The Austin Disaster

austin dam

After spending the morning at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, I debated which way to head back to Lock Haven. Not wanting to return to Lock Haven on the same route, I asked my classmates, Evie and Lindsey, what time they had to be back. The answer they gave told me I had time to make another stop on our journey, one that as historians, they would definitely find interesting.

Taking Route 872 south from the collection of houses known as Lymansville, located between Coudersport and Sweden Valley, we headed southward. The conversation shifted back and forth between classes, local histories, and future plans.

“We need to make a detour,” I warned as I turned onto a dirt road. Neither spoke but merely stared curiously as we bounced along the dirt road towards a piece of history that has been forgotten by most. We finally came to a clearing and for the first time they could see why I was bringing them here – the ruins of an old, broken dam were scattered across the valley.

We continued down the road to the park at the base of the ruins. Formed in the mid-1990s, the park was created to preserve the ruins and as a remembrance to those who lost their lives in the disaster. As Evie and Lindsey began exploring the ruins my mind drifted to my younger years when the ruins protruded from the forest that had reclaimed the valley. I could remember stopping along Route 872 to view the ruins of the Austin Dam, but it had only been after the creation of the park at the base of the ruins that I was willing to explore them.

I walked over to join my classmates as they stood before a memorial near the base of the largest section of the dam. Engraved on the memorial were the names of those who lost their lives here on September 30, 1911 when the Bayless Paper Mill Dam – the official name of the dam – broke, killing seventy-eight people.

Sadly, few people recall, or even know about the disaster, which was the second deadliest dam failure within the borders of the state – only the Johnstown Flood had a higher cost of life.

The town of Austin had grown up along Freeman Run, a product of the Pennsylvania’s lumbering era. In 1900, George Bayless built the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company along Freeman Run north of town. Due to seasonal shortages of water, a dam was built two miles upstream from the community. When finished, the concrete and reinforced steel dam was 536 feet long and 50 feet high, creating a reservoir holding roughly 275 million gallons of water.

The dam had problems from the start. It was built upon sandstone, but it had a foundation that failed to go deep into the earth. Sources vary about the depth of the base having it somewhere between four and eight feet deep. Beneath the sandstone were layers of shale which easily fracture, causing leakage and allowing water to flow beneath the dam. By January 1910, the dam was bowed outward 35 feet from an unexpected early spring thaw. The reason behind the faulty dam construction was due to pressure placed by the Bayless Company upon T. Chalkley Hatton who designed it. The project was to be completed with a budget of $85,000.  When it was obvious that the project was going over the allotted budget, Bayless demanded Hatton to find ways to keep the project under budget. In addition to it being built with a very limited budget, the dam was erected in late 1909. The dam was not prepared for the freezing and thawing cycle of north-central Pennsylvania and added to the natural conditions, the concrete in the dam was not given long enough to set.

On January 23, 1910, just weeks after it had been finished, the first signs of the looming disaster happened – in addition to the already bowing structure, the base of the dam had slid eighteen inches downstream, and major cracks were forming in the dam. A notch was blown into the crest of the dam, as was the water stopper, to lower the water level.

The debate between the engineers who built the dam and Bayless remained heated throughout 1910 and despite the protests Bayless allowed the dam to refill within two feet of the crest. The dam seemed to be holding and Bayless was satisfied with the dam, despite warnings from Hatton.

By the end of 1910, it was noticed that the dam had settled, or lowered, by roughly ten inches. Bayless responded by having the dam drained and repaired. All the cracks and previously made notches were filled in. The dam was allowed to refill to a depth of forty feet.

Mid-September brought heavy rains to the region. The reservoir filled to within inches of the crest of dam – this was the first time since its construction that the reservoir was full. Despite some concern, none of the outlets were opened.

Around two in the afternoon of September 30, 1911, the dam finally gave way. A wall of water swept down the valley, bringing with it the remains of a log jam and floating pulpwood, destroying everything in its path. Austin was wiped out instantly. A wall of water forty feet tall roared down the valley towards the Sinnemahoning Creek. Four miles downstream from Austin, the community of Costello would also be wiped out by the wall of water. Unlike Austin, Costello would receive warning in time that most of the community’s four hundred residents fled to safety. Note: Oddly, the town of Wharton is rarely mentioned in the aftermath of the flood – Wharton is located downstream of Costello and would have been in the path of the flood. Only a handful of newspapers mention it and it appears as an afterthought rather than a victim of the flood. Many of the reports state that the wall of the water lost most of it energy and destructive force by the time it hit Wharton.

As the town tried to recover, they were faced with the task of trying to make sense of what remained. Piles of wood remained as homes, train engines and cars laid strewn throughout the valley, and numerous fires burned; the valley was filed with the smell of the dead. Newspaper headlines immediately claimed five hundred to a thousand people were killed. These numbers were greatly exaggerated: fifty residents of the valley were killed and another twenty-eight were reported missing and presumed dead. Sadly many of these deaths could have been prevented had the Bayless Paper Company sounded the alarm, like they had promised, if the dam did break. The only alarm set off that afternoon was by the fire company and residents ignored it.

Many survivors left the area in search of a safer place to work and raise a family. A new mill and dam were built; the mill would later burn and the new dam would also break, but not to the degree of the 1911 disaster. Survivors would sue the Bayless Company, but many of the cases against the Bayless Company were thrown out. The residents of Austin would eventually receive $600,000 for the damages caused by the flood.

The end result of the disaster would be the passing of state legislation that would require inspection of all dams built within the state. In 1913, the state passed a law granting the Pennsylvania Water Supply Commission the power to regulate and inspect all dams in the commonwealth.

We finished exploring the park and remembering the dead before heading towards home, leaving the peaceful Freeman Run flowing through the ruins that stand as a reminder of the disaster which wiped out the communities of Austin and Costello.

Note: I want to thank Lindsey and Evie for allowing me to join them for a trip through the Black Forest region and their patience for listening to all of the history of the region. Thank you again.

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