The Best Friend of Charleston was a steam-powered railroad locomotive. It is widely acclaimed as the first locomotive to be built entirely within the United States. It also produced the first locomotive boiler explosion in the US.
In the 1820’s, the bustling seaport of Charleston experienced an alarming economic recession as settlements expanded inland and westward. With the decrease in commerce, Charleston merchants began aggressively investigating avenues to revitalize the floundering economy.
At this time, Europeans were just beginning to experiment with the concept of a “Rail Road”; a new means of transportation that employed a “locomotive” propelled along rails by steam power.
In 1827 Charleston merchants persuaded the state legislature to charter the “South Carolina Canal and
Rail Road Company” to investigate the feasibility of a rail road system connecting Charleston with inland markets and a canal between the Ashley and Savannah Rivers to divert trade from the Savannah River to Charleston.
In October 1830, the engine arrived by packet ship from the West Point Foundry in New York. It was assembled and tested. Dubbed “Best Friend of Charleston” by eager merchants, the train made its premier trip on Christmas Day, 1830, becoming the first steam locomotive in the US to establish regularly scheduled passenger service. It ran along six miles of wood and metal rails terminating near the junction of State and Dorchester Roads. This first trip was described by the ”Charleston Courier” on December 29:
“The one hundred and forty-one persons flew on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space…leaving all the world behind. On the return we reached Sans-Souci in quick and double quick time, stopped to take up a recruiting party-darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames on either side-passed over three salt creeks hop, step and jump, and landed us all safe at the Lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared.”
Until this time, travel had been limited to road conditions and river navigability. More times than not, roads were dry and dusty or wet and soggy, undependable whether being traveled by coach, horseback, or foot. Waterway navigation was severely limited to the course, water flow, depth and tides of the river systems. Both means of transportation were totally dependent upon weather and temperature conditions. The railroad transcended these obstacles and brought economic prosperity back to Charleston. Within five months of the “Best Friend’s” debut, a second locomotive, the “West Point,” arrived in Charleston.
One month later, the rail line reached “Woodstock,” a point between Charleston and Summerville. Then, tragedy struck. A careless fireman unwittingly caused an explosion. It killed him, scalded the engineer, and destroyed the “Best Friend.”
The accident proved only a minor set back to the railway transportation system. Within three years, the rail road boasted of six locomotives, including the “Phoenix,” an engine constructed from the “Best Friend’s” remains.
The “Best Friend” did much in its short life. It returned economic prosperity to Charleston and it instituted regularly scheduled steam passenger service. In doing so, it completely revolutionized America’s transportation. The “Best Friend” was indeed, ”The little engine that did!”
The “Best Friend of Charleston,” now on loan to Norfolk Southern for display in their Atlanta GA headquarters, is a full-sized replica of the 1830 train. The steam engine was constructed from the original plans in 1928 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the “South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company”. Southern Railway operated this replica on excursions across the USA. The special railroad cars designed to carry the train between excursions are presently on display at the South Carolina Railroad Museum. The “Best Friend” was donated to the City of Charleston by Norfolk Southern in 1993. The Best Friend Museum closed in 2000. The Museum and Gift Shop were a joint venture of the Charleston Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and the City of Charleston.
Pending the train’s permanent placement into a glass covered extension of the East Shed of the Camden Towers, located next to the Charleston Visitor Center, the train may be seen in the lobby of the Norfolk Southern Atlanta headquarters at 1200 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta GA.
- October 1830: the Best Friend arrives in Charleston from West Point Foundry.
- December 25, 1830: The Best Friend runs for the first time in Charleston.
- 1831: The boiler explodes on the Best Friend
- Remains of Best Friend rebuilt in Charleston as Phoenix, which runs until the War
The Explosion of the Best Friend
ON Friday the last of June, 1831, the boiler of the “Best Friend” exploded. As this is the first boilerexplosion upon a locomotive on record in America, we will give the account of the accident and its consequences, from an article in the Charleston , June ; 18, 1831:
SATURDAY Morning, June 18, 1531.
The locomotive ‘ Best Friend ‘ started yesterday morning to meet the lumber-cars at the Forks of the Road, and, while turning on the revolving platform, the steam was suffered to accumulate by the negligence of the fireman, a Negro, who, pressing on the safety valve, prevented the surplus steam flow escaping, by which means the boiler burst at the bottom, was forced inns and, and injured by. Darrell, the engineer, and two Negroes. The one had his thigh broken, and the other received a severe cut in the face and a slight one in the flesh part of the breast. Mr. Darrell was scalded from the shoulder- blade down his back. The boiler divas thrown to the distance of twenty-five feet. None of the persons are dangerously injured except the Negro, who had his thigh broken. The accident occurred in consequence of the Negro holding down the safety-valve while Mr.. Darrell, the engineer, was assisting to arrange the lumber- cars, and thereby not permitting the necessary escape of steam above the pressure the engine was allowed to carry.”
The wreck of the “Best Friend” was sent to the shops of Mr. Dotterer for repairs and such alterations as were found upon experiment to be necessary.
Railroad men of the present day will no doubt ask, ” Why was the engineer, Mr. Darrell, not at his post upon the engine, and why was he attending to the arrangement of the lumber-cars, leaving his engine in charge of his Negro fireman ? ” To these questions we will reply by stating that, at that early day in railroad affairs, no such officers of a train as conductors, flagon or brakemen, had been instituted. The engineers of 8 motives, like the drivers of the old- fashioned staged aches in by-gone days, and of the horse-cars used up on railroads, had to do their own hitching up, etc. Hence the reason why Mr. Darrell was not on the engine during the arrangement of the train. At that time every thing had to be learned as the necessity demanded it. Previous to the explosion of the ” Best Friend,” an accident occurred at a switch, which is explained by Mr. Allen, the chief engineer, and which called for a new order from the directors, which we will insert as an illustration of our remarks in the case of the explosion:
Charleston May 147 1831. TO ELIAS HORRY, ESQ., PRESIDENTÑ
SIR: I hasten to communicate the causes which produced the accident of yesterday afternoon. It originated in the wild de- rangement of the tongue, which guides the wheel through the turnout, by some ill-disposed person, and was rendered injurious to the car by the imprudent speed allowed by those who had the management of the engineÑthe tongue having been nailed to its proper position, but was made loose by removing the fastening, and was probably shaken from its place by the speed with which the engine and one car had preceded the one injured. Directions have been given to pass the turnout at moderate speed, and the attention of the person in charge to be constantly kept on the road in advance of the engine.
Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Extract from the minutes, July 3, 1831, in reference to the order above alluded to by Mr. Allen:
Resolved, That in future not over twenty-five passengers be allowed to go on each car. That the locomotive shall not travel at a greater speed when there is attached:
One car and passengers at fifteen miles an hour. Two cars and passengers at twelve miles an hour. Three cars and passengers at ten miles an hour. And that directions be given to that effect.
The foregoing will no doubt draw a smile upon the faces of engineers and railroad-men of the present day. It only serves to show the crudeness of railroad experience, at that early day, of locomotives.
The following letter from Mr. Nicholas W. Darrell, the first locomotive-engineer in America, will, we trust, be read with interest, especially by his fellow-engineers and railroad-men. It was received in answer to some inquiries made of him by the author, in reference to the ” Best Friend.”
Charleston, September 2, 1869. Otis. We. H. BROWNÑ
DEAR SIR: Your letter came to hand a few days ago, and I now hasten to reply to it, with all the information I can give you upon the subject at this distant day, drawn from memory alone, as I have no notes to which to refer.
In the spring of 1830, Sir. E. L. Miller, of our city, entered into a contract to furnish the South Carolina Railroad with a locomotive that should travel ten miles an hour, and draw three times its own weight.
Under this contract Sir. Miller brought out his engine, which was built at the West Point Foundery in New-York City. The engine arrived by the ship Niagara in Charleston, in the latter part of October, 1830. The engine was called the ‘Best Friend, of Charleston.’ Sir. Julius D. Petsch and myself had served our apprenticeship with Mr. Thomas Dotterer, of the firm of Dotterer & Eason, as machinists and engineers, and were engaged to put this engine together, and made the first run or trail trip, when she proved equal to double the stipulations of the contract, running at the rate of sixteen to twenty-one miles an hour, with forty or fifty passengers in four or five cars, and making thirty to thirty- five miles per hour without cars. From this date I was regularly engaged as the engineer of the ‘ Best Friend,’ the first locomotive ever built and run in this country, in the actual service of a company.
In June, 1831, the boiler of the ‘Best Friend’ exploded, while in charge of myself She was rebuilt by Mr. Thomas Dotterer, who substituted straight axles and cast wheels and wrought tires, for crank-axles and wood wheels with iron tires. Her name was also changed, and called the ‘ Phoenix.’ “During the repairs and alterations of the ‘Best Friend,’ a second engine, called the ‘ West Point,’ arrived in Charleston, and was put upon the road. Of this engine I was also engineer. When the ‘ Phoenix ‘ was repaired, she was run by Henry Raworth as engineer.
I continued to run the ‘ West Point ‘ until the first eight wheel engine was brought out, called the ‘ South Carolina,’ built in New York, after plans of Sir. Horatio Allen, then chief en engineer of the South Carolina Railroad. Julius D. Petsch, Nicholas W. Darrell (myself ), John Eason, and Henry Raworth, were the first to run locomotives. We were all apprentices of Mr. Thomas Dotterer, and natives of Charleston. I have been constantly in the employ of the South Carolina rail- road from December 8, 1830, to the present time; was born on the Jan. 12th day of November, 180*7. it ” Attached is a rough sketch of the ‘ Best Friend,’ made from recollection alone, yet I was so long upon the machine, and had her so many years before my eyes, that her general form and ap appearence can never be forgotten. I have shown the sketch to many of the old hands now living, and they all exclaim at once, ‘ There is the old ” Best Friend ! ” ‘ When I run the ‘ Best Friend,’ I had a Negro fireman to fire, clean, and grease the machine. This Negro, annoyed at the noise occasioned by the blowing off the steam, fastened the valve- lever down and sat upon it, which caused the explosion, badly injuring him, from the effects of which he died afterward, and scalding me. I hope this information Fill be of service to you. If you re quire any other facts in reference to the first engines, let me hear from you. Yours with great respect, SIR. W. DARRELL, First Superintendent of Machinery, South Carolina Railroad.
The following letter from James M. Eason, Esq., of Charleston, South Carolina, who is a manufacturer of steam-engines, boilers, and machinery, will serve to establish the fact that, not only was the South Carolina Railroad the very first in the world built expressly for locomotives, but it was also the pioneer in having the first locomotive for actual service in America built for their use; also the first to order a locomotive to be built in their midst and by one of their own native mechanics and citizens:
OFFICE OF J. M. EASON AND BROTIXEB, MANUFACTURES OF STEAM ENGINES, BOILERS, AND MACHINERY. CHARLESTON, S. C., September 24, 1869. SIR. H. BROWNS ESQ.Ñ
DEAR SIR: I enclose you a note from old Mr. Darrell, and also a photograph of him which I prevailed upon him to have taken for you. ” If of any interest to you, I could send you a photograph of Thomas Dotterer, who, in early railroad days, built the ‘ station,’ the first locomotive ever built with outside connections and straight axles. After the explosion of the ‘ Best Friend,’ he changed her to straight axles and made iron wheels. Mr. Dotterer was considered one of the best natural mechanics of his day. J. D. Petseb, N. W. Darrell, Henry Raworth, John Eason, etc., were the early locomotive- engineers here, and were all apprentices of his. Every master-machinist in charge of the South Carolina Railroad machinery and shops, up to this day, was his apprentice.
I remember the first trip of the ‘Native.’ She had been started out to run up the road, and I well remember the great prejudice which Mr. Dotterer had to encounter against his plan of outside connections, which was then urged to this effect: that the power, being applied to the end of the axle, would rack the road to pieces and the engine too; that the thing (not calling it an engine) would not do, etc. But, nothing daunted, he made the engine and sent it out. Evening came, and the locomotive, probably the second ever run on the road, certainly the first after the ‘West Point,’ did not arrive with the train. Great uneasiness was manifested by the officers of the company, for in those days everybody interested attended at the arrival of a locomotive. Finally night came on; neither the regular train nor the little ‘ Nathan ‘ (for she only weighed about four tons) was in sight, and the murmurings could be heard in knots of persons and officials, that the damned thong had broken the road, or blown up, or some other casualty had happened to her, and prevented the arrival of the other locomotive and train.
My dear sir, imagine Mr. Dotterer’s feelings; but behold him, the man of genius, standing amid the bickering of men, almost fearing that his little engine was the cause of the delay, when a voice cried out, ‘ She’s coming ! ‘ and the sparks Mom the smoke-pipe were observed (for in those days spark-arrestors were not perfected). Then a general rush to hear the news to see what caused the detention, and learn the fate of the poor home- made ‘ Native,’ when I ! a cry from a faithful friend of Mr. Dotterer, ‘ Why, ’tis the Native pulling locomotive and train ! ‘ Then look at Thomas Dotterer, with a heart full, with teardrops On his eyes, as the smile of successful championship and confidence in his work played upon his countenance. I stood beside him at that moment, and shared with him in his pride. If I had the time and the ability, I could gather many interesting facts of early railroad times here in our old city, for I can remember many things. But I only intended to enclose to you Mr. Darnel’s letter and his photograph, and trust you will excuse me for thus intruding on your valuable time.
Very respectfully, yours, etc.,
And there is you history lesson for the day!
GET OFF THE HIGHWAY!