The Porter Locomotive

From Steam Locomotive—April, 1960—Starrucca Valley Publications
William S. Young, Editor & Publisher

This modern saddletanker, St. Elizabeth Hospital No. 4 (Porter #8234, 1950),
marks an ending point in locomotive history. Built to the order of the Federal Security Administration,
it was the last Porter steamer (if we except 4 subsequent fireless engines) to be delivered to a domestic customer.


The H. K. Porter Co. was the leading exclusive builder of light locomotives in the U. S. Until its surviving construction records became available not many months ago, little was actually known of the Porter output, although observers could safely guess that the greater number of Porters were industrial-type 0-4-0 tank engines. A study of the records now at hand bears out the guesswork—and it comes as no surprise that the very first Porter was an 0-4-0T. If "dinky" was the root term, "Porter dinky" became the term in practice among hundreds of contractors and industrial customers, for it was the four-drivered saddletanker, quality-built in numbers, that made the Porter reputation. Tiny, homely, dirty, and as faceless as the thousands of obscure, ofttimes temporary railroads on which it ran, the dinky nevertheless deserves some study and recognition, if only for the job it did.

However, what may be most interesting in the Porter records is not what they reveal about large numbers of run-of-mine-and-mill dinkies, but the details given for more "exotic" locomotive types. For Porter turned out Forneys, 2-4-0's, 2-6-0's, 2-8-0's, 2-8-2's, 4-4-0's, 4-6-0's and other designs, including a quantity of back-truck engines.

Unfortunately, trying to-organize the Porter data into precise figures is like trying to keep a bad boiler from leaking. The records are vague, incomplete and sometimes in error. Some construction numbers, including all but eight of the first 146, can be assigned only to the unknown.*

*Certain other construction numbers, including the complete series 7800-7899 and a few shorter series, were cancelled outright. One number was given to a snowplow. A few engines, not identified by type, were built and then scrapped in the Porter shops. Construction number 5000 apparently was reserved, then never used.

Proof of Porter's frequent departure from the building of stereotyped saddletankers are Louisiana Cypress Lumber Co. 2-6-2 No. 1 (Porter #6663, 4-1921), same company's 2-8-0 No. 3 (#5565, 6-1914) and Virginia Blue Ridge Ry. 2-8-0 No. 1 (#5630, 3-1915). The Virginia engine was scrapped several years ago; Louisiana Cypress No. 1 is still used for switching at the Ponchatoula, La., mill on rare occasions and No. 3 is on public view there.

After building many small steamers, cabless and sometimes no more than four feet high, for inside mine service, Porter began about 1890 to build compressed-air locomotives for mines and other customers; but the records do not give enough details to tell air from steam in all cases. It is just as impossible to pinpoint all examples of the fireless steam locomotive, which appeared later. Some have been identified by their abnormal cylinder dimensions, in which bore exceeded stroke.

Possibly the greatest deficiency is the records' general failure to separate tank engines from straight engines. With information added from other sources, about 12 percent of the 0-4-0's have been identified as tank engines; obviously, many more were really of that type—a point that holds in varying degree for other wheel arrangements given in the accompanying table.

Experience has proved that wheel arrangements given in the original records for certain engines were entirely incorrect. In some cases confusion results from the difference between Porter's unique classification system and the Whyte system, the former reading from back to front of an engine, the latter from front to back, so that a 2-6-0 might sometimes appear in the Porter records as an 0-6-2.

Thus the table of figures necessarily includes both surmise and generalizations; but also, it is believed, a not untrue picture of Porter's production.

Oldest, most famous Porter, Northern Pacific's "Minnetonka," arrives at New York World's Fair in 1939. Bui1t (Smith & Porter, #84, 1870) for NP construction, she later became the informally named "ol' Betsy" of Washington's Polson Logging Co. (now Rayonier Inc.). Polson is said to have shrewdly traded her back to NP for an 80-ton engine in 1933—just in time for NP to produce a restored "Minnetonka" at the Century of Progress Exposition.

Prominent in 1900 erecting shop view are two 40-ton 2-6-0's for 3-foot-gauge Arizona & New Mexico Ry., Nos. 12 and 14 (#2123-4).


The history of Porter of Pittsburgh as a locomotive builder spans a period of 83 years, from construction number 1 in 1867 (a 42-inch-gauge 0-4-0T for New Castle R.R. & Mining Co., New Castle, Pa.) to number 8275 in 1950 (recorded, appropriately enough, as steam—a meter-gauge 0-4-0 for a plantation in Brazil). In the years between—allowing for missing numbers—Porter delivered at least 7807 locomotives, of which most were steam, 284 were internal-combustion designs and at least 274 were compressed-air locomotives. Outside the main series of construction numbers, Porter either built or contracted for the building of electric mine locomotives.

Porter began as Smith & Porter in 1866. Smith & Porter and the lesser-known Pittsburgh firm of David Bell & Co. (of whose locomotive production, if any, there seems to be no record) preceded Porter, Bell & Co., which was organized in 1871. Porter, Bell was succeeded by H. K. Porter & Co. in 1878. The name was changed in 1899 to H. K. Porter Co., a new incorporation with a capital stock of $1.6 million. After President H. K. Porter himself, Hobart B. Ayers, the single-minded works manager in charge of Porter's quality production for many years, is best remembered as a major figure in company affairs.

Porter locomotives had some notable general characteristics besides the famous medallion plate and cylinders cast with the Porter name. Dome cover rings were discontinued at an early date in favor of smooth domes which resembled nothing so much as beehives. During the same era—and before the time of steel cabs—most cabs were built of wood, with vertical tongue-and-groove bottom panels like those of another Smoky City builder, the Pittsburgh Works. Later the beehive steam dome covers and sandboxes gave way to more prosaic designs.

Except in early years Porter seldom used alligator crossheads, preferring the Laird and single-guide designs even for most of its largest engines. In the absence of customer specifications, a frequent Porter hallmark was the painting of the engine cab number within a small circle. Porter probably built more locomotives speculatively, for stock, than any other independent builder. It stressed standardized parts and availability of stock engines as selling points.

Although Porter contributed a good share of the motive power for the early little lines of the West, it was not known as a builder for American common carriers. But if the output for industrial railroads dominated the home scene, export business—for public carriers as well as industrials—was of major importance. Porter steam power went to every continent and to more than 40 lands from Alaska to Zanzibar. Engines were shipped to every part of Canada, including Newfoundland. The Porter name was well known throughout Latin America, particularly in Mexico and Cuba. It was the first American builder to send locomotives to Japan—save only for the "quarter-scale" Norris engine that Admiral Perry had brought to Yokohama in 1854, thus making the Japanese immediate railway enthusiasts.

For years many sales abroad were handled through agents like S. H. Payne & Son or Wonham & Magor (later Wonham Inc.), both of New York. During the period 1900-1930 there were several American manufacturers specializing in export equipment ranging from light, functional cars to portable track. Several of the smaller locomotive builders were called upon to furnish engines-which sometimes were shipped bearing only the nameplate of the export manufacturer. One of these firms, The Gregg Co. Ltd., obtained locomotives from Porter.

Although it originally offered no product but the light locomotive (crane capacity and general shop facilities restricted engine size to about 100 tons), the Porter works diversified after 1900. The industrial products for which H. K. Porter Co. is known today—rubber belting and hose, high voltage electrical equipment, air brake parts, springs, valves and oil field equipment among them-finally overshadowed the declining locomotive business.

After Heisler Locomotive Works of Erie, Pa., built its last geared engine in 1941, the Heisler patterns were acquired by Porter. But Porter sold its entire locomotive business to Davenport-Besler Corp. of Davenport, Iowa, after ceasing production in 1950. Davenport later conveyed its locomotive interests to Canadian Locomotive Co. of Kingston, Ont.

Small illustrations, all from catalog of 1900, represent but minor portion of designs then available. The seemingly off-balance 2-4-0 No. 6 above was later version of engine that drew stares at Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and subsequently was shipped to Indiana's 3-foot Bedford, Springville, Owensburg & Bloomfield R.R. View beneath indicates that odd 2-4-0 was adapted from 4-4-0 design.

In large illustration, a Porter saddletanker of the dinky era works on new depot and track elevation project for Delaware, Lackawanna & Western at Morris Plains, N. J., in 1915.


Although Porter built some engines for common carriers and not a few for export, its production was so largely for domestic industrials, and so representative of industrial orders, that an analysis of the gauges to which Porter steamers were built gives a fair impression of the ups and downs of industrial gauges. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century—and despite a fever for narrow gauge—the great debate over widths between rails was nearing an end. The private industrial railroads, then just coming into their own, were the last to pursue the old custom of choosing gauges by local whim. Having no need to interchange cars, the average industrial could build to any suitable width.

Porter arrived just in time to become involved in the confusion. It built steamers for 78 different gauges—and there was at least one Porter made for just about every half-inch of measure from 20 to 49 inches, with a few other fractional gauges in between. A better sense of order prevailed after the turn of the century, and demand for odd-gauge engines receded.

Unremarkably, 36 inches was the most popular gauge; about 3000 3-foot Porters were out-shopped. Standard gauge stood next in popularity, with about 1800 units built—but except for the World War I period, production of standard-gauge engines did not top the output in 36-inch gauge until after 1925. By then the era of the industrial dinky was drawing to a close.

Other popular gauges ran far behind the leaders. In the order given, only 30-inch, 42inch, 44-inch and 24-inch were important. And Porter itself turned out only about 130 24inch steamers—which may explain why there are today more would-be owners for 2-foot-gauge engines in operating condition than there are engines.

Some industrial gauges were regional favorites. Most 18-inch engines went to mines in the far West, while 20-inch gauge came near to being the exclusive choice for copper diggings in Arizona. At one time 56¾ inches was the favored width of many industries in western Pennsylvania and adjoining areas. Some odd gauges ignored geography; e.g., the four known adherents to a span of 40½ inches were in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ontario and New Jersey.

For export Porter built engines by the metric scale or in equivalent inches for 60 cm., 650 mm., 750 mm., 1-meter and other gauges. India ordered some 66-inch-gauge power, and 5-footgauge Porters went to Russia and Panama. The narrowest width was 17¾ inches—for three engines shipped to Austria.


In the two World Wars Porter received a modest share of special orders for steam power. Important World War I production included 11 0-6-0's and 41 2-8-0's for Czarist Russia, nine 0-4-0's and three 0-6-0's for Italy (including three fireless engines), seven 0-4-0T's and five 0-6-0's for the U. S. Navy, and 51 0-6-0's for the Army. Forty of the U. S. Army engines were 36-inch-gauge for forestry service in France; the other 11 were used as stateside switchers. The largest order of all was fulfilled during and after the war: 165 0-4-0T's for Italy.

Between wars the character of Porter business changed radically. Contractors discarded their dinkies, dumpcars and steam shovels for motor trucks and modern heavy equipment. Elsewhere, the internal-combustion locomotive replaced steam on many industrial roads. Porter itself—while preserving its basic reputation as a builder of steam power—turned to making gas and diesel units. During the stagnant 1930's, however, the shops at Pittsburgh turned out fewer than 200 locomotives of all types.

A World War II boom in steam began with ten 0-8-0's for the Soviet Union. Then came two large orders: 65 0-6-0T's for Great Britain and 84 0-6-0T's for the U. S. Army (orders for 55 more Army 0-6-0T's were later cancelled). Some of the British engines eventually found their way to France, Greece and Yugoslavia; certain of the Army engines that went overseas ended up in France and Austria. Later the Army ordered 25 2-8-2's for use in India. Some of these have been traced to Burma and Thailand.

Under U. S. Army auspices, ten 0-4-0T's, 20 0-6-0T's and 16 0-8-0's were built for the Soviet Union toward the end of the war. After the war there were two important orders for Europe: 34 0-8-0's purchased by the United Nations Relief & Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1945 for Yugoslavia, Poland and other countries in eastern Europe, and 28 0-4-0's for Yugoslavia in 1950.

(as shown by existing records)

#254 8-1876 The first dummy, a 62½-in.-gauge 0-4-0 for New Orleans City R.R.

#264 5-1877 Possibly the first 2-6-0 (an earlier 2-6-0 is not positively identified), 36-in. gauge, for Emlenton & Shippenville R.R., Emlenton, Pa.

#332 6-1879 The first 0-4-4T, 36-in. gauge, for E. T. Varner Co., Tuskegee. Ala.

#337 8-1879 The first 4-4-0, 36-in. gauge, for Texas & St. Louis R.R., Tyler, Tex.

#700 8-1885 A special number for the only Porter 2-4-4T (as built), standard gauge, for Greenfield R.R., Greenfield, Mo.

#1900 10-1898 Another significant number for the first 2-8-0, 36-in. gauge, for Jalapa R.R. Power Co., Jalapa, Mexico

#2272 2-1901 The first 0-8-0, a 42-in.-gauge tank engine, Hokkaido Coal & Ry. Co. "A," shipped to Japan by S. H. Payne & Son, exporters

#2796 9-1903 The first 4-6-0, 42-in. gauge, apparently shipped abroad by Lionel Hagenaers & Co., New York

#5331 4-1913 The first 2-8-2, standard gauge, for Carrier Lumber Co., Sardis, Miss.

#5638 4-1915 The first known fireless locomotive, a standard-gauge 0-4-0, Ohio Wood Preserving Co. No. 5638, Orville, Ohio

#5893 7-1916 The only 2-6-4T (as built), 36-in. gauge, Eureka-Nevada Ry. No. 10, Palisade, Nev.

#8131-7 5-1948 The only Porter 4-8-2's—seven, in meter gauge, for Colombian National Rys.


Standard Porter saddletanker from Koppers Co. plant at Nashua, N.H., is now No. 3 of White Mountains Central R.R., amusement line at Clark's Trading Post, North Woodstock, N.H.

Porter's Production:—A Look at the Record


From the 1900 Catalog


"Our exclusive specialty is the manufacture of Light Locomotives, steam and compressed air, in every variety of size and design, and for any practicable gauge of track, wide or narrow. Our locomotives are used for a wide range of service. and are well adapted to severe requirements and difficult conditions for which ordinary locomotives are unsuitable or are too expensive.

"The designs illustrated and described in this catalogue comprise only our leading styles and sizes. We have many modifications of these, besides special designs for unusual requirements, and we are also prepared to make new designs for peculiar cases, or to build to customers' specifications. Our standard designs and features of construction are the result of over thirty years' experience in our exclusive specialty. Our shop force is well drilled, most of the workmen having been educated in our employ, and all of them take pride in sustaining the reputation of the shop for good work. Our location in the city of Pittsburgh, the great coal, steel and iron center of America, affords us a market where we can purchase, at the lowest price and of the very best quality, the various materials that are required for the manufacture and construction of locomotives. At different times during the past 30 years we have been compelled to enlarge our facilities, and have now just completed practically new shops in all departments, equipped with the most modern tools and processes, and of more than double the former capacity. The annual capacity of our first shops; built in 1866 and destroyed by fire in 1871, was 15 to 25 locomotives; of our early shops on the present site, 1872 to 1880, about 75 locomotives; of our enlarged shops, 1881 to 1893, about 125 locomotives; and of our present new shops, 300 locomotives."



"We are occasionally asked if we can furnish 'a second-hand locomotive in good order,' or take an old machine in trade, but we do not make a practice of dealing in second-hand locomotives. This branch of business we consider equally unsatisfactory to ourselves and to our customers. Second-hand locomotives must be sold very cheap, and the only chance of selling at a profit is in trusting to paint to hide defects. Unless we should spend on a second-hand locomotive, in putting it in safe order to sell, more money than it would sell for, we could not advise any one to buy it, In any case it is impossible to give any guaranty with a second-hand locomotive."



". . . on an average where three animals and three drivers, or animals and drivers in different proportion but at about the same daily expense, are used, it is cheaper to operate a light locomotive. From $5 to $6 per day, or $1,500 to $1,800 per year, is a reasonable allowance for the cost of operating a light locomotive to take the place of ten to 40 animals. It is not unusual for an engine to save its cost in less than a year. When through strikes or dullness of trade an engine is idle it saves money as well as when it is busy; only a few cents' worth of white lead and tallow are needed for it, while mules, whether idle or not, must be fed."



"We believe it to be true economy for the owner of a locomotive, especially where shop facilities are not easily available, to employ as an engineer a man who is sufficiently competent as a machinist to keep up all small running adjustments and repairs. Such a man is well worth the highest wages. But in course of time, even with the best of usage, the boiler and machinery of any locomotive will require general repairs and renewals. It is impossible to make an accurate estimate of the cost of the general overhauling of any locomotive, but unless the engine is in very bad order, it should not reach half the cost of a new machine. On this basis the thorough overhauling of a locomotive may be more to the advantage of the owner than the purchase of a new one. We are prepared to do work of this kind promptly and to use our best judgment to keep the cost as low as can be consistent with a thorough and satisfactory job."



"For sake of convenience in classifying our numerous designs of locomotives we have adopted a very simple system.

"The size of the locomotive is designated by the diameter and stroke of its cylinder in inches: thus, 9 x 14 means a locomotive with cylinders nine inches diameter by 14 inches stroke.

"The number of driving wheels is expressed by:

A for two driving wheels.

B for four driving wheels.

C for six driving wheels.

D for eight driving wheels.

"The number and position of locomotive truck wheels is expressed by a figure 2 for two-wheel, or 4 for four-wheel truck; for a rear truck, this figure is placed to the left, and for a front truck placed to the right, of the letter denoting the number of driving wheels, and separated by a hyphen. (The locomotive is supposed to be headed toward the observer's right hand.) Thus, 2-B denotes a locomotive with a two-wheel rear truck and four driving wheels; 4-C-2 a locomotive with a four-wheel rear truck, six driving wheels and a two-wheel front truck.

"The arrangement of water tank is denoted by:

T for tender tank with eight wheels.

T4 for tender tank with four wheels.

T6 for tender tank with six wheels.

S for saddle tank.

SS for two side tanks alongside of boiler.

R for rear tank.

RR for two tanks, one each side at rear.

K denotes a locomotive with sheet steel open canopy for cab.

M denotes a motor style cab enclosing the machinery.

I denotes a locomotive with a steel cab.

O denotes a locomotive without cab.

P denotes a pneumatic or compressed air locomotive, with one air tank, and PP one with two air tanks."

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