On 30th September, 1911, the Austin dam in Potter County, Pennsylvania failed. Completed in December 1909, the dam had been built to help fuel the Bayless Pulp & Paper Company mill in the town. However, the owner’s insistence that the builder cut costs – leading to dramatic reductions in the depth and width of the dam’s walls and foundations – meant that the structure’s failure was “inevitable”. When the dam collapsed less than two years later, the tragedy caused mass destruction in the valley below, and cost the lives of at least seventy-eight people. 1
Yet, there have been suggestions that such a high death toll could have been prevented. The solution, it was claimed, lay with a mysterious figure who stalked the town’s railroad yard months before the September disaster.
This “spook” was described one year later in a local newspaper.
Just a month after the dam’s completion, in January 1910, snow-melt and heavy rains caused a portion of the dam to slide downstream by about thirty-one inches. Vertical cracks formed and buckled part of the dam, resulting in a minor flood. Local residents fled for the higher ground of the hills, terrified that the entire structure would break at any moment. The dam managed to hold that time. Once the water receded, the townspeople returned, shaken, but safe for now.
The newspaper stated that it was around the time of this minor flood that the citizenry of Austin had another scare. Rumours circulated the town that a “ghost” had appeared in the days before, seemingly acting as an omen of the coming flood.
According to the report, the strange visitor was a “very tall man ghost, dressed in black”. He was described as “riding” and “crawling” between the railroad’s cars, appearing and disappearing “mysteriously”. The “spooky” entity was not reported to have spoken to any residents, with the men working on the railroad too “uneasy or scared” to dare approach it.2
“In the railroad and on and off the cars were the places the ghost haunted and frightened the railroaders with its queer and spooky actions. It was a very tall man ghost, dressed in black that would appear and disappear mysteriously, and no questions asked, for those who saw it did not care to ask questions or its business. The railroad men naturally felt uneasy or scared with a ghost riding their cars and none of them attempted to put it off when they saw it crawling between and running over the cars.” 3
After the flood in January, the “giant dressed in black” 4 disappeared, causing many to suspect that he was somehow connected with the flood. When the dam failed entirely the following year, residents almost entirely forgot about the strange figure in black, too shocked and too busy trying to re-establish their lives to dwell on it. It wasn’t until the calamity’s first anniversary that local people – including a gentleman described as a “one of the many heroes of the disaster” – brought this chilling tale to the attention of local news outlets.
Who was the “very tall man […] dressed in black” who visited Pennsylvania in 1910? Was he a spirit of the dead, there to warn others lest they meet the same fate as him? Or, was he some other paranormal entity, with an unnatural knowledge of the coming disaster?
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Unfortunately, as suddenly and mysteriously as he appeared, the story of the strange man in black faded away, lost to the pages of history.
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