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H.K. Porter Inc.

At one time, when trains were much more important to travel and industry than they are today, H.K. Porter was one of the country’s biggest businesses and largest manufacturers of locomotives and their components. The company was founded in 1866 and made trains and parts, as well as other industrial machinery, equipment, tools, and parts.

Although it is no longer in the locomotive business, H.K. Porter trains are still operating around the world. The company, after going through two bankruptcies, still exists and makes tools and other industrial products. Because of the asbestos that went into many of its early products, H.K. Porter faced a number of asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits and now pays victims through an asbestos trust fund.

Company History

The H.K. Porter Company, originally called Smith and Porter, was founded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1866 by Henry Kirke Porter. The founders began it as a machine shop, making a variety of industrial products and tools by order. When the company received its first order for a locomotive in 1867, the fate of H.K. Porter was set. The company would become the third largest maker of locomotives in the country. Between 1867 and when the company made its last locomotive in 1950, H.K. Porter produced 43 locomotives.

H.K. Porter made boilers and engines for the locomotives as well, and in 1911 made the first gas-powered engine and locomotive. The company also made other innovations in how locomotives were manufactured and powered, including the development of a “fireless” engine to replace the traditional boiler used most often in steam locomotives.

In spite of its success, the company faced its first bankruptcy in 1939. The founder, Henry Kirke Porter, had passed away and the company struggled. It was then purchased by Thomas Mellon Evans, who was able to turn it around, part because of the onset of World War II, and the need from the government for machinery, parts, and tools. He also expanded the business by buying up other similar companies. Even after the last locomotive was made by the company in 1950, its success continued with the making and selling a variety of industrial products.

Use of Asbestos in H.K. Porter Products

Most industrial applications in the U.S. in the first 60 to 70 years of the twentieth century used asbestos. This is because asbestos has many properties that make it useful. These include strength, a light weight, durability, resistance to heat, fire, and electricity, and abundance in mines. The building of locomotives and engines required that some substance be used that could insulate materials and components from heat and protect against the starting and spreading of fires. Asbestos was the go-to material for many decades.

All kinds of products made by H.K. Porter over the years contained asbestos. These include many of the components that went into the locomotives, especially the boilers and engines. They also include other types of industrial products made by the company, even after it stopped making locomotives: gaskets, pipes, water tanks, pistons, steam valves, brakes and brake pads, and fireproof cloth. Some of the companies acquired by H.K. Porter after the takeover by Thomas Mellon Evans, used asbestos heavily. These include the Thermoid Corporation, the Southern Asbestos Company, and the Asbestos Manufacturing Company.

Asbestos Exposure

Many people were impacted by the heavy use of asbestos by H.K. Porter and the companies it acquired. The H.K. Porter employees may have been the most directly impacted. Working with and handling the asbestos that went into the products they made, these workers would have been at serious risk of inhaling any fibers of the mineral that became airborne, a common occurrence. Even anyone working in the factory, even if not handling the material directly, would have been at risk of exposure.

In addition to the H.K. Porter workers, any workers in other industries that used their products would also have been at risk. Maintenance and repair workers on locomotives, as well as those that operated them would have been around the asbestos materials and would have been at risk as well. The fibers that easily come loose from asbestos can be inhaled by anyone in the area. These inhaled fibers do not pass through the body easily, instead lodging in tissues and causing damage, that in some people leads eventually to asbestosis, mesothelioma, or lung cancer.

Asbestos Lawsuits

Because of the many decades of asbestos use by H.K. Porter, the company faced many lawsuits, beginning in the 1980s. One of the notable lawsuits the company faced was brought by a public school district. The district claimed that it used building materials, including those made by H.K. Porter, in its buildings. After realizing the risks these materials posed to teachers and students, the district was faced with the cost of having the school buildings remediated and reconstructed. The lawsuit requested that H.K. Porter cover these costs.

H.K. Porter also faced many suits brought by individuals who worked for the company or for other companies and were exposed to asbestos through the company’s products. These people later became sick and sought compensation. The costs of these lawsuits became so high that H.K. Porter sued its insurance company to recoup some of the millions it had spent compensating victims.

Bankruptcy, Reorganization, and Asbestos Trust

Ultimately, the costs of the lawsuits proved too much for H.K. Porter and the company was forced to seek bankruptcy protection in 1991. It did not emerge reorganized until 1998, but when it did, it also established a trust fund, with $77 million to help compensate victims and pay future claims over asbestos exposure and illness. The trust is called the H.K. Porter Asbestos Trust, and it is still active.

H.K. Porter was once one of the biggest manufacturers of locomotives in the company, contributing a lot to the industry of the nation. Today it is a much smaller company and that is in part because of the decline of trains, but even more so because of the use of asbestos and the many expensive lawsuits that this use led to eventually. With bankruptcy, the company survived, but it still had to provide a trust fund to compensate the many victims.

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