September 30, 1911.
On that date, the Bayless Pulp and Paper Co. dam above the town of Austin burst, sending a torrent of water into the town, and killing 78 people. It is one of the worst dam disasters in the history of the country.
The dam was only two years old at the time it failed. Built in 1909, the concrete dam was 534 feet long, 50 feet high, and held 250 million gallons of water. At the time, it was the largest concrete dam in the state. It was built to provide a water supply for the paper plant. However, soon after its construction, it became apparent that the dam was seriously flawed. The dam failure was not a complete surprise as there were serious concerns about its integrity. Ominous old photos showed the dam beginning to bow out in the middle, and the top of the dam was even notched to lower the water level. It was not enough.
After heavy rains, the dam failed. Its waters damaged, but did not destroy, the plant that was the reason for the dam’s existence. Others were not so lucky. State and federal laws regarding dam construction and inspection were finally passed after the disaster.
Today, a small local park contains the impressive ruins of the dam, weathered over the last century. Massive blocks of cement have been pushed and twisted in unbelievable ways. The road down to the dam is rugged and rutted. There are plans to improve it. Regardless, it is worth the drive. The park also has the remains of an old earthen dam, and a small primitive campground. It also hosts a musical festival.
The paper plant met a similar fate. Although the plant continued to produce paper until a fire in 1944, it is now an abandoned, collapsing concrete ruin with twisted rebar and vegetation growing through cracks.
I drove through the small, quiet town of Austin, now a fraction of its former size. I decided to check out Prouty Place State Park and took the East Fork Road at Wharton. While the park was nothing more than a sign, old field, and rutted road, the drive to it on the East Fork Road was very beautiful. I highly recommend it. Rolling mountains, dusted with white serviceberry blooms, surrounded a gorgeous, isolated valley with well-kept farms and cabins. It was Appalachia at its best.
I drove out along PA 44 under bright sun and taking in some more nice views across the forested wilderness of Northcentral Pennsylvania. I descended into the impressive Pine Creek Gorge as the mountains rose in the vivid sunlight, glowing with the new fluorescent Spring foliage.
Information about the Austin Dam Memorial Park, with historical photos of the disaster.