Austin: Too Tough To Die

By Paul W. Heimel
Special to WESB/WBRR

AUSTIN – Many cars in the Austin area during the 1970s and 1980s bore bumper stickers reading, “Austin: The Town Too Tough To Die.”

More recently, the small southern Potter County borough has a new slogan, “Austin: Best Town by a Dam Site.”

That’s a reference to the Austin Dam, a tourist attraction and important artifact that stands in tall, concrete sections across the Freeman Run Valley, about two miles north of the borough. A volunteer group has been working for several years to maintain a park established at the base of the dam ruins.

In downtown Austin, a separate group has built a replica of town founder E. O. Austin’s home, a new museum that tells the story of the area’s heritage. Austin was one of the boom towns of the region’s 1890-1910 lumber era. As the old growth trees were vanishing, the Freeman Run valley still had immense tracts of pulpwood. Industrialist George Bayless arrived from Binghamton, N.Y., to build a paper mill.

Freeman Run couldn’t supply the steady flow of water needed to power the mill, so Bayless in 1909 contracted for the construction of a huge concrete dam. It stretched nearly 550 feet across the valley, stood 50 feet high, and held approximately 250 million gallons of water at a depth of 40 feet.

While some townspeople worried that the dam might break, most saw it as a symbol of continued employment and prosperity. They speculated that, even if the dam failed, Austin was far enough downstream that the water’s depth would probably be no more than a few inches.

The dam gave way on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 1911, releasing a torrent that claimed upwards of 80 lives and nearly wiped out the town. After the flood, many families moved out. Others persevered and rebuilt the community.

Fire, floods and economic stresses have taken their toll over the years, but Austin remains a tight-knit community held together largely by its school, churches and community groups while most residents commute to Coudersport or Emporium for work.


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