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Mon March 23, 2015 - Northeast Edition
Edgar A. Browning has lived an eventful life. As a child, he was fascinated with construction equipment, but became a soldier, and later a top cop, who started his own part-time construction business. Then he became an industry author who is now connecting vintage heavy iron construction equipment enthusiasts around the world with a simple click of a mouse.
Browning was born and raised in New England, specifically, Woonsocket, R.I., an old French-Canadian mill town bisected by the meandering Blackstone River.
The river had once provided power for the many textile mills. In August 1955, the city was ravaged by a devastating flood due to heavy rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Diane. The water treatment plant was compromised by the floodwaters.
Browning’s earliest childhood recollection was walking with his family to the National Guard Armory for drinking water.
“I was not quite three years old and it was a two-mile trek. Large glass jugs were being filled for residents from military water buffaloes. We walked to the banks of the river by the South Main Street Bridge,” said Browning. “The rushing water was overtopping the double stone arch structure built in the 1800s. It would be one of the few bridges remaining when the flood water subsided.”
In the years that followed, the destroyed bridges were being rebuilt and a massive flood control project completed under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There was plenty of scenery for a budding sidewalk superintendent. The experience cemented Browning’s future endeavors.
Adjacent to the aforementioned bridge, a flood control dam was being constructed by Wes-Julian Corp. of Dedham, Mass.
“Now five, and not yet tall enough to see over the solid stone wall on that bridge, my dad would place me on top of it and hold onto me. I might interject at this point that my dad was cursed by alcohol and often unsteady,” said Browning. “Dangling from the bridge may well be a more apt description of my position.
“That memory, I concluded, was the origin of my lifelong fear of heights. The roar of the machinery directly below was deafening. Wagon drills hammered a ledge outcropping in the river; vintage drills with the two rubber tires mounted on spoke wheels were wrestled into position by brute force. Two yellow LeTourneau Westinghouse Model C Tournarockers, barely visible through all the rock dust, were navigating the river bottom in at least three feet of water. My dad called them water ducks.”
“A factory orange Northwest Model 6 shovel was loading them with dippers of shot rock. I was both terrified and fascinated at the same time!” said Browning.
Service to Others
Thus began Browning’s lifelong fascination and devotion to the heavy iron of his youth and his father’s youth. But he wouldn’t return to that hobby until decades later, after he had put dozens of murderers and rapists in prison. Browning dedicated his early life to the U.S. Army followed by a 29-year-career in police work.
Browning wore many hats, not the least of which as author, dedicated to the construction trade. He has published six books titled, “Road Building Construction Equipment at Work,” focusing on New England, Connecticut, Maine, Virginia, Pennsylvania and in Ohio.
He is about to publish his own new magazine called “Shovel.”
All of these books are a labor of love, buoyed by a Facebook page Browning has created that has connected hundreds of purveyors, admirers and collectors of vintage construction equipment all over the country.
The Facebook page and his own books are augmented by Browning’s great memories of the machinery that he remembers from his youth in Woonsocket, R.I.
“While in the first grade, I was assigned to the newly constructed Globe Park Elementary School after the Christmas break. The school was located at the foot of a large hill that had been excavated extensively to level the site. The tough 1959-1960 Rhode Island winter resulted in the suspension of the remaining site work. A very exciting spring was in store,” said Browning. “It began with one of the local contractors, R.A. Bergesson’s bright orange Caterpillar 9U D-6 bulldozers, stripping overburden and creating a huge stockpile.
“All of this action was taking place right outside the classroom. The whole school seemed to shake from the vibration. The teacher had difficulty competing with the construction activity. She elected to allow us 10 minutes to gawk at the scene before closing the venetian blinds. Most of the boys continued to peek the rest of the school year.”
Back to His Roots
Now retired in Virginia, these impressions have never left him.
“Out that school window, the stockpile was loaded into dump trucks by a Northwest 25 shovel. The parking lot was eventually stoned and paved with blacktop. Finally, the aforementioned hillside slopes were dressed with loam. Ten wheelers dumped on top of the hill, using gravity to feed the material to a Gradall,” said Browning. “The Tonka T-6 bulldozer sold out at Kornstein’s Department Store the following Christmas. I got one before they did.”
His first writing to and about the contracting industry began as a child.
“I was provided with an issue of the New England Construction magazine by a classmate whose father was an engineer. Ten years of age, I began writing to manufacturers and distributors of construction equipment seeking sales brochures,” Browning said. “Letters to contractors and even a complimentary subscription to the magazine followed. I amassed quite a literature collection which included many watch fobs and several hard hats, including one from the famed Morrison-Knudsen of Boise, Idaho.”
Photography soon followed and Browning has amassed a staggering collection of 120,000 vintage construction photos over six decades.
“The first highway construction project I visited and photographed was at age 13 during the summer of 1966. M. A. Gammino of Rhode Island was the contractor on the $1.8 million, three-mile relocation of Route 102 in Burrillville, R.I.,” said Browning. “It was a primary route constructed as a super two with at least one grade crossing eliminated. Rock was a big item and Gammino was using one of their venerable Bucyrus-Erie 71-B shovels with three spanking new first generation Euclid R-35 rear dumps and a Mack B-81 ten wheeler with a ledge body.”
Building His Own Shop
The many visits to Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts road construction projects culminated in the sale of photographs and a story in 1967 to the Northwest Engineering Company, then a major manufacturer of cable cranes and shovels. The story and photos appeared in the first quarter 1968 edition of Northwest’s publication, “Material Handling Illustrated.”
“Henley-Lundgren of Shrewsbury, Mass. held the $5.6 million contract to construct Interstate 495 in Bellingham and Franklin, Mass.,” Browning said.
In 1971, Browning entered the U.S. Army Engineers. Assignments included Fort Belvoir, Va., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Korea and Fort Eustis, Va.
“I left the Army on January 31, 1974 and joined the Hampton Police Division in Hampton, Va., the next day. I was a homicide and violent crimes detective for 22 of the next 29 years, the last five as a supervisor.”
Browning maintained small contracting interests briefly in the 1970s, clearing land with a new Case 850-B, Ford F-600 flatbed dump and a tag trailer.
“I ended the part-time business during the 1980 recession. In 1980 to 1981, I joined a U. S. Navy Seabees Reserve Unit and drilled for six years. In 1987, I restarted the part-time contracting business. The business remained active for the next 20 years and grew considerably, at least for us, after I retired from the Police Department in 2002.
“We had two dump trucks, six trailers and three pickups. Equipment included two skid-steers [New Holland and Case], two compact excavators [Kubota], a Morooka track dump and a Caterpillar D4E bulldozer. We self-performed concrete flatwork and demolition, shoreline sand replenishment and rip rap revetments,” said Browning.
Slowed by rheumatoid arthritis in 2007, Browning slowly transferred most of the business to his son Adam.
“I met Samuel Sicchio of Natick, Mass. who rekindled my interests in construction photography and journalism. Many archival trips followed to state archives and libraries,” said Browning.
Building Up Authorship
In 2010, opportunities arose for Browning to complete a photo book with Iconografix Publishing. Vintage trade journals were acquired to source the photos. The book on road construction in Vermont was released in May of 2011.
“My wife Peggy called the book a secret that occasionally became a rumor. I later had dinner with an author friend of one of my friends. He had written several naval warfare novels. The gentleman returned with his wife to New York and later I found his friend request on Facebook,” said Browning. “I was annoyed as the account had been dormant, but I was curious. It turns out he had 5,000 Facebook friends. Then it hit me, the ’friends’ were fans who had purchased his books.
“Well, six books later, the books are no longer a secret. I have been using Facebook since 2012. It is a wonderful way to share historical, as well as current, industry information and photos.”
Browning served on the Historical Construction Equipment Association (H.C.E.A.) board for three years and ran their Facebook group page for more than a year. The group grew from roughly 200 to more than 5,000. “It became a great platform for promoting the H.C.E.A. as paid members chided others to join. An H.C.E.A. corporate sponsor was signed up on Facebook. The most rewarding element of Facebook is that it is a forum that provides a unique opportunity to match a lot of the historical material and photos with group members that have some family or other connection to it,” said Browning.
“A case in point, one member, in a circuitous route, asked first if I had anything on the Massachusetts Turnpike. I informed him I did and asked him the name of the company. Finally, I got him to tell me his beloved deceased uncle had supervised work for Bayer & Mingolla on the Massachusetts Turnpike,” said Browning. “I was able to locate quite a bit of already scanned material on the project which I uploaded for the man.
“The material included a Barber-Greene ad with his uncle’s photo. A treasure, he had no idea of its existence. The man thanked me profusely in a message and finally wrote he had to go as, ’Tears were streaming down his face.’ It is a blessing to be able to serve so many,” said Browning. “And, in doing so, the H.C.E.A. is viewed in a positive light. You could say it is bringing the H.C.E.A. to them. I have supported many other Facebook pages in this genre as they have certainly seemed to flourish in the past year or so.”
Recently, he started a new Facebook group, Historical Highway Heavy Civil Construction Association.
“Soon, we will have a magazine as well. The magazine will use another technological advance. QR reader codes will permit readers with smart phones or devices to access edited vintage film clips,” said Browning.
“An active, well-run Facebook group page is a goodwill factory.”
For more information, call 804/932-8232
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