Photograph of damage cause by 1911 dam failure in Austin, Pennsylvania
Photograph of damage cause by 1911 dam failure in Austin, Pennsylvania
Library of Congress
License: Public Domain

Austin Pennsylvania Flood

Sept. 30, 1911 ushered in the Potter County primary election. Early in the morning, two false fire alarms rattled the town. The Saturday shopping crowd descended on town as men gathered to vote for their new county commissioners.

From her home on the hillside above, Cora Brooks heard the dam shudder and crack. She stared in horror as millions of gallons of water twisted and tumbled the concrete. Worse yet, the water carried the remains of an upstream log dam and a mass of floating pulpwood - more than 20,000 cordfeet - wiping out everything in its path.

Nearly a thousand were drowned and untold numbers were maimed here when the great dam of the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company, holding back more than 050,000,000 gallons of water, went out Saturday. Many bodies have been recovered, many of them so maimed that recognition is impossible. The survivors are in a frenzy. There is no organization, the being dazed by the force of the calamity which came without a moment's warning. Hundreds of men, women and children are searching through the ruins of the village for their families and friends. The only light is the glare of hundreds of houses which caught fire from broken gas pipes almost before the flood had passed. Chaos reigned from the moment the mighty wall of water tore through the town and there will be no relief until help comes from the surrounding towns. Meantime many bodies lie in wake of the flood.

In January 1910, when the dam on Freeman's Run in Austin, Pennsylvania, cracked and slipped 4 feet on its foundation, the Bayless Pulp & Paper Mill spent $1,000,000 to repair the cracks and reinforce the foundation. However, few of Austin's residents believed the dam to be structurally sound. The Emporium Lumber Company, located about 1/2 mile downstream from the dam, shipped their highest grades of wood from its mills to prevent inventory loss should the dam break again. On September 30, 1911, heavy rains filled the Bayless reservoir and broke the concrete dam. An estimated 400 million gallons of water rushed over Austin and continued through the valley, destroying property as far as eight miles downstream. In Austin, 50 people were killed, and 38 more were reported missing or presumed dead. Only the Emporium Lumber Company Mill and the Bayless Mill remained standing. The Bayless Pulp & Paper Company (the owner of the dam) paid over $2,000,000 in negligence claims. The Emporium Lumber Company Mill, shown here, surrounded by its inventory loss, continued to operate in Austin for two more years, perhaps because of its foresight in keeping its inventory to a minimum.