The Ashton Valve company was born out of Henry G. Ashton’s desire to make boiler rooms a safer working environment.
In its 100-plus year history, the Ashton Valve company saved countless lives by producing safety and relief valves, gauges of all types, testing equipment, whistles, clocks and other steam-related products for railroads, marine ships and power stations.
During the late 1800s people were dying at an alarming rate from boiler explosions.
In one year in the mid 1860s more than 1,000 people died due to boiler explosions, and even more were injured. In April of 1865, the paddle steamer Sultana, carrying Union prisoners back north from Confederate prison camps, exploded. More than 1,500 people died in the disaster.
Another explosion in July of 1894 at a lumber mill caused the death of four workers and did substantial damage to the mill. The pressure was probably over 500 pounds per square inch when the boiler exploded. The boiler ripped through the roof of the power house and flew through the air for 1,200 feet, passing over the mill and a number of houses at 80 feet in the air. Then it crashed into a nearby wood, levelling many trees and snapping one tree 28 inches in diameter.
Between 1885 and 1895, there were an average of 200 boiler explosions a year in the United States. In the following decade, there were 3,216 explosions, resulting in 7,600 deaths and countless injuries.
Ashton Valve Founded
Henry Ashton arrived in Boston in 1869 from East Dereham, England, with his wife, Emma, and his infant son, Albert. He had a basic education supplemented by a course in mechanical and steam engineering.
He worked for Hinkley Locomotive Works and the Eagle Sugar Refinery before inventing his lock pop safety valve in 1871. It was a breakthrough in boiler safety. Basically, the safety valve would close quickly after “popping,” saving a lot of steam. The boiler would then be able to get up to steam much quicker. Time is money, as they say.
Henry patented his idea and in 1872 started producing the valves with three other employees at 138 Pearl St. Burned out by the great Boston Fire of 1872, the company relocated to other Boston addresses until settling down at 271 Franklin St., its home for the next 27 years.
The demand for its products grew. In 1885, the Railway Purchasing Agent journal quoted the company as stating “Ashton Valve has not discharged a man on account of any falling off in orders, nor run less than 10 hours a day during the last four years.”
1892 was an important year for Ashton Valve, as it purchased the Boston Steam Gauge Co. and entered the pressure gauge market.
“The reputation gained by nearly 20 years experience in the manufacture of safety valves and the widely recognized quality of the Ashton Valve company will be the only guarantee needed for the unsurpassed quality of the goods we shall put upon the market,” the company announced.
Before long, the company’s gauges commanded as much respect throughout the industry as its valves. The business continued to grow at a rapid pace with a reputation based on quality products. Its motto, “higher in first cost, but cheaper in the end.”
Death of the Founder
In 1895, the company was saddened by the death of its founder, Henry Ashton. His son, Albert, who had attended MIT, would play an important role in the daily operations of the company for the next 27 years.
Despite adding a fifth floor to the Franklin Street facility in 1900, the company could not keep up with demand. So in 1907 Ashton Valve purchased a dirt lot in East Cambridge. It then contracted the Densmore and LeClear company to design a four-story, 45,820 sq. ft. building. Located at 161 First St., the building still stands today. It cost $67,000 in 1907 money for C.A. Dodge & Company to build, and it featured modern bathrooms and electricity throughout.
By 1922 Ashton Valve employed 250 workers. 1922 also saw the death of Albert Ashton, who had been running the company since his father’s death in 1895. The 1920s and 1930s represented the peak years for the company. And the profits were good. In 1916, it showed a profit of $182,234, and in 1919 $214,178–in the millions by today’s dollars.
Then business slowed in the 1940s as diesel locomotives, the rise in gasoline usage and electricity as a power source quickly replaced steam. The steam era was coming to a close and the company suffered because it never ventured far from its steam-related products.
World War II
World War II brought major changes to the company and for the first time since 1871 it ceased to be a family-run business. In 1942 the Defense Plant Corporation bought the facility. The government set up the Defense Plant Corporation (DPC) in 1940 to finance the construction of new industrial facilities and the expansion of existing ones. From its creation on Aug. 22,1940 until June 30,1945 , DPC invested over $7 billion to increase the industrial capacity of the United States.
A letter from the Ashton management to the shareholders explains how the DPC would affect Ashton Valve. Basically, the DPC would purchase the Ashton Valve factory and Ashton Valve would then merge with another valve producer, Crosby Valve. Crosby Valve would run the two companies at the Ashton facility.
Crosby/Ashton produced safety valves and relief valves for navy ships for the duration of the war. The safety valves used by the government ship builders were most likely the same valves Ashton had been selling to them since 1872. Then Ashton Valve had received government approval for the valve’s usage on military vessels. The valve design had not changed much since then.
After the war ended in 1945, Ashton and Crosby were both purchased by Dewey David Stone, a businessman who owned multiple companies including Converse Rubber. Both companies moved to Wrentham, Mass., in 1948. They occupied the old Winter Brothers tap and die factory. They continued to produce valves under the Crosby/Ashton name and gauges under the Ashton Valve name. The last gauges under the Ashton name were produced in 1978. The Wrentham factory was torn down in 2012.
Today the company is known more for its beautiful gauges that demand a high price on eBay than for its life saving safety valves. If you happen to be driving down First Street in Cambridge you can see the granite lintel on the building. It proudly states, “Ashton Valve 1907.”
End Note About the Author
Rick Ashton, the author of this story, has retired and lives on an island off the coast of Maine. “I am currently continuing my research on my ancestors and the Ashton Valve company they created, as well as enjoying reading and listening to music,” he said. “Probably the most enjoyable part of researching the company is the wonderful people I have met along the way. Their encouragement and help has made it a great experience. I do not miss work.”