The Austin DamPosted: July 28, 2010
Saturday morning M and I took a walk through the woods and meadow, exploring the area around the cabin for a little while. When we got back to the cabin, L and J were preparing breakfast. L had made a lentils and dill biscuits dish that she served with sauteéd asparagus and scrambled eggs. Great stuff!
After breakfast we all piled in one of the cars and took a short trip up the road to explore the ruins of the Austin Dam. One of the things that brought us to the area was The Dam Show, usually held at the Austin Dam.
Austin Flood Disaster
On Sept. 30, 1911, the Bayless Pulp and Paper Co. dam broke here. This concrete dam, built in 1909, was nearly fifty feet high; 534 feet long. Its failure sent torrents of water and debris down Freeman Run into Austin and Costello, causing great destruction and killing at least 78 people. This second worst single-dam disaster in Pennsylvania inspired legislation (1913) to regulate the construction of dams in the state.
(From the historical marker at the dam site.)
The dam was commissioned and paid for by the Bayless Pulp & Paper Co. George Bayless, the owner of the company, chose to ignore the civil engineer’s design recommendations, wanting to find a cheaper method. The purpose of the dam was to hold 275 million gallons of water in which to soak the wood to remove the bark before sending it on to be made into pulp and paper. During seasonal dry spells there was not enough water in Freeman Run for soaking the wood so the dam was built in 1909 to solve the problem.
Most of the damage from the dam break, so we were told when we paid a visit to the museum in the town of Austin, was caused by the logs being swept through the towns on that torrent of water.
Signs such as the one above were posted all around the dam site. We could be wrong but we decided the names are those of the victims of the flood who died and/or were missing afterwards.
Next year marks the centennial of the September 30th flood. The Austin Dam Memorial Association (ADMA) has big plans for the park and the remains of the papermill. It will be interesting to go back someday and see what they’ve done with it.
When we finished wandering around the dam area we drove over to the papermill site, or what we could see of the papermill site from the road. The plan was for M and I to go back on Sunday so I could take some photos but you already know what happened on Sunday. It poured! Since we weren’t sure we could get back there and since the weather wasn’t cooperating, it didn’t seem worth the time or the drive that was not on our way home.
As I understand it, ADMA’s plan is to get rid of the papermill ruins. I’m not sure if they will leave the tower up or not. I’m guessing not as it probably isn’t stable or safe. A gentleman at the museum in Austin said the tower was built after the flood of 1911 and that no one has been able to identify the purpose of the tower. He jokingly said it was to house the CEO of the company so he’d be safe from the next flood.
I’m sorry we didn’t take the time to try to find our way back there that day. It would have been cool to wander around and take some photos of the place. It’s unlikely I would have gone inside (doesn’t look too terribly safe) but I would have liked to get a little closer.
This was my “in a nutshell” version of the story of the dam disaster. For more information, please visit:
- The Austin Flood Remembered, an excellent account of what happened and when it happened.
- The Austin Dam Memorial Association website.
One of the aspects of it that interested me is Cora Brooks, the woman who first sounded the alarm when the dam broke. She was Austin’s town “madam,” running a “house of ill-repute” on the hill opposite the dam. Cora had some problems with the law a few times, being charged with operating a house of prostitution, as well as making and selling alcohol. A researcher in the area, Margaret Crosby (married to a descendant of Cora’s), is seeking a pardon from the state for Cora given her heroism and help she provided after the flood when she opened her home to those who needed food and shelter.