‘Best Friend’ coming to town
Before the American Revolution, a thriving center of commerce known as Dorchester existed along the Ashley River, eighteen miles inland from Charles Town. Fifty years after the war, Dorchester was an abandoned ruins and the Lowcountry economy was deteriorating.
A new line of settlements upstate from Camden to Columbia were trading at Augusta where steamboats completed the passage with Savannah. Charleston was being replaced as the trading center for the state and the merchants of the city were facing a recession. The economic crisis prompted certain hardy businessmen to consider the establishment of a rail connection between Charleston and Hamburg, a town on the banks of the Savannah River, opposite Augusta.
In 1827, the state legislature authorized the formation of a company which would eventually be known as the South Carolina Railroad. The pioneers of this organization soon began a survey of the land between the two towns to identify elevations and certain obstacles such as large rivers and skeptical landowners. (One such old crank was Colonel Barney Brown who worried that “the blowing of whistles and ringing of bells would seriously disturb the quiet and repose of the citizens and under no circumstances would such a nuisance be tolerated by a respectable community.”)
Yet, most of the people of the countryside accepted the proposed railroad and many donated land for the right-of-way, often offering their timber for the rails. The president of the company reported to the stockholders that “the praise-worthy liberality of our citizens in this particular is without parallel…the privilege has been ceded as a boon to the general good, at the sacrifice of personal convenience and interest.” When the final line was set, it did not approach the site of colonial Dorchester. It did, however, pass through the area that would one day become the long axis of modern Dorchester County.
Construction of the rail line began in 1830. The rails – flat iron strips fastened to heavy heart of pine piles as an elevated trestle-work – soon crossed the fields and forests, swamps and farms of modern Dorchester County.
By 1832, the longest full service railroad in America at the time was in business. To bring the rails alive, the owners of the railroad chose a New York foundry to produce an odd contraption, little more than a boiler and pistons on wheels that would become famous as the first locomotive produced in America and known as “The Best Friend of Charleston.”
Constructing the track was time-consuming – only six miles had been laid in that first year. The Best Friend never ranged beyond a few miles of Charleston and never reached the area known today as Dorchester County. Six months after it began regular service, it blew up as a result of the fireman becoming annoyed with the noise of the escaping steam and so seating himself on the safety valve.
Firemen come and go; so do railroad companies and Best Friends. The South Carolina Railroad became the Southern Railway which became the Norfolk Southern. In 1928, the Southern produced a wonderful replica of the Best Friend of Charleston, along with a tender and two passenger cars. The train was extensively displayed and widely appreciated before it found a home in a Charleston museum. Eight years ago, the Norfolk Southern moved the resurrected curiosity to Atlanta and new is returning it to a permanent home in Charleston. On the way, it will pass through Dorchester County and for the first time, reach Summerville for a stop. Colonel Barney Brown would disagree – but it really will be something to see!