Saturday, March 15, 2008
Water, Money and Lives
“God’s Country”. These two words are on just about every sign that you see welcoming you into Potter County Pennsylvania. The inhabitants of Potter County will refer to it in much the same way. A beautiful landscape virtually unspoiled by the hand of man and industry for the most of the 20th century, it makes for pleasant Sunday drive scenery.
Potter County’s second claim to fame is that in Coudersport you will find the headwaters of the mighty Allegheny River which flows to Pittsburgh. The river can be easily straddled at Coudersport, as my youngest daughter did for a photograph many years ago. This spot is also, theoretically, the meeting point of three different watersheds. If one were to dump a bucket of water on this theoretical spot, one third would flow to the Chesapeake, one third to the Great Lakes and the last third to the Gulf of Mexico. At least that is what I have been told.
And if you were, in fact, taking a leisurely drive through the county on a Sunday afternoon you may end up traveling south from Coudersport on Rt. 872 and come across a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker overlooking massive hunks of seemingly random concrete. You have arrived at a story.
I wrote that the county was unspoiled by man for “most” of the 1900s. Back at the turn of the century Potter County was a very busy place. The industry that dominated this area was the cutting and stripping of hemlock trees. This was done by immigrant men that were called “woodhicks” or just “hicks”. They chipped the bark off of the trees because it was the key ingredient in a liquid solution used in hide tanneries. These men are perhaps unjustly remembered by a word still used to describe unsophisticated country people.
These men would gather in the town of Austin, which grew up around Freeman Run. Eventually the hemlock trees, and most other trees were gone off of the surrounding hills and things became economically bad. In 1900 a Senator named Frank Baldwin, and some less than scrupulous county commissioners, lured New York paper maker George Bayless to build a pulp paper mill on the banks of Freeman Run above Austin.
The Bayless Mill was thought of as a godsend by the people of Austin, as it employed over 200 of its residents. Freeman Run was inconsistent in terms of constant water flow, so Bayless decided to dam up the run so that he could control flow. He hired a civil engineer named Hatton to build the structure, a 50 foot tall 534 foot long monster of concrete and steel to hold back 275 million gallons of water. From the very beginning, in true corporate style, Bayless pressed Hatton for more speed and lower cost. Hatton was made to cut corners that he personally considered ill-advised at best, but Bayless got his hastily built, inexpensive dam.
Hatton’s worst fears became evident for the first time in January of 1910. Force from an unexpected thaw caused enough pressure to physically bow the dam 36 feet, and cause water geysers to erupt from the ground far below the dam. Dynamite was used to relieve the pressure, and Austin narrowly avoided a disaster.
The good folks of Austin were not so lucky on a primary election Saturday, September 30th 1911. On this day, with a large crowd of shoppers and voters in town the dam cut loose launching millions of gallons of water and 20,000 board feet of pulpwood toward the town.
Everything from the Bayless Mill whistle, to cable operators to a Madame at a bordello from which she witnessed the break tried to warn the citizens, to no avail. Hundreds of stories have been told of heroism and tragedy from that day. Newspaper accounts in New York had the death count at 500, in London they reported 2,000 dead. When all was said and done 50 people were known victims, and an additional 38 were missing and presumed dead.
Austin died that day for the most part, many moved away. George Bayless offered to build another mill in Austin if they agreed not to sue him for the estimated six million dollars in losses. Unbelievably, they accepted.
This structure is what you are looking at standing at the marker. You can drive down to a small park and walk among the ruins. You can walk around Austin and the second mill. But being another area dam disaster so closely on the heels of Johnstown in 1899 relegated Austin to be forgotten by history.
Unless, of course, you want to take a drive.
Picture courtesy of Penna Historical & Museum Commission