Austin Dam

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Not to be confused with Austin Dam failure.
Austin Dam
Austin Dam.JPG
Remnants of Austin Dam in 2008.
Location Keating Township, Potter County, near Austin, Pennsylvania
Opening date December 1909[1]
Demolition date September 30, 1911[1]
Operator(s) Bayless Pulp & Paper Company
Dam and spillways
Impounds Freeman Run
Height 50 feet (15 m)[1]
Length 540 feet (160 m)[1]
Creates Austin Dam Pool
Total capacity 200,000,000 US gallons (760,000,000 l)[1]
Austin Dam
Austin Dam 2163739414 2af8ec49ea o.jpg
School house after dam disaster
Austin Dam is located in Pennsylvania
Austin Dam
Location PA 872, Austin, Pennsylvania
Coordinates 41°39′11″N 78°5′8″W / 41.65306°N 78.08556°W / 41.65306; -78.08556Coordinates: 41°39′11″N 78°5′8″W / 41.65306°N 78.08556°W / 41.65306; -78.08556
Area 1.3 acres (0.53 ha)
Built 1911
NRHP Reference # 86003570[2]
Added to NRHP January 15, 1987

Austin Dam was a dam in the Freeman Run Valley, Potter County, Pennsylvania, which serviced the Bayless Pulp & Paper Mill. A failure of the dam in 1911 caused significant destruction in the valley below.


In 1900, Bayless Paper chose to construct a paper mill in the Freeman Run Valley. By 1909, the company realized that occasional dry seasons required a more reliable water source. After finding a small earthen dam to be inadequate, the T. Chalkey Hatton firm built a large concrete dam across the valley. The dam was 50 feet (15 m) high, 540 feet (160 m) long and cost $86,000 to construct.[1] It was designed to be thirty feet thick, but was built only twenty feet thick.[3]

Within only a few months of its completion, problems were detected. The dam bowed more than 36 feet (11 m) under the pressure of the water it was holding and the concrete started cracking. The bowing was alleviated by using dynamite to blast a 13-foot (4.0 m) space for the excess water to spill over. The cracking was claimed to be normal because of the drying cement.

On September 30, 1911, the dam failed and destroyed the Bayless Pulp & Paper Mill as well as much of the town of Austin. The damage was approximately $10 million. It also resulted in the deaths of 78 people. A young girl named Mary Fran Simmons, a new immigrant from Galicia which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, warned many of the townspeople about the impending disaster with her extremely limited English, simply pointing and repeating, "Dam! Dam!" The paper mill and dam were subsequently rebuilt, but the mill was lost in a fire in 1933. The new dam failed in 1942 with no loss of life. The dam was not replaced after the second failure.

The ruins consist of a series of broken sections extending east to west across the Freeman Run Valley. There are five upright sections and two large and several smaller toppled sections.[4] The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.[2]

A documentary about the dam disaster, featuring narration by Willie Nelson, was created by Mansfield University of Pennsylvania professor Gale Largey in 1999. It includes interviews with five survivors along with original newsreel footage.[5]

In 2011 Largey produced a book based upon over 150 news accounts from as far away as Hong Kong and Japan. Unique stories from the respective newspapers are featured as well as hundreds of original photos along with nine editorial cartoons that appeared in various newspapers.

The Dam Show[edit]

An eclectic music festival and colorful light show takes advantage of the natural amphitheater and historic significance of the dam ruins. The Potter County Fine Arts Council and the Austin Dam Memorial Association are key organizers in this event. Bands known to appear are Larry Herbstritt, The Slant, Redheaded Stepchild, and The Buddhahood.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Wise, Eric (September 2005). "The Day Austin Died". Penn Lines (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association) 40 (9): 8–11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-09-20. Retrieved 2009-09-19. 
  2. ^ a b Staff (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  3. ^ "Flaws in Austin Dam. Only Twenty Feet Thick, Though Plans Called for Thirty.". New York Times. October 31, 1911. Retrieved 2010-11-07. The recent disaster at Austin. Penn., resulted from alleged failure to carry out the original plans for the construction of the dam, according to a statement given out to-day by the State Conservation Commission. 
  4. ^ "National Historic Landmarks & National Register of Historic Places in Pennsylvania" (Searchable database). CRGIS: Cultural Resources Geographic Information System.  Note: This includes Robert K. Curren and William Sisson (October 1986). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Austin Dam" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-05-30. 
  5. ^ Largey, Gale. "The Austin Disaster 1911: A Chronicle of Human Character". Retrieved 2009-10-30.