1911: The Austin Flood

"The Dam Broke! Run For Your Lives!"

The words echoed through the town of Austin, Pennsylvania, which was in the bull’s-eye of a terrible torrent cascading down the valley. The tall concrete dam that held back the waters of Freeman Run had surrendered to the power of gravity.

Waves of water carrying on their crest piles of battering-ram logs bore down on the village. Dozens fled to the steep hillsides surrounding the town. Some never heard the alarm; still others failed to heed the warning. Within minutes, at least 80 people would perish. Industries, businesses and homes would be leveled and a vibrant community would be nearly wiped from the face of the earth.

This is a tragedy that could have been prevented if warnings had been heeded, if corners had not been cut to reduce costs, if people in positions of power would have acted in the public interest.

Finally, a century later, a new book, 1911: The Austin Flood, tells the story from start to finish – why the dam broke, who’s to blame, and what lessons were learned.

There are tales of heroism and villainy, of blind faith and wishful thinking. There’s a review of engineers’ discoveries and a retrospective on the aftermath of one of the worst floods of the 20th century.

Eighty full pages of pictures, more than 150 individual images ...most of them never before seen by the public.

Special Bonus Section - They Were There
Poignant first-hand accounts from more than a dozen people who witnessed the flood of 1911 and lived to tell about it. Among those sharing their memories of the flood is famous Judy Bolton book series author Margaret Sutton


Below are excerpts from 1911: The Austin Flood. Just click on the links below. You'll be able to read brief passages from several of the book's chapters.

Introduction - For countless years, tiny Freeman Run has flowed through the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in northcentral Pennsylvania, gently tugged along by gravity on its voyage to the Susquehanna River...

Chapter 1: Too Tough To Die - This is the tale of a town that sometimes describes itself as too tough to die. It’s also a lesson in the perils of wishful thinking. Its heroes are easy to identify; the villains less clear and subject to ceaseless speculation and debate...

Chapter 3: Let's Build A Dam - Much of the town’s vitality was pegged to Bayless Pulp and Paper Company. Conditions inside were dirty, loud, smelly and oftentimes hot and extremely humid. Grinding gears, belts and pulleys, razor-sharp chippers, beater machines, sharp copper screens, fast-spinning heavy rollers, rope drives and powerful engines were a constant danger...

Chapter 7: Head For The Hills! - Saturday, September 30, dawned bright and sunny in Austin, a typical Indian summer day. The town was buzzing with Election Day activity. Voters were drawn in particular to the race for the three seats on the Potter County Board of Commissioners...

Chapter 10: RIP, Austin - Sunday dawned with a veil of fog and smoke overhanging the scene. Dozens of people arrived overnight, including rescue workers, photographers, news reporters, and good Samaritans who brought food and clothing...

Chapter 14: Who's To Blame? - Engineers and other experts agree that too many corners were cut in construction of the dam and the structure was poorly anchored. By his pennypinching stubbornness, George Bayless sabotaged his own dam. Technology of 1909 was sufficiently advanced that a safer dam could have been built...

They Were There: Sam Costa Sr. - I was born in Costello, where my father worked at the tannery. Shortly thereafter, he moved us to Austin, where he went to work at the Bayless Paper Mill, as did many other Italians...

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