Harbison-Walker: The Pittsburgh Company that Helped to Construct the Steel Industry

There is a saying: a rising tide lifts all boats. That certainly applies to Harbison-Walker International. Founded in Pittsburgh, Harbison-Walker’s refractories and its success enabled Andrew Carnegie to build his steel mills and establish Pittsburgh as the economic powerhouse known as Steel City.

The company was founded in 1864 by J. K. Lemon and ten other Allegheny County residents. It was originally called the Star Fire Brick Company. The first works of the company was located at 22nd and Railroad Streets in the Strip District. At its beginning, Samuel P. Harbison was hired as company secretary, but he soon began to investigate fire clays for their suitability for making refractory bricks. Hay Walker was also an original member and served as the bookkeeper, taking on the task of monitoring plant efficiencies. Ten years later in 1875, Harbison and Walker took over the struggling company. It was later renamed Harbison-Walker Refractories Company in 1902.

A refractory material is a heat-resistant product. Harbison-Walker made refractory products for many industries including steel mills. Harbison-Walker’s fortunes rose along with the success of Andrew Carnegie’s steel companies as they supplied firebricks for his mills. Harbison and Walker knew Thomas Carnegie, Andrew’s brother, and through using Harbison-Walker fire bricks, Carnegie Steel built the world’s largest blast furnace: the Lucy Furnace.

Fire bricks are made of clay, and the first plant used clay from nearby Bolivar, Pennsylvania. As the country’s economy boomed so did Harbison-Walker’s fortunes. By 1902, the company had grown to 33 plants across the country. In the 1960s, Harbison-Walker acquired several foreign companies, but in 1967, the company merged and became a division of Dresser Industries of Dallas. In 1994, the company became a part of Global Industrial Technologies; and in 2000, an Austrian Company, RHI AG, acquired Global Industrial Technologies. Because of its sterling reputation, Harbison-Walker retained its name and is now known as HarbisonWalker International.

More than 150 years later, HarbisonWalker International is the largest supplier of refractory products and services in the U.S. and is still a Pittsburgh company. They have an Advanced Research and Technology Center is in West Mifflin; a distribution center in Leetsdale; and their corporate headquarters is in Moon Township.  The company’s line of products has expanded considerably and operates 17 plants in the U.S., one in the U.K. and one in Indonesia.

While the Carnegie name is synonymous with Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage, the names Harbison and Walker were just as essential. Samuel P. Harbison was a man of deep faith and, like Carnegie, became a philanthropist. He donated generously to Grove City College, where he also served on the institution’s board of trustees. The chapel on the campus is named for him.

By Janice Lane Palko

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