Sunday, March 8, 2009

South Carolina’s Iron Horse Treks to the West

I recently visited the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia (January, 2009). It is a very nice museum with a diverse focus on history, natural science, and culture as relates to the state of South Carolina. I recommend it to you when you visit the capitol city. Plan to take at least 2 to 3 hours to tour its halls and exhibits.

One of the exhibits on display is a replica of The Best Friend of Charleston. The Best Friend of Charleston was the name of one of the world’s first operating and profitable steam locomotives. By the late 1820’s, with the growth of the port of Savannah many of the products from the backcountry once shipped to Charleston were now being shipped to Savannah. Charleston’s business leaders needed to recapture this vital trade. So they looked around for the latest in technology to do so and they found it in the steam locomotive. In 1827 these men chartered the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company. And on Christmas day 1830, the Best Friend made its first trip. The Charleston Courier newspaper describes the first trip as thus:

"The one hundred and forty-one persons flew on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space...leaving all the world behind. On the return we reached Sans-Souci in quick and double quick time, stopped to take up a recruiting party-darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames on either side-passed over three salt creeks hop, step and jump, and landed us all safe at the Lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared."

This train became the first locomotive to establish regularly scheduled passenger service in America. Tracks were laid west and in 1833 South Carolina had the longest railroad track in the world from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina. This was a little river port on the Savannah River across from the city of Augusta. The distance between Hamburg and Charleston was 136 miles. At Hamburg products from the backcountry and the West could be shipped to Charleston rather than down the Savannah River to the port city of Savannah.

The new train and rail road re-established Charleston’s trade and brought added prosperity. Of course, trains were very important to the development of the West, especially the great cattle drives to get beef to the city of Chicago and other growing Northern and Midwestern cities. These later railroads also helped to tie the country together as they did both in reality and in symbol such as the golden spike that married East and West at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. As the 1840’s arrived, the South was very soon supplanted by this technology throughout the other parts of America. But for a brief shinning moment, South Carolina’s Iron Horse The Best Friend of Charleston made weekly treks to the West and back taking both passengers and trade items. It helped to revolutionize America’s transportation modes and was a harbinger of what would follow in the decades to come in building, developing, and tying the West to the rest of America.

Andy Thomas

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