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THE AUSTIN FLOOD
By Sandra Downs
March 1, 1998
Austin, a quiet town in Potter County between St. Marys and Coudersport, holds the distinction of having survived the second-worst flood disaster in Pennsylvania's history. On Sept. 30, 1911, at 2:29 in the afternoon, the Bayliss Dam burst. The floodwaters engulfed the town of 2,000 inhabitants, leaving 78 dead and a mass of wreckage in its wake. While the devastation caused by the Johnstown Flood is remembered through films, memorials and museums, the tragedy at Austin faded into obscurity.
Named for early pioneer Edward Austin, the town of Austin developed along Freeman Run, serving the thriving lumber industry. In 1881, a tannery employed immigrant workers - known as woodhicks or "hicks" - who lived harsh lives in makeshift camps in the woods. The hicks cut and stripped bark from hemlock trees to produce a liquor used in the tanning process.
When the men came to town, they expected a good time. Being a town of many men and few women, Austin had a seedy feel. Workers hung out in bars called "Pig's Ears," where fights broke out incessantly, and frontier justice prevailed. Gambling, whiskey and women were the order of the day. On the hill north of town above Freeman Run, Miss Cora Brooks ran a "house of ill repute."
As the old growth trees were lumbered out, the economy suffered a decline. In 1900, Sen. Frank Baldwin persuaded George Bayless to build a paper mill upstream from Austin. Several county commissioners were later indicted for illegally lowering tax assessments to lure Bayless to Austin. Nevertheless, Bayless built his large pulp mill, employing 200 workers when it opened. Because of the seasonal water shortages along Freeman Run, Bayless hired civil engineer T. Chalkey Hatton to design a dam to impound 275 million gallons of water. The dam was a major engineering feat for its time. Made of concrete and reinforced steel, it was 534 feet long and 50 feet high.
Hatton made numerous design recommendations that Bayless chose to ignore or to find "a cheaper method." The dam was built on sandstone, but the foundation only extended four feet deep. If Bayless followed the engineer's plan, construction workers would have discovered layers of weak shale below the sandstone. Even before the dam was first filled, visible cracks appeared. Naysayers feared that Bayless had rushed the construction job. Perhaps each layer of cement hadn't dried fully before the next layer was added. Did Bayless use proper reinforcing steel rods? Or had the workers been careless?
An unexpected mid-winter thaw tested the Bayliss Dam's strength. In late January 1910, the dam visibly bowed more than 36 feet under the force of the spring melt. Water filled the dam overflow, and a slice of the bank slid down. Water "in large quantities" rose like a spring downstream more than 15 feet from the foot of the dam, indicating that water was seeping under the entire structure through the base rock. To relieve the pressure on the dam, Bayless used dynamite to blast a section away. Despite Hatton's recommendations, no valve had been installed to release the pressure, just a stopper. Dynamite was used to blast the stopper away as well.
While the people of Austin worried the dam might break, most thought the dam was a good thing. After all, it had brought jobs to the region. Willie Nelson, Potter County Registrar and Recorder and Austin's grocer on Main Street, voiced his opinion in the local press that Bayless had cut corners on construction, and the town was at risk. On a daily basis, Nelson visited the dam to check on the cracks.
Sept. 30, 1911 ushered in the Potter County primary election. Early in the morning, two false fire alarms rattled the town. The Saturday shopping crowd descended on town as men gathered to vote for their new county commissioners.
From her home on the hillside above, Cora Brooks heard the dam shudder and crack. She stared in horror as millions of gallons of water twisted and tumbled the concrete. Worse yet, the water carried the remains of an upstream log dam and a mass of floating pulpwood - more than 20,000 cordfeet - wiping out everything in its path.
Thinking quickly, Brooks called phone operator Lena Binckley to warn the town. Binckley and her fellow operator Kathleen Lyons ran through the streets screaming to onlookers: "the dam has broken!" Meanwhile, the pulp mill sounded the alarm - eight short hoots and a long blast. The water and mass of logs tore through the mill, drowning some workers and crushing others. Mary Blaitz, a bookkeeper, was trapped under a giant pulp-grinding stone that washed into her office. She cried to her fleeing co-workers for help. "Get an ax and cut my leg off!" No man would volunteer. "I was in awful pain, and nothing could be worse torture."
Finally, a "large Polish fellow" obliged, and carried her to the hospital, where she regained consciousness and recuperated successfully.
In Austin, those who heard the alarms fled quickly to higher ground. The raging stream gushed down into the town, tearing the fronts off of some houses and upending others. "From where I stood," said Binckley, "the wall of water seemed 50 feet high. Above it rose a great cloud of spray, in which houses seemed to toss, bumping against one other, spinning and turning as they fell to pieces." Bayliss watchman W.D. Robertson was on a third story balcony when the flood hit. "Houses were tossing about like corks. I was horror-stricken, unable to make a move to save myself. The entire building lurched forward, then collapsed. I fell two stories. Somehow I came bobbing up to the top of the twisting, gurgling mass and grabbed the branches of a tree as it shot past me. I was rescued while clinging to the tree."
The cattle fence downstream from Austin cost the lives of many who found themselves or their clothing entangled in it. Joseph McKinney, another Bayliss employee, couldn't get over the fence. He threw his young child over it to safety, then was pulled under by the water. An immigrant woman caught her dress in the fence, and passed a small child over to waiting hands. She, too, was swept under.
he sudden nature of the flood left the survivors dazed and confused as to how many of their neighbors had died. In fact, the hospital reported few injuries. Most of the victims died quickly. That night, the news was sent to the outside world. By morning, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported 200 dead. The count swelled to 500 in the Evening Telegraph, in New York City. As news spread outward like ripples in a pond, the body count increased. The Sunday edition of the San Francisco Examiner claimed 1,000 victims at Austin. Monday morning's London Times had a front page story recounting the deaths of 2,000 Pennsylvania flood victims. It would take weeks before the true death toll could be clarified.
Newsreels relayed the heart-wrenching aftermath of the flood. Nearly a thousand relief workers flocked to Austin. They faced a horrific task. A sea of mud stretched across the valley, punctuated by billowing clouds of white smoke. Fires, fed by broken gas lines, tore through the remains of the town. Locomotives at the Buffalo & Susquehanna railroad shops lay strewn "like so many cheese boxes." Twisted hulks of buildings mingled with piles of burning lumber and corpses. Children burrowed into the debris piles that were once their homes, searching for their parent's bodies. According to one relief worker, "the odor of burning flesh ... often turned strong men into less than they wanted to be."
Appeals for state disaster assistance were denied. The Bayless Pulp Mill and other businesses in Austin incurred over $6 million dollars in damage. The state's refusal to help the flood victims provoked the outrage of Senator Baldwin, whose sister Grace and their elderly parents perished in the flood. "One cannot defend property rights at the expense of human rights," said Baldwin. The Methodist minister, Reverend Harter, traveled with his family to Altoona to seek aid for families in Austin. Meanwhile, offers to adopt orphaned children poured in from around the world.
For some, the flood was the last straw in a long line of disasters in Austin. Floods and fires had ravaged the town many times before, but never so terribly as this one. Many families moved out. Others persevered and rebuilt the town. Bayliss offered to rebuild the pulp mill and dam in return for pledges from the townspeople that they would not sue him for damages. Ironically, the new mill went up in flames in 1933, and the second dam broke - with much less serious harm done - in 1942.
Brought to trial for prostitution, Cora Brooks pleaded for the mercy of the court. The judge dismissed the case after flood survivors testified on her behalf. "In a time of crisis," the judge declared, "Cora Brooks proved she was not only human, but humane."
There was never a public trial to place responsibility for the failure of the dam. Designer Hatton fought Bayliss in the public press. Ultimately, Hatton felt distraught over the tragedy. "Let the young engineer look to my misfortune," he wrote. Editorializing about the "The Lesson of Austin," The Saturday Globe of Utica, N.Y., concluded "... if the frightful fate visited upon Austin results in greater engineering and construction care in the case of the many great dams that are now being built and which are designed to hold back tremendous volumes of water, the sacrifice, needless and probably criminal as it was, will not have been in vain."
Indeed, the Austin disaster prompted the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a dam inspection law which had been stalled by political maneuvering in the wake of the Johnstown flood. Public Law 555 - The Water Obstructions Act of 1913 - was the first dam safety law in the United States. In 1914, the state undertook a massive effort to inspect all existing dams so the tragedy at Austin would not be repeated. With little more note than a Pennsylvania roadside historic marker, the twisted remains of the concrete dam still stand in Freeman Run along Pa. Route 872. Today, only 600 people live in Austin, and its school district is the smallest in Pennsylvania. Through a recent film-making effort, the story of the Austin tragedy is once again in the news.
Bringing history to light: The Austin disaster, 1911
In October 1997, Dr. Gale Largey unveiled an in-depth documentary on the 1911 flood disaster at Austin. Largey, a resident of Wellsboro, is the co-director of The Public Mind, a forum for social issues research in Pennsylvania, and is a professor of sociology at Mansfield University.
The film took more than five years to produce. "It was a labor of love," said Largey, "and grew as I discovered more sources." He is talking to PBS affiliates about airing the documentary. The sweeping work frames the tragedy of the Austin Flood in its historic perspective. Freeman Run was once an extraordinary fishing stream, where President Grover Cleveland spent his summer vacations casting for trout. By 1811, the needs of a tannery operation led to the denuding of the surrounding hemlock forests. Fish began to die in Freeman Run, poisoned by the acid runoff. By 1886, the economy shifted to lumbering. The deep forests surrounding Austin fell to the lumberman's ax: over 100 million board feet of lumber per year. The resultant erosion changed the flow of Freeman Run: raging runoff in spring, a bare trickle in summer. A dam rose to provide the Bayliss pulp mill with a constant flow of water. Design elements comprised by the sawmill owner's refusal to follow the engineer's recommendations led to the failure of the dam.
Largey relied entirely on volunteers to narrate and produce the film. In developing the script, he noted the role of grocer William "Willie" Nelson as "the Jeremiah of Austin," a prophet of doom concerned with the safety of the dam. Largey parlayed the angle into a request to country singer Willie Nelson of Austin, Texas, to volunteer as narrator for the film. "To help persuade him, I took two women from Austin with me on our first meeting: Dixie Ripple and Mina Cooney. I am absolutely convinced that seeing their genuine goodness was a major reason that Willie did the narration," said Largey. "I had to follow him to four different concerts before we got the thing done."
Largey then looked for a volunteer to voice-over President Taft's comments. "I wrote to President Clinton but got no response; President Bush refused. President Ford agreed to tape his voice by telephone. We were very fortunate that the first two requests were denied. President Ford did a fantastic job. He was truly presidential in his manner." Similarly, Gov. Tom Ridge agreed to speak the part of Gov. John K. Tener. "Gov. Ridge was simply being a gentleman willing to do a part to help preserve Pennsylvania's heritage," said Largey. "Tener, the Republican from Pittsburgh, would be pleased to know Gov. Ridge did such a good job voicing his position."
Another creative bit of casting was that of Frederique Longuet-Marx, who visited Mansfield University on a lecture tour. The great-great granddaughter of Karl Marx utters an anti-capitalist statement on the tragedy. The remaining voice-overs were done by Mansfield University students and residents of Austin.
Largey uses a mix of newsreels, historic film footage, still photos and video to give a thorough picture of life in Potter County from the mid-1800s through a period just beyond the flood. Combining the reminisces of Austin flood survivors with dramatic passages from historical documents, he makes the viewer feel a bond with the people of Austin, from the flawed Cora Brooks to the doomsaying Willie Nelson.
Interviews with survivors link the story to today. The nonagenarian survivors, all residents of northern Pennsylvania, were found by word of mouth. Perhaps the most famous Austin survivor is Margaret Sutton, author of the Judy Bolton mysteries - a series of 38 books written between 1932 and 1967. Her first book, ``The Vanishing Shadow,'' tells the story of the Austin flood.
"My family lived three miles above the dam," said Sutton. "I told (the story) to my stepdaughter and fictionalized it so it wouldn't be so sad." Of the concrete and steel dam, Sutton said, "It was beautiful to look at it, and I didn't believe it was dangerous."
A roll call of the 78 victims recounts where and how each person died as the floodwaters swept through Austin. With the exception of this somber sequence, the pacing of the film is fast and engaging. Largey's well-crafted script draws on his skills as a history writer: he's produced six regional history books during his 27 year teaching career. The Austin project had special meaning for him.
"I grew in nearby St. Marys," said Largey, "and as a young boy my father took me to see the dam. The first impression of seeing the remains was quite powerful, so I have always been fascinated by it." The film's comprehensive look at Pennsylvania's lumbering hicks drew from Largey's family roots. "My great-grandfather was a woodhick, and my grandmother worked in the woodhick camps as a cook. My grandfather drove a horse-team wagon for Straub's beer, which he often took to the camps. My father used to tell me stories of riding with his father to the camps, so at an early age I developed an appreciation of the hicks. Most of the narration about the hicks was garnered from the language used by my father."
"The Austin Disaster, 1911" (85 minutes) is available through the Mansfield University Bookstore for $29.95 plus shipping by calling (800) 577-6798. Proceeds go to the Mansfield University Foundation to support socio-historical projects.
Austin survivor revisits the past
Until the fall of 1997, longtime Shadyside resident Alice Ries had pretty much forgotten about her narrow escape from the Austin Flood. Coincidence, in the form of the boy next door, brought the matter back to her attention. "His parents came to visit," said Ries, "and they were from Williamsport. The flood came up in conversation. So the father of this boy sent him an article on the Austin flood, and he shared it with me. I saw Dr. Largey's address and wrote to him to let him know I was a survivor. He called the next day."
Largey relied on many resources to develop "The Austin Disaster, 1911," but Ries was a new find. When Largey traveled to Pittsburgh in January 1998 to show his documentary to a joint meeting of the Pittsburgh Geological Society and the Association of Engineering Geologists, he made a point of visiting with Reis. He brought her to the meeting as a special guest, where she saw the film for the first time.
"I was amazed," said Ries. "The different angles that he took, the different women he interviewed, the pictures. ... I thought it was wonderful. It went fast. He didn't dwell too much on any one thing. I thoroughly enjoyed it."
Ries was born Alice Harter in Wrightsville, the youngest of seven children. Her family moved to Austin when she was 2. The family moved frequently because her father, Elmer Elsworth Harter, was a Methodist minister. A June 1911 postcard to his sister in Pitcairn shows Alice and two of her brothers in a pony cart on the street outside the parish house in Austin. She was "mad because she couldn't hold the reins." Behind them is the house of the family doctor, Dr. Page, whose name comes up more than once in the documentary.
Ries recalled the doctor's role in Austin. "There was a house of ill repute - you wouldn't call it anything else in those days. Now this doctor lived next door (to us). I didn't tell Dr. Largey this because I forgot about it, but he had talked about the doctor who took care of the women at the house. That was Dr. Page. I remember Mrs. Page, the doctor's wife, came to visit us in Hollidaysburg when I was a teen. Another women and my mother were teasing Mrs. Page because after one of those girls would come to the doctor's office, she would go around the whole place with a cloth and water and soap to wipe off the handles and anything that this girl may have touched. My mother kept teasing her and Mrs. Page said, 'That's all I knew what to do to protect my family and the people I loved!'" Ries also noted the popularity of Cora Brooks house. "You'll see when you look at the tape, these men were there in Austin, and they had to do something on weekends ... there wasn't anything else to do!"
At 2:30 in the afternoon on Sept. 30, 1911, Mrs. Harter was chatting with Mrs. Page in the alley walkway. According to Mrs. Harter's eyewitness account on the front page of the Oct. 23, 1911 Altoona Mirror, Alice came running up to them yelling "Mama, the dam's on fire and the paper mill is busted!" The young girl ran into the house and got her father's attention as the wall of water came crashing into Austin.
"My father took my brother in one arm and me in the other," recalled Ries, "and my mother followed him right across the street, up the hill. We got to the top of the hill. The house was gone, and the church was gone. What especially sticks in my mind is the church steeple swirling 'round and 'round in the floodwaters. It just took everything in a very short time."
As for her quote in the Altoona Mirror, "Believe me," Ries said, "my older brothers and sisters never let me forget that." The newspaper article lends more detail to the family's narrow escape. According to Mrs. Harter, "Mr. Harter must have leaped from the top to the foot of the stairway, where we all met. I wanted to go for my purse in the kitchen, but he grabbed me and the rest and with Herculean strength forced us out the house crying, 'flee for your lives.' Only 10 seconds after leaving the home, our home was destroyed. While in the church yard I fell, but Mr. Harter dragged me out of the water as it was fast closing in upon us. In some manner, we all at one time plunged through a hole in the fence and reached the higher bank."
Ries was 4 years old at the time of the flood. "(Austin) was in a valley, and the hospital was on one side of the valley. Where we went the first night was on the other side of the valley. I remember sleeping in a clothes basket the night after the flood. Everyone went to the home of this friend and there wasn't enough room for kids."
"Both my father and mother helped with the relief effort," said Ries. "One thing I don't remember seeing but everyone talked about is that there were people on the far side of the valley crying `where's my husband?' `Is he here?' So my father and about six other men tied themselves together. When the water was gone so you could walk, they went across to determine who was there and who was on the other side.''
The account in the Altoona paper tells a grimmer tale. "In one instance there were 13 men in a party to walk along the debris after the water had subsided and when, seeing a woman sitting upright deep down among the debris they all fled from the horrible sight but Reverend Harter and two others." Harter acted as pallbearer and preacher for 56 of the 78 dead. Later, he traveled to Altoona and Hollidaysburg to drum up financial support for the survivors of Austin, successfully raising funds for several of the churches to be rebuilt. The family left soon after.
"In March, we moved to Shickshinny," said Ries, "where the Methodist Church posted my father. We were there about five or six years, and then we moved to Hollidaysburg."
She never returned to Austin. "After the flood, my family was never together again." All of her siblings survived the disaster, but they took different paths in life. One brother joined the service and ended up in China. Another became a hog farmer in Canada.
Ries eventually came to Pittsburgh, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1928 with a bachelor's degree in French. She taught French at Taylor-Allerdice High School until her retirement in 1970. She now studies German at the University of Pittsburgh, and as a very active senior, plans a trip to Germany this year.
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