Exploring the Ruins of Austin Dam in Potter County, Pennsylvania

Exploring the Ruins of Austin Dam in Potter County, Pennsylvania

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.

Memorial at Austin Dam in Potter County, Pennsylvania

A small memorial to those who died when the dam failed.

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.

Ruins of Austin Dam near Coudersport, Pennsylvania

The remains of Austin Dam.

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 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 Dam Flood Damage, Pennsylvania

Damage caused by the failure of Austin Dam (Public Domain from The Library of Congress)

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.

Austin Dam Memorial Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania

A mural honoring those who died.

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.

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    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.

    Overlook in Austin Dam Memorial Park near Austin, PA

    Looking over the ruins from the park’s overlook.

    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 that 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

    See map below for other area attractions.

    Visiting Austin Dam in Potter County, Pennsylvania #abandoned

    AUTHOR - Jim Cheney

    Jim Cheney is the creator of Based in the state capital of Harrisburg, Jim frequently travels around Pennsylvania and has visited all 67 counties in the state. Jim has also traveled to more than 30 different countries around the world.


    • LuAnnO'Connell

      I first heard of the Austen Dam from The Vanishing Shadow, the first book in the Judy Bolton Mystery Series by Coudersport native Margaret Sutton. A fictionalized account of the bursting of the dam is a prominent feature in the book with the detective protagonist’s brother warning the townspeople of the imminent flood. All Margaret Sutton’s books were based on events and places in the Potter County area.

    • Yvonne Weaver

      Very impressive site to see. Touching to hear the terrible story.

    • JoAnn Gillespie

      My fiancé and I visited the Austin Dam area last summer. It blew our minds to realize that even though the walls seemed very thick to us, it was not thick enough. To see how the mighty force of the water literally move those massive walls out of kilter was unbelievable. Those unfortunate people never had a chance. The committee did a fine job in memorializing the victims. We live in Jefferson County and no one ever heard of the town of Austin and its tragedy.

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