Thursday, October 3, 2013
A working replica of “The Best Friend of Charleston,” the first American-built locomotive, will be making an appearance in Summerville before it’s moved to its permanent home in a new downtown Charleston museum.
According to Summerville-Dorchester Museum Curator Chris Ohm, who has been working to organize the visit for four years, the locomotive will make an appearance on E. Doty Avenue on Oct. 28.
Mayor Bill Collins officially announced the train’s arrival during a visit to the museum Thursday afternoon.
Ohm said the four-car replica will arrive on tractor-trailers around noon on Oct. 28 and will stay for approximately six hours. He is in the midst of planning a celebration for the event.
“This is, to my knowledge, going to be one of the biggest historical events we’ve ever thrown in Summerville,” he said.
The locomotive is of significant historical importance; not only was it the first locomotive to be constructed entirely in the United States, but it was the first train to carry U.S. mail and it traveled on the period’s longest railroad track in the world – the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company’s Charleston-Hamburg line, which was constructed from 1830 – 1833.
According to local historian Barbara Lynch Hill, the town owes its development to the railroad.
“Summerville was a little tiny settlement … and it stayed that way for quite some time until the railroad came,” Hill said.
Summerville was one of the earliest stops on the line, according to her book “Summerville,” and it was “the reason for Summerville’s big boom and growth.”
Not only did the railroad company purchase the land in what’s now known as “New Town” and sell it to homeowners, but railroad barons also lived in Summerville and “used it for the first time as a bedroom community,” she said.
For Ohm, the train is more than just a piece of Charleston’s history.
“’The Best Friend of Charleston’ has always been ‘The Best Friend of Summerville’ too,” he said.
The original Best Friend only ran for six months before it was destroyed in an accident.
“It blew up,” said Ohm. “A safety valve on the boiler made a whistling noise and one of the workers closed the valve to make it stop. The boiler overheated and the train exploded.”
The replica – which was built using the blueprints from the original Best Friend – is a historical artifact in itself, as it was created in 1928s to commemorate the centennial of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company.
For the past several years the Best Friend has been housed in Atlanta at the Norfolk Southern Railway headquarters.
Its permanent home will be a new museum in Charleston’s East Shed community, where the Visitor Center and Camden Towers, a structure designed by E.B. White in the 1850s to mark the train’s entrance to the city rail station, are located.