Austin, PA Dam Collapse And Flood, Sept 1911 - Loss of Life at 200

Austin PA Dam Before Break.jpg Austin PA Dam Ruins 9-30-1911.jpg Austin PA Main Street after Flood.jpg Austin PA After Flood 1.jpg Austin PA Emporium Lumber Mill Ruins.jpg Austin PA Flood Damage.jpg Austin PA School house after flood.jpg Austin PA Flood Marker.jpg





Austin, Pa., Oct. 2. (AP) -- With the arrival of a car load of coffins here today the grimness of the tragedy which has practically annihilated this town was impressed on the workers who renewed their efforts to mine deeply into the hills of debris.
Twenty victims, including two at Costello, had been placed in a temporary morgue at the Odd Fellows hall, one of the few buildings still standing, in the ruined district. The identified dead now number twelve.
The most essential matter in hand now is the counting of the people who remain alive. If the death list aggregated anything like the number some have estimated, the health authorities realize that conditions demanding prompt attention will arise within a few days in the ruins.
Most careful investigators are unprepared to learn that more than 200 have been lost. There is a possibility that 150 will be the total.

(Transcriber's Note -- I have found the actual total of deceased as ranging from 78 to 86).

A twelve-hour downpour of rain reduced the number of incoming people considerably, and policing conditions are now perfected. The state constabulary, state sanitary engineers, chief officials of the state health department are co-operating for measures of protection and for relief.
The aspect is dreary and appalling. The property loss of $8,000,000 has been sustained and the town may never be rebuilt.
Costello is shattered as is Austin, and only timely warning of telephone operators held the death list there down to two.
It would take the brush of a Verestchagin, that wonderful Russian painter of desolation, to convey an adequate impression of the ruin wrought at Austin. No more words can tell the story, though they may give an idea of what has occurred. The number of bodies recovered from the ruins of the village wiped out by the bursting of the dam of the Bayless Pulp and Paper Company is no indication of the number of dead.
It is estimated that of the 676 houses in the village 500 have been swept away. Nearly all were dwellings and it is fair to presume that at least one person was in each of them. This would bring the total to 500 persons lost. As a matter of fact no one can estimate with accuracy the loss of life. Whole families were destroyed. The hysterical place it as high as 1,000, the conservatives say 300. Until the debris is cleared away until the last pile of burning refuse has been examined and the charred bones of those who died by fire as well as those who met death by drowning have been counted and the number of reported missing tabulated, the number of dead will not be known.

The story of the havoc wrought could have been recorded on a camera in five minutes. From the second the dam gave away until the great wave of water passed over Austin, only that small space of time elapsed. At 2:30 p.m. the main street of Austin was filled with women doing their weekly shopping. Scores of persons had driven in from the surrounding country. The hitching rods along the principal thoroughface were lined with horses. Four hundred employes were at work in the pulp mill while 150 more stacked lumber in the yards. There was a report as of a cannon. Then came another. There was no need to tell anyone who heard it what had happened. The engineer at the mill seized the telephone and called to the central operator at Austin that the dam had broken. Then he threw the receiver down and climbed for safety. In a second the water was about him, but he escaped.
Two minutes after the operator at Austin had received the message: "The dam has gone out," a wall of water 50 feet high was upon it. Fifty feet high for the first half mile it fell to a height of 40 feet. It carried all before it. Frame buildings and those of brick were toppled over.
Down Main Street it came with a roar that struck terror to the hearts of all in the town. Men clambored for places of safety. Those on the first floors of houses sought the upper floors only to be swept through windows by the inrush of waters. There was no bridge of masonry as at Johnstown to hold the debris and make it a funeral pyre. There was some railroad trestle. This went out with the flood. Not a house from the paper mill, a half and a quarter away, to Goodyears and Davis Hotels was left. Dwellings and business houses were carried with their contents toward and even to the village of Costello.
There were few eye witnesses who could describe what had taken place. Those who escaped know only that they heard the roar. The fire bell rang when the engineer telephoned from the mill and ran and escaped. Those in the cottages on the hills saw the water rush by them, heard the roar, heard the shrieks of the hundreds caught in the angry flood, were helpless and in a few minutes saw the waters recede. Women in telling what they saw say they placed their hands, over their eyes to shut out the horrible sight. Others say they fell on their knees in prayer to thank God for their own deliverance and to pray for the safety of those they believed to be caught in the flood.

Austin, Pa., Oct. 2. -- Just as a man's cry, "My God, the dam has burst," gave warning to Johnstown when the dam which destroyed that city broke in 1889, so might a similar cry that came over the telephone to her as she sat in the office of the mills. But Margaret Decker laughed after the manner of a young woman that thinks she is being made the butt of a practical joke.
"Warn the town, the dam has burst," came the cry again.
Once more the girl laughed and as no further words came over the wire she hung up the receiver. But she told a clerk. In an instant he had called up the car shops a mile away and its whistle a second later gave a brief blast of warning.