Exploring the Austin Dam Ruins in Potter County

Aerial view of Austin Dam ruins in Potter County Pennsylvania.

Austin Dam in Potter County was billed as “the dam that could not break” at the time of its construction in 1909.

Photo of construction of the Austin Dam in 1909, on display at the Austin Dam Memorial Park.
Photo of construction of the Austin Dam in 1909, on display at the Austin Dam Memorial Park.

Yet two years later it broke, with catastrophic consequences, on September 30. 1911.

Homes destroyed by the Austin Dam Flood in 1911.
Homes destroyed by the Austin Dam Flood in 1911 (public domain image).

At least 78 people were killed in the flood caused by the dam’s failure, as a wall of water estimated to be 50 feet tall swept down the narrow valley into the small town of Austin a mile downstream.

The village of Austin in Potter County after the flood in 1911.
The village of Austin in Potter County after the flood in 1911 (public domain image).

Today, 110 years later, the ruins of Austin Dam still stand in a park dedicated to the memory of those victims.

Memorial to the victims of the Austin Dam Flood at Austin Dam Memorial Park.
Memorial to the victims of the Austin Dam Flood at Austin Dam Memorial Park.

Austin Dam Memorial Park is a beautiful but sobering destination to explore, with trails through the towering ruins of the dam providing an up-close look at what caused the second-worst flood disaster in Pennsylvania history.

Remains of Austin Dam in Potter County PA
Remains of Austin Dam in Potter County.

History of the Austin Dam

By the early 1900s, the tiny lumber town of Austin had already experienced several floods, fires, and a faltering economy.

The local lumbering and tannery industries were in decline as most of the virgin timber in the area had been clear-cut years before, leaving only smaller “pulp wood” trees in its place.

Enter New York industrialist George Bayless, who saw this area as an opportune site to construct a paper mill.

Bayless Paper Mill Historical SIgn along Route 872 in Potter County Pennsylvania.
Bayless Paper Mill Historical Sign along Route 872 in Potter County.

The paper mill required large and consistent amounts of water to operate, and the small stream named Freeman Run that the mill drew its water from simply couldn’t be counted on during summer dry spells.

Freeman Run passing through the ruins of Austin Dam in Potter County PA.
Freeman Run passing through the ruins of Austin Dam in Potter County.

So Bayless hired an engineer to design a dam, and then proceed to alter or ignore several of the engineer’s key design and safety suggestions during the construction process.

Looking towards the Bayless Paper Mill ruins and Austin from behind the Austin Dam
Looking towards the Bayless Paper Mill ruins and Austin from behind the Austin Dam.

To cut costs, the walls of the dam were built too thin, the foundation was not deep enough, and there was no effective means for relieving pressure on the dam if it got too full.

Some townspeople in Austin were quite concerned about the safety of such a large dam, but the paper mill was a major employer and no state regulations existed at that time in regards to safety standards for dams.

So construction of the 50 foot-tall, 530 foot-wide structure went ahead, and the Bayless Paper Mill Dam was completed in 1909.

Looking down on the Austin Dam ruins in Potter County.
Looking down on the Austin Dam ruins in Potter County.

The Austin Dam Flood

At 2:30 pm on September 30, 1911 the ill-fated dam broke, releasing 400 million gallons of water in a torrent that tore through the narrow valley downstream.

Aftermath of the Austin Dam Flood in Potter County Pennsylvania.
Aftermath of the Austin Dam Flood in Potter County (public domain image).

The flood waters first tore through the Bayless Paper Mill, killing workers and picking up stacks of wood stored nearby that further increased the destructive power of the flood as it reached the the town of Austin itself.

Train destroyed by the Austin Dam Flood in 1911.
Train destroyed by the Austin Dam Flood in 1911 (public domain image).

When it was all over the towns of Austin and Costello (a little further downstream) were destroyed, and at least 78 people (possibly more) died as a result.

History of the Austin Dam Flood on display at the Austin Dam Memorial Park.
History of the Austin Dam Flood on display at the Austin Dam Memorial Park.

Austin Dam Memorial Park

Today the ruins of Austin Dam are part of the Austin Dam Memorial Park, set amongst hiking trails, picnic areas, a campground, and the ruins of the Bayless Paper Mill, the facility for which the dam was built in the first place.

Overlook at Austin Dam Memorial Park.
Overlook at Austin Dam Memorial Park.

The Austin Dam Memorial Park is located just north of Austin, off of Route 872 in Potter County.

Map to the ruins of Austin Dam and the abandoned Bayless paper Mill in Potter County Pennsylvania.
Map to the ruins of Austin Dam and the abandoned Bayless paper Mill in Potter County.

A state historical marker is located along Route 872 across from the ruins of the dam.

Roadside historical marker about the Austin Dam Flood.
Roadside historical marker about the Austin Dam Flood.

The driveway to the park is located a mile north of the ruins.

Austin Dam Memorial Park sign along Route 872 in Potter County PA.
Entrance to Austin Dam Memorial Park along Route 872 in Potter County, PA.

There are numerous historical photos from the construction of Austin Dam as well as the aftermath of the flood on display at a pavillion in the park.

Pavillion at Austin Dam Memorial Park.
Pavillion at Austin Dam Memorial Park.

And a mural painted by local school children commemorates the lives lost in the disaster.

Mural at the Austin Dam Memorial Park in Potter County, PA.
Mural at the Austin Dam Memorial Park in Potter County.

The Austin Dam ruins were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987, and through this park the history and legacy of the lives lost in the Austin Dam disaster live on, for a new generation to discover and learn from.

Ruins of the Bayless Paper Mill Dam in Austin, Pennsylvania.
Ruins of the Bayless Paper Mill Dam in Austin, Pennsylvania.

If you’d like to camp at Austin Dam Memorial Park, you can, and you’ll find the details HERE.


Still not convinced you need to visit Austin Dam Memorial Park?

Then check out this video!


Nearby Attractions

The abandoned Bayless Paper Mill ruins, located just south of the Austin Dam, are the remains of the enterprise with which the dam and the disastrous flood of 1911 are forever linked.

Looking down on the ruins of the Bayless Paper Mill in Potter County.
Looking down on the ruins of the Bayless Paper Mill in Potter County.

Exploring the Ridge Road Vistas in the Elk State Forest will introduce you to Pennsylvania’s most scenic State Forest road, featuring 6 world-class ROADSIDE vistas along a 3 mile stretch of road.

Logue Run Vista along Ridge Road in the Elk State Forest.
Logue Run Vista along Ridge Road in the Elk State Forest.

Sinnemahoning State Park encompasses 1,910 acres of magnificent scenery and outstanding wildlife habitat, and spans from Cameron County in the south to Potter County in the north.

Stevenson Dam Overlook at Sinnemahoning State Park in Cameron County.
Sinnemahoning State Park in Cameron and Potter counties.

Kettle Creek State Park in neighboring Clinton County is home to a nearly 1,800 acre lake and several nearby vistas.

Kettle Creek State Park in Clinton County Pennsylvania.
Kettle Creek State Park in Clinton County.

The Fred Woods Trail in neighboring Cameron County takes you on a loop hike past an ancient “rock city” as well as two fantastic mountain vistas.

Hiking through the rock formations along the Fred Woods Trail in Cameron County
The Fred Woods Trail in Cameron County.

The 20 Best Scenic Overlooks in PA Elk Country introduces you to some of the finest vistas in the PA Wilds region of Pennsylvania.

Hikers taking on the view at Hyner Run State Park.
Hikers taking on the view at Hyner Run State Park.

If it’s elk you seek, The 15 Best Elk Viewing Destinations in Pennsylvania is the roadmap you’ll want to follow!

Trio of elk on State Game Lands 100 in Clearfield County.
Trio of elk on State Game Lands 100 in Clearfield County.

The nearby Quehanna Wild Area is home to countless memorable scenes, and The 5 Best Roadside Attractions in the Quehanna Wild Area makes for an easy introduction to this remote oasis in the PA Wilds.

Fall foliage at Table Falls in the Quehanna Wild Area.
Fall foliage at Table Falls in the Quehanna Wild Area.

Want to make your trip to Austin Dam Memorial Park even MORE epic?

Rent a one-of-a-kind Potter County vacation home through Vrbo!

A Potter County Vrbo rental near Cherry Springs State Park and the Austin Dam Memorial Park.
Photo courtesy of Vrbo.

Browse HUNDREDS of awesome cabins, lodges, and chalets near Austin Dam Memorial Park at the Vrbo link below.

Disclaimer: If you book a vacation rental through this Vrbo link, I get a small commission (at NO additional cost to you!), which helps offset the expense of hosting the PA Bucket List website.

Did you enjoy this article?

If so, be sure to like and follow PA Bucket List on Facebook, Instagram, and/or Pinterest to stay up-to-date on my latest write-ups.

Click on any of the icons below to get connected to PA Bucket List on social media!


Pennsylvania’s Best Travel Blog!

Rusty Glessner is an award-winning photographer, lifelong Pennsylvanian, and creator of the PA Bucket List travel blog.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here