Monday, July 23, 2012

Austin Dam

The small town of Austin, Pennsylvania is a place that is proud of their resilience. They have suffered through tough economical times, blazing town fires, and unfortunate flooding. Though none were more tragic than the catastrophe that occurred on September 30, 1911.

At the turn of the 20th century a thriving lumber industry was helping to keep the tiny community afloat, though the timber was quickly disappearing. In an effort to keep an economicable market in the area, a local Senator persuaded businessman George Bayless to open a nearby mill. Subsequently the Bayless paper company began construction and started production in 1900. The company employed 200 locals when it first opened. In 1909 after several years of operation the company decided the rain short seasons were slowing production. In a effort to have a more steady supply of water a dam was built nearby. On December 1, 1909 the largest gravity dam in Pennsylvania was completed. The structure was a major engineering feat for it's time. The dam stood 50 feet high, 540 feet long, and 25 feet thick, unfortunately it was designed to be 30 feet thick. In less than two months problems were already occuring. In late January 1910 an unexpected early winter thaw caused a massive bowing in the dam wall. Several attempts were made to alleviate the pressure, sadly many of the engineers recomendations were ignored and the attempts were fruitless.  Many of the townsfolk feared the dam would eventually lead to catastrophe, but also realized without it there would be no industry.

Saturday September 30, 1911, the men and women of Austin are gathered downtown. The women off enjoying a day of shopping and strolling, while the men are fullfilling their civic duty and voting. At approximately 2:15 PM, from her home on the hill, local outcast and bordello owner, Cora Brooks witnessed the dam give way. In a panic the woman telephoned as many of the locals as she could to warn them of the impending danger. Shortly after alarms in town began to scream out, unfortunately many ignored the sirens as just another test. Within 15 minutes the modest village was being pounded with large quatities of water and pulpwood that had been swept down by the raging whirl. The horrendous disaster claimed the lives of 78 indivuals and left the town ravaged and destroyed.

Immediately following some of the townsfolk left and vowed never to return, they claimed to have had their share of floods and fires and were through with Austin. Fortunately those who stayed strived and demanded to make their town better than ever. As a community they rebuilt their tiny village and continued on. The once destroyed Bayless paper mill went back into operation. Ironically the stay was short lived, in 1933 a fire destroyed the paper manufacturer and operations ceased infinitly. Even the Austin dam was repaired, sadly in 1942 it failed again. This time was much less drastic and claimed no lives.

Since than the town of Austin, Pennsylvania has struggled like so many other small towns in America, but they have what most don't...charm. The remains of the dam still exist just north of town. They are a constant reminder of the tragedies that have occured here, and also a rememberance of the times that came before. While so many other communities are destroying their history, the town of Austin is embracing theirs. The dam is surrounded by a beautiful, virtually untouched landscape.

They have also found the area serves as a great natural ampitheater, and the remains of the dam offer an amazing backdrop for a laserlight show. Every year they host an annual celebration commemorating their tragic history, and having damn good time while they do it!

Join the celebration July 28, 2012

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