Austin - Western 1877 - 1978

Of Aurora’s three leaders in the earth moving industry, Austin-Western was the first, with its origins dating back to the start of modern road building after the civil war. In the 1950’s, as the Interstate highway commitment signaled the last of that great road infrastructure boom, Austin-Western was paired with a holdover from the great age of steam. By then steam locomotives were obsolete and the firm was desperately trying to survive through diversification into road construction. This may illustrate the rise of road building which Austin-Western and all three Aurora earth-moving firms prospered. And it could symbolize the shift from rail to road dominance in moving goods that accompanied the decline of manufacturing in Aurora and across the country.

What became Austin-Western started in 1877 in Mount Prospect, Iowa by Captain C.H. Smith and cofounders Captain Beckwith and Dr. McClure. As the C.H. Smith & Co. contractor firm, they were veterans of railroad building, employing the tools of the day: pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, assisted by an early type of drag scraper. They founded a firm to manufacture a crude wheeled scraper, which had been devised to hold about three cubic feet.

This was the same strange looking machine, which stood in front of Austin-Western general offices in Aurora, and was described as the world’s first road grader. It was this machine along with ever-improved descendants that made the modern highway of today possible. Meanwhile back in Mount Prospect, Smith improved on the original scraper and his firm was contracted to build an Iowa section of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad. In the process, his scraper manufacturing revolutionized construction methods. In 1883, Smith finished his last railroad contract in Indiana. He concentrated on manufacturing scrapers from then to his death in 1910. By 1891 he had outgrown Mount Prospect and, perhaps as a result of Burlington, moved operations to Aurora, changing the firm name to Western Wheeled Scraper Company.

In 1904, the firm’s inventive genius emerged again in a perfected dump cars with twelve cubic yard capacity, operated by air. Within a year, capacity had been increased by over 50%. These cars became the backbone of earth moving operations that enabled the Panama Canal to be constructed ahead of schedule and below budget.

Captain Smith remained in charge until his death in 1910 By then he had gained control of Austin Manufacturing, which dated from 1859 in Harvey, Illinois and had evolved along similar lines to Smith’s Western. In 1934 a full merger was agreed, which included the sales organization known as Austin-Western Road Machinery Company of Chicago.

Aurora headquarters on Farnsworth directed both the large Aurora and Harvey plants, from which came industry firsts, which even before World War II included: steel reversible road grader; motor roller; crawler wagon; duel drive leaning wheel; diesel and four wheel drive graders. Austin-Western dump cars, graders, rollers, street sweepers, power shovels, scrapers and crushing plants spread to every developed community of the globe.


At the beginning of 1962, the company cited 1961 as one of most successful in its long history and looked forward to another successful year of further product development and overall progress. But all would not be well in the future. In 1953, Austin-Western had been acquired by Baldwin Hamilton Lima.

Until the 1930’s, Baldwin Locomotive was among the largest of US industrial firms. By 1935, they were bankrupt, victim of GM’s Electro Motive diesels engines which antiquated steam. World War II provided a temporary respite Westinghouse bought Baldwin in 1948. Failing to turn it around, Baldwin was merged with Lima Construction of Ohio in 1950. By 1956 the last steam locomotive was produced. The desperate attempt to diversify to road construction acquisitions wasn’t successful.

In 1973, construction equipment operations including Austin-Western were bought by Clark Equipment. In 1978 Austin-Western Aurora operations closed. Production of cranes shifted to Lima Ohio and rough terrain graders to Texas. Both operations were discontinued as Clark was dissolved in 1980. Minnpar has provided some parts and other services on existing equipment since then, but without ties to Aurora.

And so ends the saga of Austin-Western. In its springtime, it was sufficiently nimble to thread a way to move from picks and shovels of railroad building by introducing modern machinery that antiquated those picks and shovels and made modern highway building possible. But after nearly a century, it was saddled with the last to fall of the great rail suppliers. With the shift from rail to highway dominance, down Austin-Western also went, despite having helped make the rise of highways possible in the firm’s glory years, so very long ago.

 

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Sources:

Aurora Beacon News, Western Wheel Scraper 50 Year History