Johnstown wasn’t the only Pennsylvania city to have been devastated because of the failure of a poorly constructed dam. Even though 2,209 lives were lost in Johnstown, the tragedy did not result in any laws concerning dam failures being passed. In 1911, twenty-two years after the Johnstown flood, a dam failed in the small, remote Potter County town of Austin. More than 78 people died in that disaster, and two years later, Pennsylvania became the first state to enact dam safety legislation. Finally the exploits of big business would come under scrutiny and the lives of common people would be protected. The legislature had thus far been unwilling to interfere with powerful business trusts and industrialists, but dam failures in Pennsylvania changed that.
I was surprised to learn how many devastating events had happened in a few short years to the people of Austin. Their citizens had endured an unimaginable string of disasters beginning on May 31, 1889, when they experienced flooding of most of the town. A year later, in 1890, a fire destroyed the town. They rebuilt only to lose everything again in another fire in the fall of 1891. In May, 1994, another flood took place. Unbelievably, that wasn’t the end of it. In 1897, the town of 2,000 people was hit with another devastating fire. They managed to bring their town back after each disaster and try to carry on. I think that explains why, when George Bayless decided to build his paper mill in Austin, most of the townspeople were excited about the prospects of more jobs. Some people, though, didn’t really trust a big corporation seeking cheap business.
Pulpwood was plentiful, but Bayless needed a large, dependable water supply for his paper mill. A small earthen dam was first constructed, but it didn’t provide enough water to the mill. Then Bayless set out to build the largest concrete gravity dam in Pennsylvania. He hired an engineer to design the dam, but in an effort to save time and money, many corners were cut and shortcuts taken, over the objections of the engineer. Most people in the town were relying on the mill for their jobs and didn’t want to raise too much of a fuss, but there were others who were convinced that the dam wouldn’t be safe.
The dam was finished in December, 1909. One of the big problems was that the concrete was poured in below freezing temperatures, resulting in vertical cracks even before the dam was filled with water. Also eliminated in an attempt to save money, was a way to let water out of the dam gradually if the water level got too high. Again the advice of the engineer was ignored. Only two months after the dam was completed, the first signs of trouble appeared. Heavy rains and snow melt caused a rapid rise in the water level, and water began to bubble up from the ground in front of the dam. Part of the embankment slid down, letting some of the water out. The rains continued and the water level continued to rise, so dynamite was used to blow a hole in the top to let out more water. This resulted in some minor flooding, but disaster was avoided, although the dam had slid 18 inches at the base.
After that scare, engineers recommended many changes to the dam to reinforce it, but those recommendations were not followed. Water continued to leak under the dam, but business was booming at the mill, with no plans to shut it down long enough to drain the dam and make substantial repairs, as should have been done.
September 30, 1911, was a beautiful sunny Saturday. There had been a local election and people went about their business. At 2:15 that afternoon, less than two years after it was completed, the dam split open. A lady of the night who ran a brothel on a hill near the dam saw the water rushing out and did her best to warn as many people as she could. The alarms were sounded, but because those alarms were tested regularly, people didn’t pay much attention to them this time when they were real.
It only took 15 minutes for the water to reach the town, and by then it had picked up tons of pulpwood from the paper mill and other debris. Buildings were pounded and ripped apart and the town was completely destroyed. Then some of the gas lines broke resulting in widespread fires adding to the destruction.
The words of some of the survivors have been preserved and really give a sense of the horrors they saw. Survivor Agnes Murphy said, “I’m a very tender person, and it bothered me, seeing all those horses floating down. And they didn’t know what in the world to do with all those horses – how to dispose of them. They had to keep making bonfires to burn the flesh up. And, oh, what an odor it was!” Alberta Broslet, another survivor, said, “I’ll tell you what bothers me. I found a baby skeleton in one of the ditches down below the Catholic Church in a side stream.”
It’s a shame that it took so long for the legislature to stand up to big business and enact dam safety laws and back them up with required periodic inspections. But by no means was that the end of the dam failures. In 1977, the Laurel Run Dam and five other dams near Johnstown failed in the middle of the night following torrential storms that dumped almost a foot of rain in 24 hours. Eighty-six people lost their lives, and again when the responsible parties were sued, very little compensation was ever paid to the survivors. Again and again, big business found a way to avoid taking responsibility for neglecting to follow the law.
Flood Control legislation followed, and, coupled with dam safety laws, did much to reduce the loss of life and property as a result of flooding. These horrific floods in Pennsylvania finally got the attention of the legislature and the nation, but only after thousands of people and millions of dollars of property and possessions had been lost.
Today, Austin has a population of 532. The ruins of the dam can be seen from the Austin Dam Park, which is the site of a “dam cool” music festival every August. I’d say they have reason to celebrate after all their town has survived!
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Marilyn Secco is a retired teacher and author of the book “Front Porch Tales.” She has 2 children and 5 grandchildren and lives in Kersey with a temperamental cat named Tidder. Contact her at email@example.com