Eight-year-old Florence Barbour clung ferociously to Robert Crellin’s neck as they fought to stay afloat in the St. Lawrence River. Minutes earlier they had been passengers aboard the Empress of Ireland, which collided in the night with the SS Storstad.
That’s the first paragraph of Greg Nesteroff’s article, “1914 Silverton Shipwreck Survivors Surface.” It has just won first place in the best historical article category for newspapers with circulation 4,000 to 12,500 at the Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.
Nesteroff has been the editor of the Star for two months, but before that was a reporter here for five years. His prize-winning story tells of a local connection to a heroic rescue during a major disaster in which more than a thousand people died, and the poignant tale of the later lives of the young girl and her rescuer.
Nesteroff first learned of the story in a Vancouver Sun article about the centennial of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. That piqued his interest and he dug deeper to discover Florence Barbour’s diary at the Canadian Museum of History, and a Smithsonian photo (the one shown here) online.
“It blew me away that I had never heard this story and I don’t think anyone in Silverton had heard it either,” Nesteroff says. “It was gratifying to write it, because here is a guy who was apparently well loved in New Denver — when he died his obituary was adulatory— but nobody remembered he had saved this little girl.”
The other reason Nesteroff was attracted to the story, he says, is its poignancy.
“It is a sad story. She loses her parents, loses her sister, and she badly wants to be adopted by this guy who saved her, and it never happens. The diary is chilling.
“I have still not been to Robert Crellin’s grave in New Denver. I would like to do that—it is marked but not well looked after and it would be nice to add a new stone that talks about what he did.
“In the past month I heard from a Crellin relative in England, and not only did they not know about his connection to the Empress of Ireland disaster, they didn’t know what happened to him at all.”
Nesteroff’s story reminds us that not so long ago there were uncertain records of people’s whereabouts and their fates.
“People could just disappear into the ether.”
This fuels his curiosity and motivates his special kind of detective work. Even now, almost a year after he wrote the story, he’s still thinking about it.
“There apparently are some Crellin relatives living around Kamloops,” he says, “but I was not able to get hold of them before this story. But there might be more to be gleaned from talking to them.”
Nesteroff estimates that he has written more than 400 articles about local history for the Nelson Star.
“It’s my thing,” he says matter-of-factly, as though no more complex explanation is needed. “I am a history buff and it is what interests me and what keeps me going. I never run out of stories.”
Nesteroff says his love of history started with he was a child, with family trips to Sandon and Ainsworth.
While a student at Mount Sentinel, he wrote a history of the school. That got him started reading local history. He says he discovered that contrary to his early beliefs,
museum curators and historians don’t always know everything, and “there are all sorts of stories to find and mysteries to solve, and that is the fun of it.”
Nesteroff won second place in the same competition in 2012 with his story “Nelson’s Stanley Cup Challenge.”