It all started with a brick.
Last May, Carbondale resident Shannyn Rus decided to dig a garden by the rail line near her home. As she did, she kept digging up bricks – first half ones, then full ones.
“Each place we dug ... there were bricks popping up," Rus said.
As the bricks piled up, Rus said she and her family got curious and started researching them online and at the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
What they found was a tale of tragedy – a story of a fiery train crash that destroyed a station and took the lives of four people 60 years ago this month.
In the process, they also found a new passion for the past, one that has driven them to dig up and share all they can find about this moment in history.
“(My husband) told me to get a hobby and it turned into a train wreck story,” Rus joked.
Pieces of the past
Rus had two key clues to guide her research.
The first were the bricks, of which she and her kids have since excavated a wheelbarrow’s worth. Many had the letters “ACP” stamped on them, which a Google search told them was the mark used by Alberta Clay Products between 1905 and 1962.
The second was a metal historic sign near where they had been digging that said this had been the site of the Carbondale rail station from 1913 to 1959.
Putting those clues together, Rus said she and her kids made several trips to the Provincial Archives to check out old news articles to see if the bricks came from the station. That led them to compile a two-inch-thick binder of photos, reports, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and diagrams on the subject.
Rus heads out to the historic sign about 40 paces from her home near the Carbondale rail line.
“The station would have been out here at an angle,” she said, and would have resembled a 50-foot-by-25-foot red wood-frame building. Poke around in the ground, as they did, and you’ll find an old water well, gravel pilings, scraps of wood and plenty of gravel fused into lumps by what appears to be fire-retardant foam.
The station itself was run by the Northern Alberta Railways (NAR) – a joint CN-CP Rail venture that operated throughout northern Alberta from 1929 to 1981, say historians.
“For 50 years, it was the third-largest rail system in Canada,” said historian and former NAR employee Stuart Adams.
NAR’s main line started in Edmonton’s Dunvegan Yards (roughly east of St. Albert Trail and north of the Yellowhead), ran past St. Albert’s Campbell Industrial Park and headed up to Carbondale, Adams said. There, it split, with one branch headed west to Dawson Creek and the other east to Fort McMurray.
The NAR played a critical role in the settlement of northern Alberta by freighting people and cargo out west, said Stephen Yakimets, spokesperson for the Alberta Railway Museum. Historian Ena Schneider wrote that the NAR was a vital part of the construction of the Alaska Highway in the Second World War and the growth of the oilsands region in the 1970s.
Adams said the station would have been a place where both passengers and cargo would load on and off trains as they headed up or down the line.
Running it in 1959 was station agent Arthur Fraser, an active Jehovah’s Witness and father of three who had moved to the Carbondale station in 1956, Rus said. Fraser was a part-time boxer, and would sometimes show up to work with a black eye and an interesting story.
Rus said Fraser lived with his wife Alice and 18-year-old son Kelly at the station and had a daughter and son back home in Dawson Creek. Based on telegrams he sent and received, she knows he was reprimanded at least once for letting people use the station’s inside toilet, and that he and his crew wanted an oil heater, as their coal stove stained their white shirts with soot.
The Carbondale station was destroyed by fire following a head-on collision between a six-car steam passenger train and a 119-car diesel freight one on Nov. 10, 1959, at about 8 a.m., Rus said.
The freight train left Edmonton late and the crew had improperly placed a tanker car containing several thousand gallons of gasoline directly behind its two engines, Rus said. It was supposed to pull onto a side-line at Carbondale so the steam train could pass, but some of its cars uncoupled, so it was still on the main track when the passenger train arrived.
According to the official report of the collision, the freight train’s crew scrambled to deploy an explosive device called a torpedo on the track (which makes a loud bang when a train goes over it) to warn the conductor to stop. Spotting the oncoming steam engine approaching at 50 miles an hour, the freight train’s flagman leapt down and approached it waving a red flag. The steam engine’s driver did not hear the torpedo and did not see the flagman.
By this time, the two trains were just 20 cars apart. The steam engine’s crew slammed on the brakes, but it was too late. The trains collided at about 25 miles an hour, producing a sound one witness described as “atomic.”
Nineteen people were injured in the collision, the official NAR report shows. Steam train crewman Albert Villeneuve was crushed and killed as he tried to leap from the train to safety – it took four hours to cut him free of the wreckage, Schneider wrote.
The impact shoved the freight train back 87 feet and caused the fuel tanker behind the engines to derail and rupture directly in front of the Carbondale station, the official report found. Its contents spewed over the building and soon ignited.
“The house essentially blew up,” Rus said.
Retired coal miner William Dickinson lived just 59 feet from the station and told the Edmonton Journal the blast was “like an earthquake” and shook him awake. Seeing smoke and fire everywhere, he ran to the phone to report the collision, but the phone was dead – the crash had taken out the phone and power lines, stopping his electric clock at precisely 8 a.m.
Steam train conductor W.H. Chausse told the Journal he felt a jolt when the crash happened and looked out the window to see “a complete inferno” at the head of the train. The Fraser family “never knew what hit them.”
The fire obliterated the station, a garage and three vehicles. The bodies of Arthur, Alice, and Kelly Fraser were later found by the high-wire fence at the back of the station, the Journal reported; it was unclear if they had died trying to escape or were somehow blown clear.
“Art Fraser had often spoken of his belief that the end of the world would come by fire,” Schneider wrote.
“It turned out to be a true prophecy as far as his world was concerned.”
The story continues
Rus said photos and historic accounts show the station was completely destroyed save for its safe (which crews realized was still roasting hot when they tried to open it) and brick chimney – the probable source of the bricks she found. Crews got the track cleared and reopened by 3 p.m. the next day, so Rus suspects station’s remains were shoved aside and lightly covered up, which explains why they were so easy to dig up.
Schneider describes the collision as “the worst tragedy in the history of the NAR.”
It was a sad moment for everyone with the NAR, and it still is all these years later, Adams said.
“These were people who we all worked with, people who lost their lives. It’s not something we celebrate.”
Rus described the disaster as “a series of unfortunate events.” Had that train been on time, or had it been loaded properly, or had the fuel tanker derailed anywhere else, those four lives might not have been lost.
Schneider wrote that the crew of the freight train was fired and the engineer on the steam train issued 30 demerits because of the crash. Adams said the NAR also brought in new rules saying there had to be at least three cars between a train’s engine and any gasoline tankers it carried.
The Carbondale station was never rebuilt – many stations of its size were being phased out at the time as passenger service declined, Adams explained.
Today, trains still rumble past Rus’s home and the former station site. Rus said her kids now regularly explore the area around the old station with shovels and metal detectors in search of artifacts, while she’s still digging up records related to the station and the Fraser family. Each new detail she finds seems to hint at more.
“As many bricks as we have, there have been that many paths to this story,” Rus said.
Rus said she’s since dug her garden elsewhere due to the risk of contaminated soil. As for the bricks, she’s thinking of using them in some sort of memorial. For now, she hopes to work with the Alberta Railway Museum on an exhibit on the Carbondale station.
“I want to make sure people know what happened.”