In the early 1800s, Charleston shipped three staples abroad: cotton to England, lumber to the West Indies and rice to southern Europe. From 1817 to 1824, Charleston held a monopoly on steamboat trade on the Savannah River, much to the disgust of the city of Savannah, which served only as a refueling station for the steamers en route to Charleston with bales of cotton stacked all about the decks. But Savannah soon had its own fleet of steamboats plying their way up and down the Savannah, and it was not long before the Charleston boats found it too expensive to compete. With the monopoly broken, Savannah became the primary shipping port for goods traveling down the Savannah River from Augusta, bringing both Georgia and South Carolina crops and other goods to that port. Charleston found itself facing economic disaster. William Aiken and Alexander Black, two prominent Charlestonians, felt that a solution might be a new development being tried experimentally in England: a railed road.
Instead of laying a ten-foot-wide pathway of split logs and planks that would allow passage to farm wagons, stage coaches and other wheeled carriages, a railed road could be only five feet wide with only two strips or “rails” supported by cross members elevated on pilings to prevent flooding in swampy areas. Special coaches or carriages with flanged wheels would be guided by the rails and commerce would be dependent on the owner of the rails and the specially designed carriages. The cost of building such a railed road was minimal when compared to the State Road that was still under construction between Columbia and Charleston in the treacherous swamp areas near the Santee River.
With the backing of several prominent Charleston merchants, the Charleston & Hamburg Rail Road was chartered on December 19, 1827, for Alexander Black, who proposed to build and operate a railed road from Charleston to Hamburg, Columbia and Camden. Each of these cities promised to provide access to the agricultural goods of western Carolina and Georgia, central Carolina and to northern Carolina and North Carolina, respectively. This new company was greeted with cheers, but there was a tremendous amount of work necessary to get the line into operation.
The first two years that the company was in existence were devoted to discussions on the route to be taken to reach the cities of interest, the construction methods to be used and the propulsion for the trains. Experts of the day declared that the railroad would kill all of its passengers, since anyone traveling at thirty miles per hour could not breathe and would expire from suffocation.
Fearful of being held up to ridicule, the company began its first tests in relative secrecy. A section of track, 150 feet long, was built in the middle of cobblestoned Wentworth The Charleston & Hamburg Street in February of 1829. The company then obtained a small four-wheel flat car with flanged wheels for the test. The car was loaded with forty-seven bales of cotton, a formidable load. A single mule was hitched to the car and the watchers were stunned to see the animal pull this load along the street with ease. No one had ever seen a mule haul even a quarter of this load; thus the practical efficiency of the flanged wheels on track was ably demonstrated.
Construction of the C&HRR began at the outskirts of the city of Charleston in January of 1830. The railroad, as welcome as it may have been, was not permitted to operate within the city of Charleston. The tracks, therefore, began at Line Street in the alleyway between King Street and Meeting Street, about two and a quarter miles northwest of the main intersection in the city, Meeting and Broad Streets (known today as the corner of the four governments). The steam engine, which was used to a limited extend overseas in England and was being tested in Maryland and Pennsylvania, was selected by Horatio Allen as the most promising way to operate trains to Hamburg. Construction was started in the early summer of 1830 on the 0-4-0 vertical boiler Best Friend of Charleston, the first practical steam locomotive built in America.
The four-and-a-half-ton locomotive could develop only six horsepower. All four of the wheels were drivers connected together with outside rods and driven by a double crank inside the frame pushed by two six-inch bore inclined cylinders mounted at the front of the engines frame that had a sixteen-inch stroke. The tires of the four-and-a-half-foot diameter wheels were made of iron spread by hardwood spokes set into an iron hub on the axles.
The trial run of November 2, 1830, which followed several earlier successful runs, was not so lucky. With young Darrell as engineer, E.L. Miller “accompanied by several gentlemen in a car made a trial trip.” The Best Friend and the single car ran to the end of the line, but on returning “the forward wheel was sprung inward so much so as to leave the rail entirely and the engine, after proceeding about twenty feet, was stopped with both the front wheels off the rail and some of the spokes much injured.” The engine crew, Darrell and a black fireman, suffered some bruises as they held onto the pitching platform.
After a month of reworking the locomotive and replacing the wooden spokes with
iron spoked wheels, the Best Friend made its next trial on December 9. The most successful trial was completed on December 14, when the locomotive pulled two fourteen-foot coaches with forty men at twenty miles per hour without an incident. With the completion of the trial runs in November and December, the results were judged to be a complete success.
On Christmas Day, Charlestonians saw the first regularly scheduled passenger train to operate in America pull away from the Line Street station. Operated by Nicholas W. Darrell as engineer, the train ran as
far as San Souci that day and each day thereafter.
The first trip was described enthusiastically by a sportswriter, Jockey of York:
Away we flew on the wings of the wind at the speed of 15 to 25 miles per hour, annihilating time and space, and like the renowned John Gilpin, leaving all the world behind. It was nine minutes, five and one fourth seconds since we started and we discovered ourselves beyond the forks of the St
ate and Dorchester Roads. I swear by the spectacles I shall one day or other wear, that either the road or engine turned round like a top. [It passed the cars and] as each car came in front, it gave us three whiffs of steam. On our return, it again headed the column. We came to San Souci in quick time. Here we stopped to take up a recruiting party, darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames on either side, passed over three saltwater creeks, hop, step and jump and landed us all at the Lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared.
Some 141 persons rode the first trip to San Souci, riding in two passenger cars. An additional flatcar was connected for the detachment of United States troops in the recruiting party and a small field cannon. Darrell retightened the bearing packing after the return, and the second trip left at 1:00 p.m. with 100 passengers and returned at 4:00 in two trips to bring some 200 passengers back to Line Street.
The first trips of the Best Friend over the railroad were reported around the world. While there were some misgivings by those with other theories on the best way to run a railroad, there was no denying that the Charleston & Hamburg had met the deadline and was completely satisfactory in its efforts. Here was the finest Christmas present a city ever received; truly the locomotive was to become the “Best Friend of Charleston.”