By Meredith Nichter, Curator of Science and Technology
If you’ve ever been to the South State Museum, chances are you’ve looked up at our pre-historic megalodon shark named Finn, checked out the Boeing Observatory, and seen the full-scale locomotive replica at the top of the stairs to the science & technology floor. This is The Best Friend of Charleston, America’s first passenger steam locomotive. It only traveled across a six-mile route during its six months, but, even so, this short-lived train was a huge technological achievement.
Waterways to Railways
In the early 1800s, transportation looked completely different from what it does today. Moving goods like cotton from South Carolina’s upstate to Charleston (SC’s main market) had to be done along the few existing roads or by navigating dangerous rivers. Eventually, the large Savannah River became the primary route to eastern ports. But this meant that more goods were heading to Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston was missing out on those export taxes. It became clear that if something didn’t change soon, Charleston’s economy was going to be in big trouble.
That’s where railroads come in. They would be an easier means of land transportation and allow for more business to come to Charleston. The South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company was chartered in 1827 and began constructing its first track running from Charleston to Branchville. The company commissioned a passenger steam locomotive – America’s first – from the West Point Foundry in New York. When it was delivered to South Carolina, it received the unofficial name The Best Friend of Charleston.
Locomotives like the Best Friend work by using the pressure produced by steam. An operator shovels wood or coal into a firebox to be burned. This fire heats the water held in a boiler to the point that it creates steam, which pushes pistons that move rods connected to the wheels, moving the train forward. When there’s too much pressure from the steam in the boiler, a safety valve releases some of it. This makes the loud whistling sound we associate with steam locomotives (remember that).
The Best Friend of Charleston took its first trip along six miles of track on Christmas Day, 1830. Though its speed might not impress us today, by 19th century standards it was nothing short of incredible. The Charleston Courier described the experience of riding the locomotive as flying “on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space.”
Best Train arrives at the State Museum.
The Best Friend Loses Its Steam
As important as this first locomotive is to history, it might surprise you that it didn’t last very long. About six months after its first journey, disaster struck. Remember how steam engines make that loud whistling noise? Well one day the operator got sick of hearing it and tied down the safety valve to make it stop. The problem is, the whole point of the safety valve is to keep too much pressure from building up in the boiler. So what do you think happened? The boiler blew up, killing the operator and destroying the train.
Despite this disaster, it was clear how much potential there was for rail travel. As railroads became faster and more efficient, they soon became the primary way to transport goods and people throughout the country. Salvageable parts from the Best Friend were used in constructing a new locomotive, named the Phoenix. There are two full-scale replicas of The Best Friend of Charleston. One is at the Best Friend Museum in Charleston, and the other is at our very own South Carolina State Museum.
Fun fact: Did you know the Best Friend got a shout-out from Johnny Cash in his 1974 educational video “Ridin’ the Rails”?