Sir Alfred Smithers never laid eyes on the town that now bears his name.
The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway board director was based in his homeland of England and, although he did visit Canada, he never made it to the company’s “divisional headquarters” of Smithers.
But last month, more than 100 years after Smithers adopted his name, a local man came face-to-face with the town’s namesake when he received a surprising parcel from Farnham, England.
The package was addressed to Kerry Guenter, a Bulkley Valley Museum volunteer who had been emailing Smithers’ descendants to try to locate a portrait that could be displayed prominently in the town.
He was inspired to look for an image of the Englishman because there was no local tribute to him and the museum only had a blurred copy of a photograph.
“When Smithers had its centennial last year I thought, since Smithers didn’t have a statue of Sir Alfred Smithers, that an idea might be to see if his family still had an oil painting portrait of [him],” he said.
“That’s what gave me the idea of contacting the descendants of Sir Alfred Smithers.”
After some proactive digging with the help of another local volunteer, Lorne Wasylishen, he struck gold with Smithers’ great-granddaughter Liz Webster.
She replied by email to say she had some old photographs of Sir Alfred and promised to send scans of the images to Guenter.
But when the envelope arrived, Guenter was surprised by what he found inside.
“In January she emailed to say that the photographs were on their way,” Guenter said.
“When I opened up the package, lo and behold she had sent the original portrait.”
Guenter suspects the photograph, taken by the famous Montreal photographers Notman & Son, was taken circa 1914.
Also included in Webster’s parcel was a copy of a Smithers family photo and a negative of the portrait.
She has donated all of the items to the Bulkley Valley Museum.
Curator Kira Westby said the photographs were a great addition to the museum archives.
“It’s just a great treasure,” she said.
“We never would have imagined it existed until our faithful treasure hunter and history detective (Guenter) went and found it for us.”
The portrait will be exhibited at the museum and Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach hopes to display a copy of it at the town office.
“I’m almost positive we can find a spot for it somewhere, it’s a really high quality photo,” Bachrach said.
“It’s the best photo of him that I’ve seen … I think it would look good in our council chambers or somewhere in our town hall.”
Last week was B.C. Heritage Week, which had the theme of “Main Street: At the Heart of the Community” in 2015.
To celebrate, the museum held a free presentation by local historians Harry Kruisselbrink, Joan Warmerdam, Jackie Hoskins and Redge Collingwood last Wednesday at the Old Church.
Kruisselbank discussed the history of Main Street and Warmerdam spoke about the history of the library, while Hoskins and Collingwood talked about Tommy Walker and the Spatsizi area.