ottawa has approved of the station site at ‘Smithers,’ the second divisional point East of Prince Rupert, Mile 226.5… The townsite will be for sale in August 1913…” Like so many other whistle-stops along the railway, Smithers was named for a director of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GPT). Sir Alfred Waldron Smithers, as chairman of the board of the railway at the time, had the honour of having the flat, swampy land at the base of Hudson Bay Mountain named after him.
In 1913 there were Wet’sewet’en living throughout the wider area, pioneer farmers were homesteading in the valley, and miners had established claims nearby. Aldermere, Telkwa and Hubert were existing settlements, and Prince Rupert was a well-established coastal city. But Smithers in 1913 was just a swamp. When the GTP decided upon Smithers as the switching point for steam engines and transferring of freight and passengers, they knew the divisional point would mean a settlement of significance. Settlers, entrepreneurs and prospective land-owners had been awaiting the announcement, knowing that where freight was exchanged and passengers had to spend a night there would be stores, hotels, homes and ultimately a guaranteed investment.
Bulkley Valley Museum curator Michelle Reguly explains that Smithers was laid out in typical railway fashion with the large train station forming the end of a wide main street. During this time, town planners were laying out streets to accommodate the traffic of the day. We have the six- and eight-horse teams to thank for our wide Main Street today, as planners had to allow for parking and turning around of horses and wagons.
Smithers’ Main Street was the focus of significant investor attention. Prior to town lots going on sale, entrepreneurs had moved to the swamp and conducted business out of shacks and canvas tents.
“It was muddy and wet,” says Reguly. “Ditches were dug to try to drain the water table.” A massive ditch referred to as ‘The Grand Canal’ ran the entire length of Main Street. “In places it was over four feet deep.” Boardwalks kept people out of the mud, and planks allowed them to cross the ‘Canal.’
Museum records tell of brides arriving from afar, alone or with children in tow, to be reunited with their husbands. They had left behind trolleys or cobblestone streets, only to step off the train and see the wide mud track that was Main Street, with just a scattering of tents and buildings. Despite the shock, many women stayed, settled into their newly constructed homes and helped to literally build the town.
The land was so marshy that foundations could only be laid by driving piles deep into the ground, sometimes one on top of another. According to R. Lynn Shervill in Smithers, From Swamp to Village, the old post office at Main and Third rests on two sets of pilings, each 60 feet in length.
The buyers and builders were a hot topic, and local newspapers reported on the rapid progress of construction. Just two months after lots went on sale in Smithers, Hazelton’s Omenica Miner wrote, “...over three hundred men are engaged in erecting permanent buildings…twenty-five blocks in the business centre have been cleared.” There was a sawmill at this time, the Seymour Lake Lumber Company, that was reputed to be turning out 10,000 feet of lumber every day to keep up with the building boom. Smithers went from swampy land with canvas tents and shacks to what the Omenica Miner described in October 1913 as “the best district in British Columbia.” Very quickly the purchased lots on Main Street were made into cafés such as the Oyster Bay Café; accommodations like James Girling’s large rooming house and the Carr Brothers’ grand Bulkley Hotel; and Dr. C.G. MacLean’s medical building.
Just one month later, the newspaper reported:
Smithers now possesses graded streets, sidewalks, a post office, six rooming houses, five restaurants, four general stores, two churches, two newspapers, a bank, doctor, dentist, drugstore, hardware store, sawmill, planing mill, two lumber yards, plumber, sheet iron worker, sign works, three contracting firms, two laundries, two poolrooms, livery stable, meat market, electrical supply, shoe shop, two real estate firms, etc.
100 years later… One hundred years have passed, and Smithers’ Main Street is now paved, with four-way stops and wide sidewalks, benches and shrubs. The train station remains trackside but it is obscured behind the more modern (and many say unattractive) courthouse building. Few of the original buildings remain—most were lost to fires which destroyed entire sections of the street through the years. (For example, in 1921 a fire spread through two adjacent hotels on Alfred Avenue, just off Main. As Shervill tells us, “both buildings were levelled by fire despite the fact that almost every citizen of the town and even a trainload of GTP passengers joined in the fight to save the two wooden structures.”)
Organizers are busy planning celebration festivities for the 2013 centennial. Gladys Atrill, chair of Smithers Centennial Committee, says there are three major 2013 events: a New Years welcome night, a history of hockey to take place in July, and the Homecoming Week events of August 2-10—seven days and nights of socializing and celebrating the past 100 years in Smithers.
It is fitting that some of these celebrations will be focused on Main Street, where a former vacant lot is being revitalized. “The site will be a year-round gathering place with a permanent outdoor stage,” says Atrill. The committee and town are looking at this corner-lot revitalization as a legacy for the next 100 years. The gathering place will be officially opened during the August homecoming week, with plans for daily entertainment.
Reguly agrees that the Main Street was and still is an important part of what makes Smithers unique. As part of the Smithers 2013 centennial year the BV Museum will be exhibiting a timeline of Smithers and reproducing a 1930’s Main Street map. “Look how far we’ve come!” she says. “The Smithers centennial is great, and we should celebrate!”