“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.”
— Charleston Courier report on the Dec. 25, 1830, premiere trip of the Best Friend of Charleston.
The first trip of the first steam locomotive in the U.S. to establish regularly scheduled passenger service moved at up to 25 miles per hour, enough to make passengers’ heads spin.
Twenty-five miles per hour is hardly fast today. But the next big trip of the Best Friend (actually a replica of the original locomotive) seems to be approaching even more slowly — the way weeks pass for children awaiting Christmas. It will be the train’s trip home to Charleston from Atlanta where it has spent the last five years on display in the lobby of Norfolk Southern’s headquarters.
Colleen Carducci, director of real estate management for the city of Charleston, says she is confident that by the end of 2012 the Best Friend will be displayed on John Street in a new glass structure. The city is in negotiations with a builder.
If things go well, the building will connect via a conference room to an existing railroad shed, which will be renovated to accommodate a commercial venture — likely a family-style restaurant.
But if the city is unable to find a private partner to take on the East Shed project, it will proceed with the glass structure alone.
The city of Charleston has $1 million to put toward the project — $250,000 paid by Norfolk-Southern and the rest from a tax increment finance district.
What hangs in the balance is the independent Best Friend Museum, currently at Citadel Mall. Mary Lehr, who tends to the museum, says funds are running out. She hopes to hold on until the collection of artifacts and books can find a home with the Best Friend — likely in the new conference room. Artifacts include tools, uniforms and lanterns connected to the Best Friend.
Ms. Carducci, however, says that room’s function has not been determined. And the specifications set out by the city in its request for construction proposals suggest it would be used by CARTA for meetings and as a banquet room for a restaurant.
It would be a pity if the city does not find a way to display items related to the Best Friend. Indeed, a modest rail museum would be in order.
The Best Friend should be back home where residents and visitors can see and learn about the train. It was built during an economic recession and is credited with bringing prosperity back to Charleston. The original was destroyed in an explosion.
The location is ideal — near the Children’s Museum, the Charleston Museum, the Visitors Center (which resembles a train station), the College of Charleston and numerous popular restaurants and shops. Of course, it’s within the city’s historic rail corridor.
The Best Friend can no longer whisk people “on the wings of wind,” but it can transport them to another chapter in Charleston’s history.
The sooner, the better.