Smithers' Mysterious Photographer
Some of the earliest photographs in the Museum’s collection are hand-signed with the name “Coffee”. The identity of this photographer has become a mystery to Museum staff.
Who was Coffee? Unfortunately, the historical record gives us few clues about who this camera enthusiast may have been. An article in the Cariboo Digest, written by early Smithers resident Wiggs O'Neill, describes "J. Coffee" as a poolroom attendant who dabbled in photography on the side. An edition of Hazelton's Omineca Miner newspaper from January 1914 states that "Photographer Coffee came up from Rupert the other day to take some views of Smithers and its surroundings," but no one by that name appears in Prince Rupert's City Directories of 1913-1914. It's possible he was merely a temporary resident of the port city.
The most tantalizing evidence comes from two photos of the "Boston Bloomers," a baseball team of Smithers men who dressed as women for a game against Aldermere in July 1915. In one of the photos, the man seated in the middle of the front row is identified as "Joe Coffee." In the other photo, the same man is named as "J. Coffee" or "George Coffey." His quirky costume includes a lace cap, plaid pantaloons, and tights decorated with diamonds, hearts, and spades. Could this colourful character be the elusive shutterbug? As a further clue, both photos are captioned with the signature spidery handwriting that appears on Coffee's other photos - suggesting these were developed, if not taken, by him as well.
As Coffee's photographs were later found amidst the glass negatives that Gilbert Clarke Killam left behind in 1918, it's likely that Coffee also left Smithers around that time. It is possible that he enlisted to fight in the First World War. He also may have moved from place to place in search of work, like many young men who lived in Western Canada at the time. Whatever the case, J. Coffee simply vanishes from history after this point.
The Bulkley Valley Museum has a small collection of photos which were signed or believed to have been taken by Coffee. Most are group shots of sports teams or scenic views of Smithers.