Film discovery unearths near-forgotten Silverton connection to marine disaster

Historians say they found a Kootenay connection in the chance discovery of some long-lost film footage of Canada’s worst maritime disaster.

Shots of two Silverton survivors of the 1914 sinking of the Empress of Ireland were found in the ancient newsreel footage by Quebec media historians Sébastien Hudon and Louis Pelletier.

The film, sold at an auction in 2020, shows images of the arrival of a ship carrying the bodies of several of the disaster’s victims, and the unloading of coffins at the dock in Quebec City.

Filmed by an early pioneer of film news photography, it also contains unique images of one of the disaster’s heroes, Robert Crellin. He’s seen posing in front of Chateau Frontenac with Florence Barbour, the young girl he rescued from the glacial waters of the St. Lawrence River.

Crellin, from Silverton, saved Florence, his neighbour’s young daughter, who was on the boat with her mother and sister. Left an orphan by the sinking, she clung to Crellin in the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River until they reached a lifeboat. He then proceeded to rescue others. Florence was one of only a handful of children to survive.

The newly unearthed footage testifies to the strong bond between the young orphan and her rescuer.

“Florence went to live with her paternal grandmother in England, much to her dismay,” writes Kootenay historian Greg Nesteroff. “She wanted Crellin – whom she referred to as her Uncle Bob – to raise her.”

After fighting in the First World War, Crellin married in England and returned to Silverton, where he lived out his days.

“I don’t know if they ever saw each other again, or remained in touch at all, but she finally returned to visit Silverton in 1964, 20 years after his death, and 50 years after the disaster,” says Nesteroff.

The film has likely been unseen for more than a century. It can now be viewed online from Nesteroff’s blog The Kutne Reader ( The pair appear near the end of the reel.The Empress of Ireland was a Canadian Pacific vessel enroute to England when it was rammed by a coalship early in the morning of May, 29, 1914. The ship sank in 15 minutes, taking 1,012 of her 1,477 passengers and crew members with her.

The location of this marine disaster, which remains the worst in Canadian history, has been classified as a Historic Site of Canada since 2009.

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