Historical Markers
Austin Flood Disaster Historical Marker
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Austin Flood Disaster

Allegheny National Forest Region


Marker Location:
Highway 872, 2 miles north of Austin

Dedication Date:
September 30, 1994

Behind the Marker

Ruins of Austin, Pa. after flood of Sept. 30, 1911
Austin, Pa. after flood of Sept. 30, 1911
In the early 1900s, the town of Austin, Pennsylvania, revolved around the lumber industry. Situated in a valley surrounded by hills covered with pine, hemlock, and cherry, Austin was a natural location for lumber companies. In the late 1800s, as the old-growth timber was exhausted, the pulp and paper industry replaced the sawmills. Several paper mills existed in the area, but none was as important as the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company. Constructed in 1900, it was both the largest plant and the biggest employer in the borough of Austin. The town's population swelled as lumbermen, mill workers and their families moved to the community for work.

Austin, Pa. ruins from Goodyear yard looking east. A policeman and townspeople are visible.
Austin, Pa. ruins from Goodyear yard looking east , 1911.
Like all paper mills, the Bayless mill needed a continual supply of water to operate. After facing several water shortages, the company decided to construct a large concrete dam on Freeman Run in 1909. Although designed by a professional engineer, the company made cost-cutting modifications to the dam that contributed to a minor structural failure in January 1910. Repairs were made, but the events of the following year proved that the dam remained unsound.

September 1911 was a rainy month in Austin. The Bayless Company, seeing an opportunity to increase its water reserves, allowed the rains to fill the dam to its maximum capacity. On September 30, 1911, the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company Dam gave way under the pressure. Coursing down Freeman Run, the water picked up debris and stacks of pulp wood, estimated to be as much as 700,000 cords, from the Bayless lumber yard. These logs became deadly weapons as the water hit the town of Austin. After the waters raged through Austin, they hit the nearby town of Costello. Seventy-eight people are known to have died.

Ruins and townspeople
Austin Dam Flood Disaster, on bank of Sinnemahoning Creek, Pennsylvania, 1911.
The dam disaster also took a tremendous toll on the survivors. Although Bayless rebuilt the paper mill, the town never managed to recapture the vibrancy or prosperity that existed before the flood. Between 1910 and 1920, the town lost half of its population. As support for Austin's residents poured in from across the state, people began to question who was to blame for the disaster. Many felt that the Bayless company had been negligent, both in its construction of the dam and its failure to adequately repair the structural damage in 1910. After several lawsuits, the Bayless Company paid $600,000 in damages and fees to the victim's families.

The Austin flood disaster had lasting statewide effects. Only the infamous markerJohnstown Flood of 1889 caused a greater loss of life in a dam failure. In its aftermath, many survivors and officials raised Pennsylvania's lack of regulations for the design, construction and inspection of dams as a contributing factor. This pressure resulted in the Pennsylvania Water Supply Commission, the state agency responsible for dams, to press for comprehensive regulation of dams. In 1913, the state legislature passed a law granting the commission the power to regulate and inspect dams and hold hearings on their construction, and the power to enforce their duties with fines or imprisonment.
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