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Fairbanks Feature: H. K. Porter & Co.––Truly “A New Train of Thought”

James D. Van Trump Library | Frank B. Fairbanks Transportation Archive | Fairbanks Features

Showcasing a variety of materials located in the Frank B. Fairbanks Rail Transportation Archive

No. 12 Presentation

Fairbanks Feature: H. K. Porter & Co.––Truly “A New Train of Thought”

The exclusive specialty of Pittsburgh’s H. K. Porter Co. was the manufacture of light locomotives, steam and compressed air. H. K. Porter manufactured these locomotives in every variety of size and design, and to any practicable gauge of track, be it wide or narrow.

The business was begun in 1866 by the firm of Smith & Porter. It was succeeded in 1871 by Porter, Bell & Company, in 1878 by H. K. Porter & Company, and in 1899 by the H. K. Porter Company.

The first catalog, printed in 1874, contained 59 small pages and described 17 locomotives. A Tenth Edition contained 224 pages and described 559 locomotives. Each design in these catalogs was original to the company.

The annual capacity of the first shop, which was destroyed by fire in 1871, was 15 to 25 locomotives. The early shop at the 49th Street site in Lawrenceville (from 1872-1880) produced about 75 locomotives a year. As the shops enlarged, starting in 1881, output grew to 400 locomotives a year.

The company was very proud of its work and its location here in Pittsburgh. It was a great advantage to be able to obtain supplies quickly and to be able to easily transport the locomotives. The company used natural gas for forging and case-hardening. Their duplicate system was a most valuable feature for the times. By means of original and duplicate drawings and records, standard gauges and templates, and special tools and machines were made interchangeable for each locomotive with all others of the same size and class.

The Frank B. Fairbanks Rail Transportation Archive has two very valuable catalogs from this company. The Sixth Edition Light Locomotives, printed in 1889, and the Tenth Edition (no date) Light Locomotives, both have the signature of H. K. Porter signed in gold on the cover. The books––in perfect condition––give an interested reader much to enjoy. Some of the chapters and topics covered are: prices of locomotives; standard specifications for various sizes of locomotives; hauling capacities; grades; cautions; curvatures; gauges; best designs for trolleys; logging; coal mines, etc. The illustrations are clean and clear.

After World War II, business declined. The company built its last locomotive for an industry in Brazil in 1950. After that, the parts business and all the required patterns were sold to the Davenport Locomotive Works in Iowa.

A large number of Pittsburghers were employed at the H. K. Porter works in Lawrenceville over the years. Many of us drive by the former site of the company works without giving this successful locomotive business a passing thought. The Sixth and Tenth Edition catalogs give the addresses of their offices and shops (see photo caption 1, below). Next time you walk, bike, or drive by these addresses, give a nod of remembrance to this fine old company, once so important in our area.


Special Note: If anyone had a family member who worked at the H. K. Porter Company, please e-mail their name and work position to so we may add that information to the Archive. Also, any physical remembrances that you might wish to donate to our collection from this company would be gratefully accepted.


The five photographs show:


  1. Sixth Edition Catalog (1889). Office: Corner of Smithfield and Water Streets [now Fort Pitt Boulevard], Monongahela House Building [replaced by United Way Building]. Works: On Allegheny Valley R.R., 49th to 50th Streets, Pittsburgh, Pa. Tenth Edition Catalog (no date). Office: Union Bank Building [now The Carlyle], Fourth Avenue and Wood Street, 12th Floor. Works: On Pennsylvania Railroad B & A V Div., 49th Street, Pittsburgh, Pa.
  2. Article, “Porter’s Production––83 Years of Steam,” plus cover photo
  3. STEAMTOWN. H. K. Porter artifact location
  4. Double-page spread in Trains Magazine (Oct. 1958)
  5. Copy of a Wikipedia article; cover of magazine, Railway Club of Pittsburgh (March 1948); last page in this magazine, “In Memoriam”

The July 12, 2012 edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review (section B) features an article about several Lawrenceville renewal projects. One of the major developments is the renovation to the H. K. Porter office building, to house 34 apartments. The H. K. Porter Company was a Pittsburgh locomotive business for many years, supplying small, powerful engines for local industry.

There is preservation warmth in bringing back to life a remembrance of our great industrial heritage. The rivers brought so much to our area, and with industry gone, housing along those same rivers can keep our city alive and thriving. The entire newspaper article is now on file along with other H. K. Porter materials in the Fairbanks Archive. You are invited to come and read the article, see our H. K. Porter materials, and enjoy the entire Archive.

The Frank B. Fairbanks Rail Transportation Archive is open by appointment on Mondays, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Use of the archive is free to PHLF members (one of the benefits!); non-members are assessed a $10 use fee.

The Archive is located on the fourth floor of The Landmarks Building at Station Square, in the offices of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

To schedule an appointment, email the Librarian James Halttunen:

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633