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Thunder Rocked the Hillside-True story of the Austin Dam 1911

Updated on May 9, 2016

It was September 30, 1911.

It was September 30, 1911. My maternal grandmother Katherine was just two months shy of being five years old, but she had a clear memory of one of the most terrific disasters of these parts as it became embedded in her mind all through her eighty six years here on earth. She told this story many times over the years. I was only a kid myself when I was first exposed to this most interesting story. If only I had taken notes I could give a much better description of the events as they unfold. I will do my best to recall what my grandmother told me.

Grandma lived with her family on a hillside in the tiny community of Odin located in Potter county, Pennsylvania. Odin was a logging town full of sawmills and a farm or two. Odin lies but a few miles from Austin, a much larger town with merchants and other commodities needed for residential establishments to flourish in those slower days of the horse and buggy.

Photo Contest winner-Austin Dam


The Bayless Dam Project

A pulp and paper mill owned by a man named George Bayless was in need of better water supply. He had a dam built in 1909 to fill his needs just one mile away from the Austin town limits. Short cuts lead to poor construction and many signs of problems were to soon be emerged. Bayless could not fail. The people needed the jobs his business brought to their struggling community, so over looked inspections and helpless on lookers became a fixed scenario despite any concerns. The Bayless Dam project should never have been. If only they had stuck to the original intended design perhaps it would have made a difference. Perhaps it would not have been an event to be embedded in my own family history.

Before the flood destroys Austin it was a booming town.

My grandmother Katherine Mattison Rood turned five years old the year the dam broke.
My grandmother Katherine Mattison Rood turned five years old the year the dam broke. | Source

False alarms were common.

Grandma’s older sister, Lucy had taken ill and her father, Wallace Mattison hitched up the team and drove her to the doctor in down town Austin. Grandma said they had been gone for hours and it was such a nice day that they would most likely take their sweet time returning home. It was election-day and the town was busier than usual. Grandma told me the people of Austin had been hearing sirens throughout that Saturday morning because the dam was leaking badly, but most people paid the warnings no mind because they had heard them many times before and nothing happened. Sort of like the boy who cried wolf, Austin’s practice alarms did more harm than good. People just went about their business without cause of fear. Although Odin was not that far away my grandmother could not recall hearing the sirens echo across the mountains. It turns out that the reason her father was longer returning home was because he was trying to help warn people to head for the hills. Lucy’s ailment was not a serious one. It is good that they took it serious enough to make the trip to Austin. Lives likely were saved by the warnings they were able to give their neighbors on the return home.

I listen curiously with an open mind as she describes the sounds that echoed across those majestic hillsides. I could not imagine the chaos in Austin if the effect was so obvious in Odin. The little girl remembers loud bangs and roars that mimics a thunder storm, only the sun was shining and the birds were singing. My grandma’s father and sister had got home just in time. The unthinkable was taking place below them and only the power of prayer was to save any of them.

The dam was never rebuilt.

I begin reading some history about the dam disaster to fully understand much of what my grandmother was talking about. It seems this bit of history was widely reported on to several news papers and most was not reported with accuracy as to the death toll. Instead of the 78 victims that were estimated to actually have perished in this disaster, some news media had reported thousands. It was big news. It was the dam that could not break. It was bigger than any they had seen in that time and even though other dams had broke taking thousands of lives with it; danger of this one breaking was not something they thought possible. Guilt was not cast on any one man. Most of who shared that responsibility spoke out. Speaking out caused no reason for charges brought on them because the laws were not strict enough in those days to enforce such things. A senator lost his own family in the aftermath of the Austin dam disaster. He certainly felt sorrow for his own part in defending business owners over safety issues. The dam was never rebuilt. The town eventually was put back together. Not like before because many survivors left the area never to return.

Grandma Katherine Mattison Rood
Grandma Katherine Mattison Rood | Source

There is a documentary film that was made in 1998 about “The Austin Dam Disaster, 1911”

It was because of this terrible accident that regulations were passed to take precautions and responsibilities when it came to building structures like the Austin dam. These people did not die in vain. They are remembered with the promise that an event like this one shall not target another community.

There is a documentary film that was made in 1998 about “The Austin Dam Disaster, 1911”. It is very detailed with interviews of some of the town people. This film is available in the bookstore at Mansfield University. I borrowed a copy from my local library.

Ruins of the dam are still as they were when it broke. Tall concrete remains now mark the spot for a memorial park keeping a respectful memory for those we lost. I’ve tried to pass on my little contribution to the Austin dam story for future generations. My grandson Tyler sparked interest in me for writing this piece of information down. I know my grandmother would want her stories told.


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    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 17 months ago from Potter County, Pa.

      Thank you, Faith, for stopping by, you seem to be the first to take any interest in it. I like to write down as much stuff as I can remember of the things my elders shared with me or other family members.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 17 months ago from southern USA

      Hi Diana,

      I enjoyed your interesting hub here on that terrible disaster so long ago. I can't imagine having to see such horror at such the young age of five years old, like your grandmother did. I can see why she could remember so clearly those events, even if a young child!

      We are reminded that anything man-made is not indestructible, just like the Titanic.

      Thank you for sharing of this historic past of your grandmother's peril.

      Peace and blessings