December 25th, 1830.
It was approaching 8am Christmas morning in Charleston . A large crowd of men, women and children, had left behind the warmth of their homes to stand out near the intersection of Line and King Streets. They were clustered around the nearby station that housed the newest mechanical marvel of the age- a train. It has been described as resembling an old fashioned wine bottle made not of glass, but of steel. Its’ four and half ton body rested vertically on the rear of a four-wheel platform. Hitched to this locomotive were two “pleasure cars,” ready to receive passengers.
Back in November this engine had arrived in pieces transported from a foundry in New York . After being assembled this metal behemoth had been put through the paces, its’ noisy, smoky, trial runs attracting a lot of attention from the inhabitants of the Holy City . On Christmas Eve, the newspapers ran an announcement that the train was now ready to run, and invited the citizens their own chance to try this experimental mode of travel.
As it turned eight, last call was given, and about 140 brave souls stepped out of the crowd and boarded. They piled shoulder to shoulder into two passenger cars behind the locomotive, which sported a red and green paint job in keeping with the holiday. A band of musicians assembled for the occasion played the passengers off as engineer Nick Darrell coaxed the train forward.
Only six miles of track had been laid. On the inaugural run they were going to ride it one end to the next. Jockey, a sports writer from New York , described his experience “On the wings of the wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles an hour, annihilating time and space and leaving all the world behind….”
In just over nine minutes they had traveled beyond the forks of the old State and Dorchester Road . They stopped at San Souci to pick up a flatcar mounting a small cannon and staffed by a recruiting party of US troops. With their new guests the train made its’ triumphant returned to the station. Jockey said of the return trip “(we) darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames from either side, passed over three salt water creeks, hop, step and jump and landed us all safe at the end of the lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not to be scared.” The train ran twice more on Christmas, carrying about 300 more passengers. This gives it the distinction of being the first steam locomotive in the US to establish regularly scheduled passenger service. It seemed to have more than earned the name given to it by eager merchants “The Best Friend of Charleston.”
More track was laid and more stations were built in the weeks after the Christmas run. Unfortunately, on June 17, the Best Friend was destroyed in accident killing a rail worker and injuring several others. This death would give the “Best Friend” claim to another first, albeit an inauspicious one, this would be the first fatality on an American railroad. The accident was only a minor setback. The railroad continued to grow and other locomotives were constructed all over the country. A few years later the “ Phoenix ” was built, using pieces of the original Best Friend.
Despite its’ brief life, The Best Friend has had museums devoted to it, and several replicas made of it over the years. Lionel Toys even released a limited edition model of the train in 2007. A replica of the “Best Friend of Charleston” is now on in the S.C. State Museum in Columbia, another sits in the lobby of the Norfolk Southern Atlanta HQ in Atlanta .
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.