Overshadowed and forgotten by the more disastrous Johnstown Flood of 1889, the Austin Dam Flood—dubbed the “Austin Horror” in newspapers—was a great tragedy which cost the lives of at least 78 people. Yet perhaps such a high death toll could have been prevented. A mysterious figure stalked the town for the year before the September 30, 1911, flood. Was it just a ghost or a warning left unheeded?
In January before the dam collapsed, another flood of a lesser scale happened in Austin, Pennsylvania. The force of the water caused the dam across Freeman Run to move a few inches downstream, causing a panic among the citizens. Built in 1909, the dam was used by the Bayless Pulp & Paper Mill to power the facility. Though the company had planned on building a 30-foot-thick concrete dam, it settled on a cheaper 20 feet of thickness. But it didn’t take long for them to realize their decision was a mistake. The dam bowed out 36 feet under the weight of water within the first months of its construction and cracks kept forming.
But when the whole dam moved during that January flood, the townspeople weren’t waiting around to see what would happen next. Residents fled to higher land in the surrounding hills, waiting nervously in the pouring rain to see if their homes would be swept away in a great torrent. The dam managed to hold that time, but there was something else that made the residents nervous about returning home. The Buffalo & Susquehanna Railroad yard had a strange visitor lurking in the shadows.
The rail line was first built for hauling lumber in 1885 as the Sinnemahoning Valley Railroad (formed by Frank Goodyear), but became a branch of the B&S during a merger of several railroads in 1893. The railroad shops (where maintenance and repairs take place) in Austin burned down on two occasions: once in 1901 and again in 1906, destroying one of the Goodyear Lumber Company stores. While that seems a likely time for a ghost story to start circulating the town, it was another 4 years before the strange man started to appear.
Though residents called it a ghost, there’s no indication that the strange figure was some translucent wraith, moaning and rattling chains and haunting the living. Actually, it was described as being “a very tall man… dressed in black that would appear and disappear mysteriously”. Railroad workers were frightened by its “queer and spooky actions” which included riding inside the passenger cars, lurking about the tracks, and “crawling between and running over the cars”.
A tall man dressed entirely in black. Either Slender Man liked trains or could this shadowy, weirdly-acting “person” have been one of the legendary Men in Black? While we often think of the MIB as being threatening figures trying to silence alien abductees or policing extraterrestrials in snazzy black cars, there have been many reports of them performing odd activities or being pranksters. Most notably, they act very strangely and seem puzzled by the simplest of objects.
The sightings came to an end around the time of the September 30th flood. The Bayless Dam gave away, destroying the mill and most of the town of Austin. People were killed as far downstream as Costello. Debris, railroad equipment, houses, and automobile tires littered the valley. And while the official count of the dead stopped at 78, some speculate that at least 88 people died in total. You might think that was the end of the disasters for Austin, but it happened one more time in 1943.
Following the 1911 flood, residents were in such shock and too busy trying to recover their losses to mention the strange black-clad figure to reporters. It wasn’t until the one-year anniversary of the flood that a reporter for the Honesdale Citizen wrote up an article about it for the October 9th issue. And as mysteriously as he came, the story of the man in black once more faded into obscurity.
Many people believe that sightings of the Mothman near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, were warnings about the collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River. Could the same be true of this mysterious “man in black”? What happened to the strange man in black around the time of the flood? Was he swept away, tired of haunting Austin, or did he turn into Mothman and fly away to West Virginia? Remnants of the mill still can be seen at what is now Austin Dam Memorial Park. Oh yeah… and there are rumors of buried money still left in the area, too.