Head On Railway Collision at Carbondale
On November 10, 1959, 13.6 miles North of Dunvegan Yards, the worst tragedy in the history of the Northern Alberta Railways (NAR) occurred. As a result, four people died and half a dozen men were released from their positions following a public inquest.
The hamlet of Carbondale, North of Edmonton’s Dunvegan Yards, was at one time home to a small railway station on the Northern Alberta Railways (NAR) line. NAR was a CN-CP Rail joint venture that operated throughout Northern Alberta from 1929 to 1981. Carbondale is where the mainline split, allowing passengers and freight either West to Grande Prairie and Dawson Creek, or East to Fort McMurray.
The station was not only a stop on route to several destinations along the line but, from 1956-1959 it was also the home of Station Agent Arthur "Art" Fraser, his wife Alice, and their youngest of three children, son Kelly (18 years) who were previous station agents in Smith, Alberta.
SERIES OF TRAGIC EVENTS
On November 10, 1959, the weather was cool and a bit windy as the sun was peaking over the horizon. Carbondale Station was closed until 9am on weekdays and the Frasers were nowhere to be seen. NAR passenger train No.2 was southbound behind CN steam locomotive 5115, having left Grande Prairie the night before, destined for Edmonton. No.2 passed through Morinville at about 7:51 a.m., and was due at Carbondale at 8:00 a.m., on schedule, but was not scheduled to stop.
While the passenger train was headed south, NAR Train No.31, lead by NAR diesel locomotives 202 & 208 with 119 freight cars, left Edmonton behind schedule. In a rush to depart from the city at 7:20 a.m., crew members had improperly placed a tank car filled with gasoline directly behind the two engines, a violation of railway marshalling operating rules.
Upon reaching Carbondale at 7:51 a.m., No.31 moved to switch onto a sidetrack to allow the southbound passenger train to pass, but several cars detached from No.31 and were on the main track as the passenger train quickly approached. In a desperate attempt to notify the oncoming passenger train, the brakeman from the freight train ran ahead to deploy an explosive warning device called a torpedo on the track and wave a red flag signaling the steam train to stop. He did not get far, and the engineer of the passenger train did not see or hear the warning signals.
A precisely 8:00 am, the trains collided head on at a speed of 40 km/h (25 mph) resulting in a sound described by a witness as "atomic". The impact ruptured the tank car, causing the rapid spread of gasoline over the station, a garage, and three vehicles. The gas immediately ignited. The bodies of the Fraser family were found outside of their home by a high-wire fence; it remains speculation as to whether they were attempting to flee the inferno or were blown from their home at the time of the explosion. The body of steam engine Fireman Albert Villeneuve was found in the buckled cab of the steam locomotive. An additional 19 people were injured in the accident.
Living just 18 meters (59 feet) from the station was retired coal miner William Dickinson. He told the Edmonton Journal in 1959 that 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 line was dead - the crash had taken out the phone and power lines, stopping his electric clock at precisely 8:00 am.
The fire obliterated the station, a garage, and three vehicles. Historic accounts show the station was destroyed except for its fireproof safe and brick chimney.
An official investigation followed the collision. Conflicting testimony was given by the flagman from the freight train and the engineer from the passenger train. The flagman was required to go two kilometers (2,000 yards) beyond the stopped freight train to flag and alert the crew of the passenger train. The flagman testified he went forward approximately 220 meters (240 yards); however, no footprints were found in the fresh snow beyond 23 meters (75 feet). The engineer of the passenger train stated that he did not see the red flag or hear the track torpedoes. The engineer also testified that he failed to see the freight train on the main track until he was about seven meters (23 feet) away, at which time he placed the brakes into emergency.
Following the investigation, the entire crew of No.31, the freight train, was dismissed by the NAR for violating the operating rules by having the train on the main track and not flagging down the passenger train. The engineer of the passenger train, No. 2, was also dismissed for not obeying the rule that the train be prepared to stop at the junction. The conductor of train No. 2 was severely reprimanded for not checking the signals at the junction and "for failure to exercise proper
supervision over his train".
62 years have passed since this tragic historic day and what remains buried of the Carbondale station has begun to reveal itself brick by brick. Carbondale resident Shannyn Rus and her family began finding these “ACP” stamped bricks in 2019. The chimney bricks were made by Alberta Clay Products (ACP) which existed from 1909 to 1962 in southern Alberta, near Redcliff.
The Rus family collected 20 full size, intact red bricks from the crash site and have donated them to rest at the Alberta Railway Museum as part of a collection of rail history not to be forgotten or buried again. You can find a short documentary on the Carbondale Station here.