When it was constructed in 1830, the country’s first steam locomotive to establish regularly scheduled passenger service promised to be a godsend to a depressed Charleston economy.
It would provide reliable passage from Charleston to inland settlements, and it would do that in all kinds of weather. It would restore commerce to the city. It would indeed be the Best Friend of Charleston.
When the colorful red and green Best Friend (actually, its 1928 replica) returns to Charleston Sunday morning, it is expected to bring a different kind of energy for history buffs, train enthusiasts, visitors and locals.
And in recognition of its significance, the city of Charleston is building a glass structure to house it on John Street near where the rail line used to begin.
This chapter in the Best Friend’s life should be more long-lived than its first, which ended months after it began when a careless fireman caused an explosion. It killed him and destroyed the locomotive.
The original Best Friend’s surviving parts were used in constructing the Phoenix. Within three years, the railroad had six locomotives.
Visitors to the Best Friend Museum, to be completed in early 2014, will see the full-sized replica that was operated on excursions across the country by Southern Railway.
Its next trip — its last? — will be a short stretch from the flatbed truck on which it is traveling onto a rail and into the exhibit area. Nothing like the maiden trip described in the Charleston Courier: Passengers “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.”
Norfolk Southern Railroad gave the replica to the city of Charleston in 1993. In return for displaying it at its headquarters in Atlanta for the past six years, the company paid the city $250,000 and restored the train.
Meanwhile, a group of Best Friend enthusiasts has tried to keep alive interest in this piece of history in a small museum in Citadel Mall.
The city is investing $1 million in the new museum building, which will also include renovations of part of the adjacent East Shed area.
Best Friend advocates reasonably expect the museum to include artifacts and books relevant to the train.
On its way home to Charleston, the Best Friend made a whistle-stop in Summerville, where it was greeted by a crowd of people, a steel band and vendors selling popcorn and peanuts.
People wanting to see the locomotive’s arrival and placement in Charleston will have that opportunity Sunday morning. It is scheduled to arrive at 8 a.m. and be in place by 2 p.m. Break out the bunting!
Parking on John Street will be restricted to accommodate trucks, so onlookers are advised to use nearby parking garages.
Charleston honors its history well by preserving buildings and telling its story to visitors every day.
The Best Friend will tell another important piece of that story.
Welcome home, Best Friend.