Just the thought of being reunited with a best friend is grand. For five years, such thoughts have sustained local people who look forward to the return of the fabled Best Friend of Charleston.
Knowing that a friend has a ticket to travel — that the reunion is really going to happen — is even better. So it is particularly encouraging that Charleston City Council last week dedicated $1 million to bring the Best Friend home to a fitting exhibit space near the six-mile track it traveled on as the first regularly scheduled steam passenger rail service in the United States.
The trip has taken longer than expected. Norfolk Southern has had the train on display in its downtown Atlanta office building since 2007. In return, the company restored it and paid the city of Charleston $250,000.
Actually, what is on exhibit there — and will be on exhibit here after the space is built off John and Ann streets — is a replica of the 1830 train. It was built in the 1920s to be part of the 100th anniversary of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company. Southern Railway took it on trips across the country.
In 1993, Norfolk Southern Railroad donated the Best Friend to the city of Charleston. It will come home to a 3,500-square-foot museum with lots of glass, allowing passersby to see the train from the sidewalk.
It’s too bad that the artifacts and books related to railroad history in Charleston displayed at the private Best Friend Museum at the Citadel Mall won’t have a place in the new exhibit space. They could help give the exhibit some heft — take it from being a one-time, drive-by attraction to a source of substantial information and historical context.
Granted, the collection as it exists is not adequate. But efforts could be made to expand and focus the materials to tell the impressive story of the Best Friend more fully — from the excitement and economic boost it brought Charleston to its tragic end only months later in a devastating explosion.
The $1 million comes from the King Street/Gateway tax increment financing district intended to pay for infrastructure projects, including part of the cost of renovating the Gaillard Auditorium. Providing an attractive, functional space for the public to see the Best Friend is an apt use of TIF funding.
Meanwhile, we’re trying to be patient as we await the Best Friend’s return.