The Austin Dam Disaster: ‘The Dam That Could Not Break’
By Ed Byers
With a death-grip on his mother’s hand, 5-year-old Lester Plotts crossed the high, rickety swinging bridge over Freeman Run to the family garden on the other side. Lester hated making this daily trip.
Up on the bridge, he tried not to look down at the rushing water because when he did, it looked like the bridge was moving up-stream and the water was standing still. He knew it wasn’t so.
Still, it seemed that way and it scared him to death.
Little Lester, his parents Frank and Mina (Nelson), three sisters and five brothers lived in a hillside home above Freeman Run in Costello, three miles downstream from Austin and the Bayless Paper Mill Dam, touted by its owners as “the dam that could not break”. Back then, Austin was a thriving lumber and paper mill village, 15 miles south of Coudersport.
Saturday, September 30, 1911 dawned bright and beautiful over Potter County, a sunny, unseasonably warm day, perfect for a final harvest. Lester, mother and 8-year-old sister Dorothy crossed the bridge to the garden, but only a short time later, mother remembered she had left bread baking in the oven. She hustled the children back across the bridge to the house.
They would be the last ones to cross it.
As they were crossing, mother noticed Freeman Run rising fast and wondered aloud, “Why is the water so much higher than when we crossed?”
They barely made it to the other side when suddenly a wall of water with lumber, brush and debris rushed toward them smashing into the bridge. The bridge was swept away. Mother knew that “the dam that could not break” just did.
Austin residents who made it to higher ground were horror-struck to see a 50-foot high wall of water demolish their homes, school, churches and businesses. They watched helplessly as their relatives, neighbors and friends, frantically crying for help, were swept away by 270 million gallons of water, which drove huge pulpwood logs from the Bayless Paper Mill through downtown Austin like unguided missiles, all but wiping the town off the map.
First Austin, then Costello. The path of destruction stretched eight miles downstream. When waters receded, 78 people were dead. It took weeks to locate and pull bodies from the debris.
Damage was estimated at $14 million.
Angry Austin residents were quick to say, “I told you so.” They said the dam was built “on the cheap” by the paper mill owners, with little regard for basic construction standards. Years later, engineering investigations proved this true.
Vertical cracks appeared even before the new dam was filled, mainly because concrete was poured in freezing weather and never thoroughly cured. Then, only two months after completion, along came unseasonably warm late-winter weather with unrelenting rains and snow melt, adding yet more water to the already full reservoir.
Slowly, the 50-foot-high dam began to bow. Water spilled over the top. Experts thought a quick-fix was to use dynamite to blow apart a small section of the dam to relieve the tremendous water pressure. Concrete was then re-poured to patch the hole, but more vertical cracks appeared. Nervous residents questioned the integrity of the repair, saying it was made hastily and doubted whether the concrete patch-job had to time to, again, cure properly.
But from the get-go, the dam construction cost-cutting went far deeper than anyone had ever imagined. The 50 feet-high dam was designed to be thirty-feet thick, but built only twenty. The contractor recommended a nine-foot deep foundation, but to save time and money, owners of the paper mill ordered it built only four-feet deep.
They were also unaware that rock below the dam’s foundation was not bedrock, rather permeable shale. As pressure against the dam built up over time, water began leaking underneath the foundation causing the bottom front foundation to slide forward. The faulty foundation was the fatal flaw.
At 2:15 in the afternoon, with a deafening roar, the massive concrete expanse cracked into two sections and eventually, nine, the rushing water moving them 80 feet downstream where they remain.
Today, the ruins of “the dam that could not break” are weathered monuments to death, destruction and design flaws.
Historical writings characterize The Austin Dam disaster as “a lesson of the delicate balance between mankind and nature as well as corporate responsibility, which is as relevant today as it was 107 years ago.”
Not to be forgotten, this August, the disaster again will be commemorated with the annual “Austin Dam Show” at the 75-acre Austin Dam Association Memorial Park located among the ruins just north of Austin along state Route 872. “The Dam Show” draws large crowds for a celebration of history, music, food and arts.
The Austin Dam ruins were added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1987.