H.K. Porter was a leading manufacturer of railway locomotives in the United States from 1866 to the mid 1950’s. Founded as a partnership between Henry Porter and John Smith, the original Porter-Smith firms set up shop in Pittsburgh, PA and were soon well known as a dependable repair company specializing in steel and iron mechanical devices. After receiving their first order to build a rail locomotive in 1867, the firm was soon turning out an impressive number of small locomotives primarily used in the mining industry, as well as in urban rail yards.
After a fire destroyed most of the manufacturing plant in 1871, the partnership between Porter and Smith was dissolved, but Porter found himself a new business opportunity when he partnered with Arthur W. Bell and formed Porter, Bell & Co. This firm also manufactured railroad locomotives, mostly for narrow gauge tracks and after Bell died in 1878, Porter continued the business on his own.
Over the next several decades, H.K. Porter became well known as a company capable of building a custom ordered locomotive in a relatively short period of time, mainly because of the technology designs that allowed an enormous number of interchangeable engine parts. The company innovated some of the first gasoline-powered locomotives, revolutionized steam boilers on these vehicles, and later would introduce the pressure vessel technology that would replace boilers altogether.
After the death of Henry Porter in 1921, the company was to suffer a decline in business both during and after the Great Depression. Before W.W. II the company declared bankruptcy and was purchased by Thomas Evans, who bought smaller companies and added them as subsidiaries. By the late 1940s however, the demand for steam engines had all but disappeared and Evans ran the company mostly as a holding firm for the various smaller subsidiaries. The last locomotive was built in 1950 for a Brazilian firm.
Today, H.K. Porter specializes in the manufacturing of building products and construction industry tools. The company filed for bankruptcy in the early 1990’s and was reorganized to include an asbestos trust as part of its new operating structure.
Asbestos was used extensively by the H.K. Porter Company, particularly as a material for insulation from heat. Because the firm manufactured locomotives and steam engines, the workers were constantly exposed to asbestos in and around the metalwork operations and when they installed it as a fire-retardant material in many of the company’s products. A great number of these locomotives carried asbestos as part of their inner design and transported these dangerous fibers to destinations around the world.