Alberta woman unearths pieces of railway history in her backyard

Shannyn Rus was trying to plant a garden outside her home in Carbondale, about 10 kilometres north of Edmonton city limits, but kept finding old bricks buried in the dirt.

'We really weren't expecting the story that we found'

The station building that once stood on the property was destroyed in 1959 when a freight train collided with a steam-powered passenger train, killing four people. (Provincial Archives of Alberta)

Shannyn Rus has unearthed more than a few pieces of Alberta railway history in her Sturgeon County backyard.

Rus was trying to plant a backyard garden in Carbondale, about 10 kilometres north of Edmonton city limits, but kept finding old bricks buried in the dirt.

"We found one, then two ... and I thought, this is so bizarre, I keep digging up these bricks," Rus said in an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"I don't have a garden where I wanted to have one but I'm just thrilled with the Alberta history side of this.

"It becomes personal when you find something like this on your property." 

After visits to the archives, Rus learned the bricks are relics from a deadly rail crash that happened 60 years ago near where her home now stands.

The bricks are from the station agent's residence for the Carbondale Rail Station that once stood nearby. 

"We started going to the archives and digging out this story," Rus said. "We ended up finding out exactly where the station was and exactly what happened with it.

"We really weren't expecting the story that we found."

When the trains collided, a car filled with fuel slid off the tracks, triggering an explosion. (Provincial Archives of Alberta)

Digging in

Rus pulled about 30 stamped bricks from the dirt this spring before she decided to do some research. 

After a quick Google search, she realized the insignia on the bricks was associated with Northern Alberta Railways and the old living quarters for the station agent. That led her to the Provincial Archives of Alberta. 

She made several trips to the archives building over the summer, delving deeper into their records.

"My kids and I decided that we were going to make this a bit of summer project and we were going to the archives together and see what we could find." 

Shannyn Rus unearthed about 30 stamped bricks before she decided to undertake some historical research. (Shannyn Rus)

She eventually discovered that the railway station building had been destroyed on Nov. 10, 1959, when a diesel-powered freight train exploded during a head-on collision with a steam-powered passenger train. 

"This is actually one of the few steam train and diesel train collisions," Rus said. "One of the cars was pushed off the tracks and it went sideways.

"It was filled with diesel and it spewed over the station house. And immediately, the station house was just an inferno." 

The station agent, his wife and son all died, along with a firefighter who had been travelling on the steam train.

"There was a coroner's inquest into the accident," she said. "It was described as a series of unfortunate circumstances." 

Shannyn Rus has been digging into Alberta's railway history after discovering a slew of red bricks on her property. (Shannyn Rus)

'It's Alberta history' 

Rus said the discovery has given her a newfound passion for Alberta history. Their research continues and, during their summer vacation, they took a steam train in B.C. to get a sense of what passengers once experienced.

She has also begun to connect with former Northern Alberta Railways workers.

Hearing their memories of working the rails has inspired her to preserve the bricks for posterity. 

She plans to create some sort of marker on her property, commemorating the tragedy. 

"It's not just ours, it's Alberta history," she said. "It became more than a story for us."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Travis McEwan