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Potter County Pennsylvania Disasters

The 1911 Austin Flood and Fire

Contributed by Denise Hansen

A concrete dam, maintained by the Bayless Pulp and Paper Mill, burst , sending 4,500,000 gallons of water through the town of Austin, Pennsylvania and the smaller localities of Costello and Wharton. Officially, seventy-eight people were killed, although the initial estimate of death was almost 1,000. The collapse of the dam inspired regulation that affects not only the entire state, but the entire country. On June 25, 1913 Pennsylvania legislators completed Act No. 555 of the Laws of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This act provided for the regulation of dams and gave enforcement power to the Water Supply Commission of Pennsylvania (WSCP).

 From the Philadelphia Inquirer, dated October 2, 1911:

Death List In Austin Flood and Fire Horror Shrinks To 300; Property Loss $6,000,000; Hundreds Destitute

Recover 16 Bodies; Hundreds Rescue Dead From Ruins

Majority of the Business Men of Town Have Lost Their Lives and Place May Never Be Rebuilt

Austin, Pa., Oct. 1 – The curtain of night, which was rung down on the Austin flood scarcely before its victims had all been claimed and its surviving spectators fully realized how great a tragedy the elements of water and fire enacted in the natural amphitheatre of the Allegheny Mountains here, was lifted by dawn today, revealing a ghastly scene of death and devastation.

Austin itself, yesterday a busy mill town of 3000 people, many of whom were enjoying the fine autumn afternoon as a Saturday half holiday, is only a ghost of a town today. Torn to pieces by water and eaten by fire, the wet and charred remnants of its buildings, believed to hold the bodies of 300 or more persons, were strewn along the valley edge, piled in rows where the Main street business section was, or swept in scattered masses far down the ravines. Many say the death list may not exceed 150.

Spectators, many of whom barely escaped being victims of the disaster and hundreds of persons from surrounding towns, looked down from the steep hillsides on Austin and Costello through a veil of fog this morning to see the wreckage here of some four hundred houses, a score of business blocks, three churches and several large lumber mills, and three miles further down the river at Costello, the ruins of more than fifty buildings.

The flood did not spend its force until it raced for more than ten miles from the reservoir. Wharton, still further on, suffered somewhat, but is practically intact. The loss of life at Costello, where the residents had more warning, is but two.

The property loss in the valley is estimated at upwards of $6,000,000. Sixteen bodies have been recovered.

In Austin, out of the hundreds directly enveloped in the deluge, hardly a dozen survive. The furious flood let loose when the Bayless Paper and Pulp Company’s dam crumbled yesterday afternoon, picked up a huge battery of heavy timbers in the mill yards at the foot of the dam and with these thousands of planks and logs, rammed its path with terrible havoc.

It is the general opinion that the town never will be rebuilt. The majority of the men of wealth have been financially ruined.

The 500 men who had toiled all day in a heavy rainstorm abandoned their task with the coming of darkness. They moved mighty heaps of debris, fought fire and worked on without food, seeking to remove bodies of the dead; less than a score had been found.

A battalion of state police then surrounded the town and no person without a pass was permitted to enter.

Reports from Costello and points farther down, state the homeless have all been provided with shelter.

At the hospital today there were but six injured for the care of the small army of physicians and nurses who poured into the devastated town all night and day. The medical supplies remained unused in the cars rushed here by the railroads.

The State constabulary arrived this afternoon and took charge of the situation, which seemed too appalling for the local committee, which had worked all night. Immediately orders were issued to the railroads to bring no more sightseers to Austin and sentinels were placed on the chief roadways with instructions to pass none by workmen. Hundreds of automobiles and carriages were turned back.

During the night searching parties with engine headlights, automobile lamps, line torches and improvised lanterns of every sort poked their way into every pile of wreckage that was accessible seeking any who might be alive, but scarcely a body was found in which life was not extinct. The night had been one of hardship and horror, which severely tested the mettle of the men whom circumstances had impressed into first aid rescuers of the flood devastated village.

Search Bodies for Papers
Men who shuddered at the touch of a dead body at the outset indifferently searched mangled bodies for papers of identification ere they had been long at work in the debris. One corpse among so many did not seem ghastly; the sensation was appalling.

The immediate scene of the obliteration of Austin covers an area three-eighths of a mile wide and one and three quarters miles long. This comprised the business section and the valley residence portion, and was bounded by Main, Ruckaber and Thorn streets and Costello avenue, crossed by two less thoroughfares. Nearly a mile above stood the mammoth concrete dam of the Bayless Paper and Pulp Company, six hundred feet long, fifty-two feet high and thirty feet thick at the bottom, tapering to a thickness of three feet at the top.

Back of this dam yesterday lay a reservoir of water a mile and a half long and an average of thirty-five feet deep. Directly in front of the dam stood the plant of the Bayless Company, with four main buildings. Stacked high nearby was 700,000 cords of 50-inch wood and slabs, and also a portion of the company’s immense timber stock, totaling in the Austin valley 15,000,000 feet of hardwood and 25,000,000 of hemlock. This was a five-year supply, practically the last large cut of the region. It was valued at $2,000,000.

Town Swept Away
A mild stream, Freeman Run, flowed through the town into Sinnemahoning Creek, leading to the Susquehanna River. The town proper was a smart little place of comfortable frame houses and more substantial business buildings along the main street, which ran from side to side across the ravine. The principal business buildings included the brick structure occupied jointly by the Austin Bank and the Post office, the department store of A.R. Buck, the Goodyear Hotel and the commercial house and numerous general stores.

Five minutes after the dam burst this stage had been swept of its scenery and setting. Along the foothills were thrown telescoped houses, whole sides and fragments piled and catapulted together. At either end of Main street brick buildings acted as buffers as the twenty-five-foot wall of water rushed downward with its mass of debris. Almost hill high, the wood, steel and brick were piled, a strange mixture of the contents of stores and homes and of varied length timbers and sticks shot into the mass, the wreckage of the dam had been as complete as it was sudden.

Two immense sections from top to bottom, a hundred and fifty feet wide, were thrown out bodily like the immense gates of a canal lock. The outward swing was more than fifty feet and on either side the remaining structure had consisted of a patch of cement fourteen feet square. One of the several sections yesterday began at that patch.

Begin Legal Probe
The cause of the breaking of the dam is a matter which the District Attorney of Potter county has taken steps to investigate. The Bayless dam was examined by experts over a year ago and certain recommendations were made looking to its safety. The District Attorney has secured the names of some of the experts who submitted the report to the Bayless company and will summon them to testify at an inquest to begin some day this week.

Relief work had not been systematically organized tonight, but it is hoped that by morning the chaotic condition will have been somewhat relieved.

Shortly after 11 o’clock this morning, the first relief train arrived over the Pennsylvania Railroad. Four carloads of food and medical supplies loaded at the State arsenal composed the relief loads. This was ordered by John K. Tener, and the train left Harrisburg at 4:10 this morning in charge of Major Finney, of the Eighth Regiment, N.G.P., with eight men as guards. At Subery, Pa., twenty-one men of Troop C of the State Constabulary, all the available men at hand, were taken aboard and a delay of an hour was caused by the loading of the troop horses.

Pillagers at Work
It was shown this morning that there was need of a strong hand to guard the town. Pillagers had been at work during the night following the rumor that the vaults of the Austin bank and the safes of several stores had been wrecked. The rumor was not true and the firemen and volunteers did effective work in keeping off would-be plunderers. In several cases the guardians had hand-to-hand conflicts with the marauders, in which the latter were worsted.

The survivors of the flood had not recovered from the horror of the scene this morning and for many hours none but strangers visited the ruins. As the day progressed small knots of survivors met and visited the sight of the ruined town. Many striking incidents of the flood and escapes were recounted.

Credit for the quick spreading of the alarm was given to Lena Binekey, a telephone operator. Upon receiving the message from the Cliff house that the dam had broken, she pushed the alarm button connecting with the fire department and the engineer’s office of the Goodyear Lumber Mill below the town. The engineer tied his whistle down and the fire bell in the town was sounded continuously. She then rushed to the street screaming the warning cry, “The dam has broken.” Then she fled for her life toward the steep hillside at the north end of Main street. Turning toward the valley side she saw the great wall of water descending upon the town.

Telephone Girl Sees All
“From where I stood,” she said today, “the wall of water seemed fifty feet high. Above it rose a great cloud of spray, in which houses seemed to toss, bumping against one another, spinning and turning as they fell to pieces or were swept out of my sight. The noise was appalling.”

“When I fled from Main street, there were scores of persons behind me, many of them children. They did not seem to appreciate the imminence of their danger.”

“Some turned into stores as if to make a casual purchase. While I was looking down upon them, utterly helpless to give further warning, the cloud of mist that seemed to precede the flood hid them from view, and a moment later the green water buried the houses from my sight.”

Chief of Police D.E. Baker took an informal census today, and from his list calculated that at least 300 of the residents were unaccounted for. Bark S.M. Siebert, chairman of the Citizens’ Committee, and Michael Murrin, the Burgess, pointed out that this reckoning necessarily was inaccurate because many o those who escaped the flood are wandering about today trying to house themselves and those dependent upon them.

Burgess Murrin said today that, in his opinion, not more than 150 lives were lost.

“It is possible that this figure will cover the loss,” he said, “and it is possible that there will be not more than 100 dead.”

Loss Will Reach $6,000,000
The Burgess and the Rev. P.W. O’Brien, who has been pastor of St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church at Austin for many years, and who are familiar with business conditions and values, estimate the property damage at about $6,000,000. The Bayless Company, which owned the dam, will lose $1,500,000, according to Father O’Brien; the Goodyear Lumber Company $1,000,000, the Buffalo and Susquehanna Railroad $500,000, and the 300 houses destroyed, with their contents, it is said, will total $1,000,000 more.

One of the striking and pathetic features of the day, according to Dr. Thomas H.A. Stytes, chief of the State dispensaries, was the practical absence of children among the survivors. It is thought that when the wreckage is cleared away and the bodies of victims recovered – although many have been entirely destroyed – it will be found that a large proportion are those of children.

Boyd Lockhard, a young business man of Austin, had a narrow escape. Mr. Lockhard said that when he heard the alarm given, he thought someone was playing a practical joke and he went in the street to watch the people’s actions. He looked in the direction of the dam and saw the oncoming flood was but three blocks away.

“It looked like a wall of wood, twenty-five feet high,” he said. “At first glance, I did not see the water at all because the wood at the pulp mill was carried before the water and became a sort of battering ram that tore away the buildings of the town. I ran towards the hill and by the greatest effort got above the level of the water while it was surging within ten feet of me. The ground began to give way under me, but I managed to clamber a few feet further up and caught hold of a tree, to which I clung.”

Throngs Visit Town
Throngs came to the town today from all points in the Sinnemahoning Valley below Austin to ascertain the extent of the damage or to seek friends and relatives. The rush of the waters had carried away every means of wire communication and impeded travel of any kind.

J.C. Borchard, who lived within half a mile of Costello, said today that when the rest of the flood swept past his home, there were no signs of human beings or their houses in the debris.

“The entire surface of the flood was covered with newly-sawn timber and pieces of lumber,” he said. “It was not until a lapse of five or six minutes that pieces of housetops, broken furniture and other evidences of the destruction of the town began to appear.”

“The people of Costello,” he said, “received ample warning from Austin that the dam had broken, and although forty or fifty houses were demolished, only three fatalities occurred.”

The annihilation of the town of Austin came on a beautiful autumn afternoon. The fine weather had attracted many of the younger element to a ball game in a nearby town, and luckily they escaped the fate of their many friends and relatives. Women were about the streets for their Saturday afternoon shopping, and these and the merchants who were selling them goods were caught by the onrush of water almost before they had time to think of escape.

There were small crowds amusing themselves also at moving picture theatres, which were swept away by the water. Women rocking their babies at home, and preachers preparing their Sunday sermons were hurled into eternity at one and the same time before their startled senses could realize the meaning of it all.

Scores Buried Under Wreckage
The greatest loss of life by fire occurred at a sharp turn of the valley, just below Main street, where the debris was caught and compressed with terrific power by the circling sweep of the flood. The wreckage of the busiest portion of the town was carried to that point and, from upset stoves and lamps, caught fire. It is believed that scores of persons are buried under from ten to twenty feet of wreckage there, and the task of recovering them will necessarily be a difficult one.

In a drizzling rain, which later changed to a beating storm, hundreds of volunteers carried on the work of rescue today, while many, hysterical from the fate that had overcome friends and relations, viewed the muddy corpses, anxious and fearful to know if any among them were loved ones. Fires were still burning briskly in some portions of the wreckage this afternoon, although they had been under control for several hours.

The Buffalo and Susquehanna found a way into Austin over the rails today by connecting with the floating summit spur, a branch track that followed the hill. By this route they landed several fire companies from Olean, Galeton, Renova and Smethport. Not a manufacturing industry is left standing and not a business is intact. A few cheaply constructed wooden houses occupied by foreigners and located on the hillside is all that remains of the residence portion. A fortunate exception to the general destruction is the fact that the little hospital remains practically undamaged on the hillside. The school building is also saved.

Police Keep Good Order
Chief of Police, Daniel Baker, of Austin, one of the survivors, with the assistance of Ernest Hamilton and a number of constables from nearby towns, maintained as good order as could be expected throughout the night and until the arrival of a company of the State Constabulary at 11 o’clock this morning.

There were eighty mounted men in the State squad, but on account of the wreckage in the valley it was found not practicable to picket the ruins of the village on horseback. Lines were established and only workers and searchers were allowed to pass them. There was but little pillaging. During the forenoon Chief Baker discovered a man and a woman removing a watch from a dead man’s pocket, but to attempt an arrest was useless, and the pair got away after some rough handling by the crowd. In the wreckage of three stores he found that the cash registers had been broken open and the contents stolen. One man met with three watches was locked up in a freight car.

A primary election was in progress in the town hall at the time the flood broke. A hatless man dashing by yelled to the crowd about the booth something about “the dam bursting” and the election inspectors and voters dashed out and took to the hills, leaving their ballots unmarked. Some escaped, but many were too late and were whirled into the debris, which formed a dam of itself just below Main street. The jam of debris at this point was at least seventy-five feet high and three or four blocks long. In this mass the majority of victims are believed tonight to lie mangled and burned. The halves of houses, twisted telephone poles, huge sections of brick wall, trees and timbers are interwoven and locked together with such forces that the rescuers have to fight their way into the debris inch by inch.

Hundreds Clear Away Ruins
There were five hundred or more men working in the ruins late this afternoon. Heavy logging ropes were tied about the bigger pieces of wreckage, the end paid out until two or three hundred men had room for a hold. In this primitive way the ruins were forced apart, often to fall again into the tangle and make the work all the more difficult.

The dam of debris which formed at Austin saved the western part of Costello. It stayed the onrush of the current temporarily, during with the alarm spread down the valley and the residents of Costello had time to flee to the hills. The eastern side of the village, however, was entirely destroyed, rendering about 400 people homeless. It is believed that only three lives were lost and of these only one body, that of an unidentified woman, had been recovered at a late hour this afternoon.

The work of clearing up the debris is under the direction of Senator A.T. Baldwin, who lost his father, mother, wife and home in the flood, and was himself injured in escaping the disaster. Prothonotary F.J. Wandell is also leading in the work. During the night the food supplies were scarce and the rescuers, many of whom were unused to such heavy work, toiled without so much as asking for anything to eat. Several of them collapsed today and had to be given medical attention.

Governor Dix telephoned from Albany this morning that the State of New York was prepared to send anything the sufferers might need as soon as Pennsylvania would make known what would be acceptable.

No Lack of Willing Hands
There was no lack of willing hands. Country women from miles around drove to the scene, and between comforting the Austin women who had lost husbands and children and getting luncheons for the survivors were busy all day and into the night. Meanwhile men fought their way through woods and brush for a mile or more to get pure water for coffee and farmers drove in with large supplies of fresh milk.

In order to be fed, one had to be vouched for as a resident of the flood-stricken town or a commissioned flood worker. Guards were placed at the door of an old wooden building which stood outside the path of the flood, where the workers and survivors were fed and saw that the rule was enforced.

Later in the day, after the supply trains had arrived, three loaves of bread, two cans of tomatoes and a two-pound can of roast beef was issued as a day’s ration to the head of each surviving household.

Two morgues were established during the afternoon, one in the High School Building, which is for the reception of all bodies taken from the east side of the valley. The other is in the old Odd Fellows Building, for the bodies taken from the wreckage on the west side of the town.

Form Health Organization
Following the arrival of a special train with officials representing State Commissioner of Health Dixon, a meeting of the sanitary officers, physicians, surgeons and nurses was held, at which an executive organization was formed. County Health Inspector Dr. E.H. Ashcraft, of Coudersport, was placed in charge. A relief committee was formed, with Attorney W.S. Dubois, of Coudersport, as chairman; a finance committee, with M.M. Metcalf, of Austin, in charge, and a supply committee, with former Representative W.K. Swotland, of Coudersport, as chairman. John F. Stone was given entire charge of distribution of provisions and clothing.

The State officials here include Chief Sanitary Engineer F.H. Snow, Chief Medical Inspector Poyer, Dr. Thomas A. Stytes and assistants. They soon found that the local organization was entirely able to cope with the situation. After outlining the work, they returned late tonight. The State will probably send 200 men to continue the recovery of bodies tomorrow.

Luther D. Seibert, aided by the authorities, has begun a census of the living and dead and is interviewing every man he can find. As many of the survivors are foreigners, he is having hard work to be understood. He hopes to complete his census by tomorrow.

Finds Family Had Perished
One of the most pathetic in the long list of tragedies is the case of James Leeman, a night worker, who was asleep at his home and did not hear the alarm. When the rush of water swallowed up his little home, he was tossed out upon a pile of floating debris and eventually floated to a landing a mile and a half below the village. Wounded and bruised, he made his way back only to find that his wife and four children had perished in the waters. Leeman went violently insane.

W.D. Robertson, another night worker, watchman at the Bayless mills, was asleep in the third story of the Starkweather building when aroused by the roar of the flood. He stepped out on a balcony commanding a view of the onrushing waters.

“Houses were tossing about like corks,” he said. “I was transfixed with horror, unable to make a move to save myself. The entire building lurched forward and then collapsed. I fell two stories with the building and found myself protected by a bridge which had formed by wedged timbers. I made good my escape, and I am mighty glad to be here to tell about it. I have three little kiddies in Erie. Thank God they were not here.” Robertson was badly injured.

Frank Robinson, a one-armed stenographer, was also on the third story of the Starkweather building. The first thing he knew was when the floor gave way beneath him and the whole building fairly lurched across the street. He was hurled through a window and landed on top of some debris on which he floated to safety.

Owes Life to Baby Daughter
Thomas Lawler, a bartender at the Commercial Hotel, says he owed his life to his attempt to save his baby daughter. He told his story today as he lay on a cot at the hospital with both legs broken.

“I was upstairs in my home on Railroad street,” he said, “playing with my eight-months-old daughter. My wife and little boy were downstairs. Without warning the roof caved in over my head and then with the rising water it floated away. Instinctively I grabbed my baby, and when I found myself floating along with the wreck of the house, I held her above my head. I caught hold of the side of my house and pushed the baby on it and held tight. All around me was a sea of slabs. It was all over in three or four minutes, but it seemed years. The part of the house I was clinging to was rammed with terrific impact into the hill, where I scrambled ashore with both legs broken. How I dragged myself to the hospital with the baby I don’t know, but I did.” Lawler’s wife and boy were drowned.

Robert Cransie claims to have accomplished a miraculous escape. “I was about 100 feet below the dam when it gave way,” he said. “I saw the wall of water rushing down upon me, and although it poured over me at least 30 feet high, it threw me flat on the ground. 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 it last night.”

Employees of the Bayless Pulp and Paper Mill had as thrilling experiences as any. There were 250 hands at work yesterday when the flood came. Fifty of them were young women employed on the first floor. A dozen were injured.

Tossed in Tangled Machinery
M.A. Devereaux, who was employed in the grinding room, grasped the shafting above him when he saw the wall of the mill cave in. The whirring countershaft caused him to lose his grip and he sank in the waters rushing under him. He was again tossed up and caught in the tangled machinery in whose vice-like grip he was rescued after calling for two hours for help. He was taken to the hospital with both legs broken.

Emery Worth, who was working in the tying room, described the first warning of the flood as a hissing noise. “Thinking a steam pipe had blown up,” he said, “I looked up from my work just in time to see the room cave in. I was thrown out of the window and onto the roof, which landed me high and dry on the hill.” Worth is at the hospital seriously injured.

Mary Blaitz, an employee in the counting room, told the reporters in the hospital today how it feels to have a leg amputated with an ax. “I was busy at my work,” she said, “when suddenly there lurched through the wall one of the big pulp grinding stones of the mill. As I leaped aside to avoid it, the ceiling caved in and the water followed and passed over me. Rescuers found me later pinned beneath the grinding stones. They tried to release me, but failed. The great stone was too big to move and I felt as if I should surely die there.”

“’Get an axe and cut off my leg,’ I told them. But no man would volunteer. ‘Cut if off,’ I pleaded. ‘You can stand it if I can.’”

“I looked up and saw Joe Venargo, a friend of mine. ‘You do it, Joe, for me,’ I pleaded. I was in awful pain and nothing could be worse torture than what I was enduring. ‘I-I can’t do that, Mary,’ he said.”

“I asked a big man back of him to do it. He picked up the ax. By the lantern light I saw the descending blade glisten. I think he chopped it four or five times before they could pry me loose.”

At the hospital Dr. Ashcraft said the plucky girl would recover.

John McKinney, an employee of the Bayless mill, struggled to get over the board fence topped with barbed wire, which proved a death trap for scores. He had his little child by the hand. Unable to get over it himself, McKinney threw his child over the fence to safety and met death in the waters. A score of survivors who saw this act have pledged themselves to bring up the child.

Dug Way Through Brick Wall
John Harvey and Clara Dittenhoffer, other employees of the mill, dug their way through a brick wall when imprisoned by wreckage and were subsequently rescued. Six persons are known to have been killed in the main building of the Bayless plant, and surviving employees said that thirty-five other lives may have been lost there. Even as late as today two persons were rescued alive from the ruins of the mill. One is an infant, a few months old, which was cooing and crying alternately, when rescuers came upon it, wrapped in a blanket. The baby girl evidently had slipped from the arm of some one who was trying to carry her to safety. The child has not been identified. Close by the bodies of Anna Jackson and Flossie Melzer, a man also was rescued alive, but in a precarious condition.

Mrs. Martha Kinnicut, a restaurant keeper, laughed when warned of the flood. A child was drinking a glass of soda. “Oh, let the kid finish her glass,” said Mrs. Kinnicut to a boy who came running with the alarm. A few moments later the store was swept away, and the woman and child are among the missing.

The young son of Mrs. Thomas Reese was sitting on the doorstep of his father’s house when the flood came dashing down. Their house is on high ground and one of the few that escaped. His mother had just darted out of the door when she saw her boy swept into the water. The frantic mother plunged in to save him when a big Hungarian waded in and pulled her out on the bank.

Infuriated with rage and fear and steeled with the hope that she might save her boy, she turned back to the flood. In restraining her from plunging in her clothes were torn from her body and her arms broken. Her child was drowned.

Turned Back for Money, Drowned
Mrs. William H. Erhardt escaped from her house, but turned back to get a handbag containing $20. She was drowned. Those of her party escaped. This afternoon her handbag was found, but her body has not yet been recovered.

Madge Nelson, aged 18, was thrown from the second story of her home upon a pile of driftwood and escaped after a half-mile voyage on the crest of the flood. Her mother, who was on the first floor, was drowned.

“This is the last of Austin,” said one of the old residents tonight. “The town is wiped out and there is no call for it to be rebuilt, as there is no more lumber here for the big mills to work on. Austin is gone.”

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