Gilbert Clarke Killam

Smithers' Original Pioneer Photographer

Perhaps the most well known of Smithers' early photographers, Gilbert Clarke Killam left behind over 250 photos depicting the Valley between 1913 and 1917.

Born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in 1863, Killam worked in California, the Yukon, and Vancouver before finally moving to Smithers with his wife Jennie and sons Arthur, Gilbert, and Thomas in the year of the town's founding - 1913. His primary job was that of an architect, with an office in the Todd Building at the corner of Second Ave and King Street. Newspaper articles from the Interior News and Omineca Miner indicate that Killam found plenty of work in the growing community, drawing up plans and blueprints for houses, churches, and other buildings. In addition, he appears to have been an active citizen, serving on the Smithers Citizens’ Association and leading Boy Scout outings to Lake Kathlyn.

Gilbert Clarke Killam

Killam during his time in Smithers. (P2624, Bulkley Valley Museum visual record collection).

However, Killam's most enduring gift to Smithers was his extensive photography of the village in its first four years. His lens captured the settlement's people, buildings, streetscapes, surroundings, and neighbouring communities such as Hazelton. Killam photographed many events of the early days, mostly the lighthearted - picnics, races, masquerades, mock trials - but also the grisly sight of the body of mail carrier Jack Pekoe, lost in an avalanche in the Babine Mountains, being returned to town on horseback.  Killam's photos were produced as glass plate negatives, a format common from the 1850s until the 1920s. They can be identified by his signature and descriptive captions written in a trademark bold script.

The Killams left Smithers for Vancouver in 1917 as the First World War raged in Europe. Despite being 55 years old - ten years over the maximum recruitable age - Killam enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force by claiming his birth year as 1873. It appears that he was never sent overseas, instead serving with the Canadian Engineers in British Columbia and as a recruiter for the British military in Portland, Oregon. Sergeant Killam was demobilized in 1921. 

Little is known about Killam's life after the War. He seems to have moved back and forth between British Columbia and California over the next several decades, but never returned to Smithers. Gilbert Clarke Killam died in 1945 at the age of 82, and is buried in Vancouver.

That was not the end of his story, however, as nine years later, Killam's photos would be rediscovered in the dusty basement of Smithers' old post office. The 150+ glass negatives, forgotten in a cardboard box for close to 40 years, were found while items were being transferred to the new post office building. They were given to Louis Schibli, one of Smithers' foremost photographers of the 1950s and 60s. He cared for this collection until it was turned over to its current home - the Bulkley Valley Museum - in the 1980s. Currently there are over 250 photos of Killam's in the Museum's archives.

Read an in-depth bio of Killam on the museum's blog here. 

Gilbert Clarke Killam