Hanging out with the "Best Friend of Charleston"

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The replica of the 1830 locomotive Best Friend of Charleston is displayed in its own museum in its South Carolina namesake city. Constructed by Southern Railway for the centennial of the original Best Friend, the replica is itself 92 years old. Kevin P. Keefe
Over the years I’ve tried to visit as many famous sites in American railroading as possible, not merely just to say I’ve been there, but to see if maybe witnessing them somehow deepens my appreciation of the entire sweep of the industry’s history. Sounds a bit pretentious, perhaps, but that’s been my motivation.

I’ve gotten a quiet thrill out of walking the tracks at Promontory when no one was there. I’ve stood where Casey Jones met his fate in lonely Vaughan, Miss. I hiked to an abandoned siding at Hyde Park, N.Y., where FDR’s funeral train brought him home for the last time. I’ve stood in awe of Baltimore & Ohio’s First Stone at the B&O Railroad Museum. 

One of my favorite sacred places is amid the crowded streets of old Charleston, S.C. Down there on John Street, housed in a handsome period-style museum building, rests the Best Friend of Charleston, a faithful replica of the first America-built steam locomotive to run a revenue mile. The tiny 0-4-0 made its debut trip on December 25, 1830, for the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road (SCC&RR), a company chartered by the state to link Charleston with inland destinations. 

That first trip was quite the sensation, as described in the florid language of the day in the Charleston Courier (still the city’s newspaper):

Southern used its Best Friend replica at numerous public events over the years. On August 9, 1980, it stood in the clear to let a freight pass at Ridgecrest, N.C. Jim Wrinn
“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.”

Imagine how the writer might have reacted to Union Pacific 4014.

The original Best Friend was built in 1830 at the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, N.Y., a major cast-iron manufacturer in the early 19th century. In an interesting irony, the builder of the Best Friend went on to become a major source of Civil War munitions, some of which presumably were used by the Union during its long siege and bombardment of Charleston. Sadly, the Best Friend blew up on June 17, 1831, killing the fireman. But its place in history was secure.

Fast forward to 1928, when the Southern Railway, successor to the South Carolina Rail Road, decided to honor its centennial. Using original blueprints, SR employees at Hayne Shop in Spartanburg, S.C., constructed a new Best Friend and proceeded to use it for decades at various public events, including the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and the Chicago Railroad Fair of 1948-49. A second, non-operating replica was built in 1972 and is on display at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

Not far from the Best Friend's display location is the William Aiken House, home to the founder of the South Carolina Rail Road. Kevin P. Keefe
Charleston’s Best Friend has remained peripatetic in recent years, thanks to Norfolk Southern, which leased the engine in recent years. In 2005, NS displayed the locomotive on Wall Street to mark the 175th anniversary of American railroading. The Best Friend made another long stop at NS headquarters in Atlanta.

Today, the city maintains the engine as a centerpiece of the Best Friend of Charleston Museum, a long, narrow clerestoried building that’s surprisingly faithful to the surrounding architecture. Inside are numerous displays charting not only the Best Friend’s particular history, but also the story of Charleston railroading in general. Members of the Charleston Chapter, NRHS, maintain a close relationship with the museum. 

Other notable antebellum railroad buildings are just outside the door. Around the corner on King Street is the William Aiken House, a gorgeous yellow-and-white Adams-style structure built in 1807 and acquired around 1811 by William Aiken Sr., founder of the South Carolina Rail Road. Across the street from the Best Friendis the old Tower Passenger Depot, an early SCC&RR station done up in what, to me, is a bizarre version of Gothic Revival, complete with a medieval castle parapet. It’s now an arts venue.

Another remnant of early railroading in Charleston is the old South Carolina Rail Road freight House on Ann Street. Kevin P. Keefe
There are other repurposed railroad buildings nearby, including the Line Street Car and Carpenter Shops and what is known as the Camden Depot. My favorite is the South Carolina Rail Road freight house on Ann Street, a handsome but unpretentious block-long arched structure along which runs what must be the last remnant of old Southern track in this part of downtown Charleston. 

Early 19th-century railroading isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and if the Best Friend museum isn’t enough to get you excited, there is plenty else to see around Charleston. CSX has a big presence in town and runs plenty of trains past the gleaming new Amtrak station in North Charleston, where the Palmetto and the Silver Meteor stop every day. The gleaming blue diesels of the state-owned short line Palmetto Railways can be seen around the harbor as well.

But for sheer meaning, you can’t beat a short visit to see the Best Friend, the first successful American-built steam locomotive. The city of Charleston truly worships the old engine, and for good reason. A long time ago, something happened here. Something big. 

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