H.K. Porter Inc. was founded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1866 when Henry K. Porter and John Y. Smith opened a small machine shop that built and repaired industrial equipment. By the following year, the men had their first order for a locomotive. Together they would eventually build 43, four-wheeled saddle tank, locomotives, used on light industrial railroads. At that time, the company was known as Smith and Porter.
The company cornered the locomotive market 20 years later and received about 90 percent of all orders placed in the United States for such trains. In 1911, the company built its first gasoline powered locomotive as ownership belonged solely to Porter. A few years, H.K. Porter built a “fireless” locomotive, which used a large pressure vessel to hold steam and hot water in place of the traditional boiler.
The company soon dominated the fireless locomotive market and enjoyed a prosperous post-war economy that kept business booming. H.K. Porter was noted as being the largest producer of industrial locomotives, having manufactured some 8,000 of these machines. In 1921, Henry Porter died, having run the company up until his death.
Afterwards, the company began to decline and declared bankruptcy in 1939. Entrepreneur Thomas Mellon Evans purchased the company soon after and turned it around for a short time, profiting from the need for equipment during World War II.
Because of the extreme heat produced by locomotives, many of these machines included parts that contained asbestos, a well-known insulation material that was used extensively during the first three-quarters of the 20th century.
After the war, railroad travel and overall use of railroads for industrial purposes declined drastically.
The company finally made its last locomotive in 1950 but continued to manufacture other industrial products.
A 2018 study published in the journal Occupational Health shows workers in the railway industry had the highest percentage of asbestos-related diseases among eight high-risk occupational groups. The average latency period for those workers — time from first asbestos exposure to diagnosis — was 30 years.
Legal claims began to pile up for H.K. Porter as a result of the health hazards associated with asbestos use.
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Litigation & Specific Lawsuits
By the early 1980s, Porter was facing myriad of lawsuits related to illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos. Cases poured in during the 1990s at a rate of thousands per month. For example, in a 1993 lawsuit filed by the Adams Public School District, H.K. Porter was alleged to have contributed to the presence of asbestos in public schools. Adams School District expected the company to compensate it for abatement and related expenses.
Lawsuits mounted against Porter to the degree that the company had to file its own claim against its insurance company, Pennsylvania Insurance Guaranty Association, in 1996. The objective was to recoup funds that H.K. Porter paid out through over 100,000 lawsuits that were filed against it. The lawsuit, H.K. Porter Company, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Insurance Guaranty Association, represented the growing trend and struggles of the manufacturers who used asbestos to build their products during the 1900s.
The company was forced to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 1998, as part of its reorganization plan, the company established the H.K. Porter Asbestos Trust in order to settle all existing and future asbestos claims. According to its trust, the company has paid out over $300 million in settlement dollars.
Industries & Occupations
Because the company integrated asbestos into many of its products, many Porter employees were exposed to the toxic mineral. These railroad workers, engineers, metal workers, insulators and factory workers all faced increased risk of asbestos exposure while working for H.K. Porter.
After the company built its last new locomotive in 1950, the threat from asbestos didn’t disappear. The company continued to manufacture and sell various asbestos-containing products, many that were sold to shipyards and other shipbuilding-related industries throughout the country. Asbestos exposure from Porter products continued.
The constant exposure to asbestos during the daily manufacturing process endangers the health of all company employees, along with their family and friends. When the material’s toxic fibers become airborne and are inhaled, they can get lodged in the lungs, often developing into serious respiratory diseases like asbestosis, mesothelioma or lung cancer.
H.K. Porter’s asbestos-containing locomotive engines, railroad equipment and construction products, were mostly manufactured after the company acquired Thermoid Corp., Southern Asbestos Company, Asbestos Manufacturing Company, Carolina Asbestos Company.
H.K. Porter locomotives operate in countries around the world, ranging from United States, Cuba, Columbia and Mozambique, to nations like Finland, Bosnia and Serbia.
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Last Modified January 23, 2019
5 Cited Article Sources
- H.K. Porter Asbestos Trust -- About Us. (n.p). Retrieved from: http://www.hkporterasbestostrust.org/about.php
- Justia -- Adams Public School District v. Asbestos Corporation, Ltd. Et. al. (n.p). Retrieved from: http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F3/7/717/479132/
- Rand. (2010). Asbestos Bankruptcy Trusts: An Overview of Trust Structure and Activity with Detailed Reports on the Largest Trusts. Retrieved from: http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/2010/RAND_TR872.pdf
- Steam Locomotive -- There are 315 locomotives build by: 'H.K. Porter'. (n.p). Retrieved from: http://www.steamlocomotive.info/locobrowse.cfm?bn=H.K.%20Porter
- Paolucci, V. et al. (2018, February 26). Asbestos exposure biomarkers in the follow-up of asbestos-exposed workers. Retrieved from: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/indhealth/56/3/56_2017-0125/_pdf/-char/en