Commissioned by the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, the Best Friend of Charleston was the first locomotive built in the United States for public service. Constructed in New York City at the West Point Foundry to run on the Charleston-Hamburg line, the Best Friend was christened by hopeful supporters on its Charleston arrival in October 1830. The locomotive had its formal debut on Christmas Day 1830, pulling passenger cars from Charleston to Dorchester. Its performance exceeded expectations, with one observer writing that passengers “flew on the wings of the wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty miles per hour, annihilating time and space.”
In 1831 the Best Friend was used to carry mail, freight, and passengers. A second engine, the West Point, went into use on the Charleston-Hamburg line in March 1831 but never achieved the same speeds as those of the Best Friend. The South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company used slaves to work on the line, both as laborers and as firemen to regulate the steam engine. At one point the company even considered the use of black engineers to serve under the management of white conductors, although the suggestion seems to have been dropped.
In June 1831 an accident brought an end to the Best Friend. A slave fireman closed up a safety valve on the boiler while the locomotive was stopped at a platform. When the Best Friend began to move again, a terrible explosion threw the boiler twenty feet into the air, killing the fireman, scalding the engineer, and injuring several workers. The engine was rebuilt and rechristened the Phoenix.
Derrick, Samuel. Centennial History of South Carolina Railroad. 1930. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1975.
Siegling, H. Carter. “The Best Friend of Charleston.” South Carolina History Illustrated 1 (February 1970): 19–23, 70–71.