When it comes to dam failures in Pennsylvania, the story of the Johnstown Flood is very well known. However, few know about Austin Dam.
The ruins of Austin Dam sit in a very remote area of southwestern Potter County. Known today as Austin Dam Memorial Park, the park contains the remains of Austin Dam and memorializes the 78 people who died when the dam failed in 1911.
Austin Dam was built by Bayless Pulp and Paper Company. The company had decided to build a paper mill in the Freeman Run Valley in 1900. Needing a more consistent water supply, they built a small earthen dam in 1909 to help supply their mill with water. However, even this dam wasn’t enough, and they soon constructed a larger, concrete dam.
This dam was 50 feet in height and extended 540 feet across the valley. Despite being designed to be 30 feet thick, it was only built with a thickness of 20 feet. Within months of being completed, a visible bowing was noted in the dam and attempts to fix this proved ineffective.
In an attempt to maximize the capability of the dam, the mill allowed the dam to fill to capacity in September 1911. However, on September 30, the weight of the water was too much for the dam, and it burst, sending all the water that it was holding back hurtling through the valley.
The Bayless Pulp and Paper Mill was the first thing to be destroyed, and all of the wood at the mill was picked up and carried along with the raging current as it headed straight for the community of Austin. Austin was home to approximately 3,000 people and was in the direct path of the torrent.
If it hadn’t been for a young girl who ran through town yelling, “Dam!” the death toll might have been much worse. However, once the waters settled, the waters from the burst dam had killed 78 and destroyed the town of Austin and Costello.
Austin and the Bayless Pulp and Paper Mill would rebuild, but things were never the same after the flood. By 1920, Austin’s population had decreased by 50% as residents moved away rather than rebuild. In addition to rebuilding the mill, Bayless also rebuilt the dam.
Ultimately, Bayless was held responsible for the disaster and had to pay a large sum of money to the victims. The new mill would burn down in 1933, and the dam would once again fail in 1942, but this time with no loss of life. After failing for a second time, the dam was abandoned.
Today, the ruins of Austin Dam sit in the middle of Austin Dam Memorial Park, where the Austin Dam Show is held. The park is located about 15 minutes south of Route 6 and Coudersport near Austin, PA. The Austin Dam Memorial Park Association formed in 1994 to preserve the ruins and create a beautiful park around them.
Unsurprisingly, the focal point of the park is the ruins of Austin Dam. Visitors can walk up to and around these large pieces of concrete to get a feel for the size of the lake that once stood behind these walls. Below the walls, the peaceful Freeman Run passes harmlessly through the valley and around the dam. It’s hard to imagine that such a tranquil stream could have created such damage a century ago.
In front of the dam is a small memorial to those that died and features the names of those that are known to have passed away in September 1911.
In addition to the ruins of the dam, the park also features a nice overlook of the ruins, several miles of hiking trails, Austin Dam camping, and a snack bar and gift shop. I’ve heard that you can view the ruins of the paper mill along the trails, but was unable to confirm this or get directions myself.
The ruins of Austin Dam are definitely off of the beaten path, but they are impressive ruins that are worth the detour to see if you find yourself traveling Route 6 through Coudersport, Pennsylvania. Take some time to pay your respects to those who lost their lives in Pennsylvania’s second-worst dam failure and explore the grounds of this unusual ruin.
Note: Austin Dam is accessed via a mile-long roadway that runs parallel to Route 872. The turn-off for this road can be found at the following coordinates: 41.665005, -78.089176. It should be noted that there is no parking along Route 872 and you cannot access Austin Dam from this roadway.
[Click here for information about how to use the coordinates in this article to find your destination.]
Austin Dam Memorial Park
Coordinates: 41.651872, -78.085645