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Dam break left PotterCo. town in ruins in 1911

Published October 08. 2011 09:01AM

America's crumbling infrastructure - including bridges, roads, rail lines, waste treatment facilities and dams - has become one of the issues heading into next year's presidential race.

A century ago, it was human error - the faulty construction of a reservoir in Potter County - that was blamed for a tragedy that wiped out the town of Austin, killing 78 people.

Two years before the disaster, the Bayless Pulp & Paper Mill needed a more reliable water source to sustain it through the dry seasons in the Freeman Run Valley. A large concrete dam 50 feet high was built across the valley at a cost of $86,000.

The dam was designed to be 30-feet thick but it was constructed at 20 feet. Only a few months before completion, some cracking problems were seen in the concrete and it was noted that the dam had slipped four feet on its foundation. Bayless spent $1,000,000 to repair the cracks and reinforce the foundation.

On Sept. 30, 2011, heavy rains swelled the reservoir and the stress split the concrete into pieces, causing 500,000,000 gallons of water to pour into the valley and town located a mile and a half downstream.

After hearing the loud rumble, a woman whose home was on a hillside above the dam immediately called the phone operator in town to warn the people downstream. The operator who took the call quickly dashed through the streets screaming that the dam had broken.

The alarm, however, came too late for many who were simply swept away by the 50-foot-high wall of water. A watchman for the paper company was standing on a third-floor balcony when he saw houses suddenly being tossed about like corks.

Frozen by the scene unfolding before his eyes, he also became a victim when the building he was standing on collapsed into a twisted mass. He survived by grabbing the branches of a tree as it passed by.

A number of other persons swept downstream became entangled in a cattle fence. One person, who worked at the paper mill, was able to throw his young child over the fence before being pulled under by the current.

"A state of hysteria, bordering on madness, reigns in Austin," the Tamaqua Courier reported on Oct. 3.

There were some dramatic rescues. One man was found alive after being buried under "hundreds of tons of wreckage" for 48 hours.

Amid the ruins were "sides of beef, carcasses of pigs, horses and cattle," according to the Courier. Dr. Samuel Dixon, state health commissioner, arrived on scene to personally direct a force of 300 men that helped protect the area against "an outbreak of pestilence."

"Chloride of lime and other disinfectants were used ... to consume the refuse," a reporter stated,

Looting was also a concern and 55 state police were called in to assist in patrolling as well as help searching through the ruins. Ten persons were arrested in the first few days for pillaging the ruins. Two of them were women, Mrs. Peter Shava and her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Joseph Shava.

The women were seen "wandering about the ruins and acting in a suspicious manner." After they pried open a trunk and began plundering its contents, troopers arrested them. They later found a cache of furs, jewelry and other valuable articles in Joseph Shava's home.

Ironically, the Bayless mill and the Emporium Lumber Company Mill, the town's only other large employer, were still standing after the disaster.

Some businessmen, however, felt the tragedy was a death knell for the town.

"The town will never be rebuilt," one merchant said. "Austin, as a town of any size, will not exist in the future."

Although many families did move out, enough remained to rebuild. Bayliss offered to rebuild the pulp mill and dam in return for pledges from the townspeople that they would not sue him for damages. Still, the company paid out over $2,000,000 in negligence claims.

"No corporation that is not willing to spend every dollar needed to eliminate the least chance of collapse should not be permitted to flow back any stream," a writer for the Courier stated.

Ironically, the paper mill survived the 1911disaster but couldn't overcome a disastrous fire in 1933. A second dam break, meanwhile, occurred in 1942 but this one left much less destruction.

Although there was never a public trial over the liability for the 1911 disaster, it did usher in new state legislation regarding dam inspections. The Water Obstructions Act of 1913 became the first dam safety law in the United States.

"Engineers say that hundreds of crudely built dams can be found in this country," the Courier stated in an opinion on the Austin tragedy. "Many of them are of pure masonry, a type of dam which has gone by. Reinforced concrete is favored by modern engineers."

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