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CHAPTER XXIX

Explosion OF "BEST FRIEND"

 

ON Friday the last of June, 1831, the boiler of the "Best Friend" exploded. As this is the first boiler explosion upon a locomotive on record in America, we will give the account of the accident and its consequences, from an article in the Charleston , June ; 18, 1831:

SATURDAY Morning, June 18, 1831.

"The locomotive 'Best Friend' started yesterday morning to meet the lumber-cars at the Forks of the Road, and, while turning on the revolving platform, the steam was suffered to accumulate by the negligence of the fireman, a Negro, who, pressing on the safety valve, prevented the surplus steam flow escaping, by which means the boiler burst at the bottom, and injured by. Darrell, the engineer, and two Negroes. The one had his thigh broken, and the other received a severe cut in the face and a slight one in the flesh part of the breast. Mr. Darrell was scalded from the shoulder-blade down his back. The boiler was thrown to the distance of twenty-five feet. None of the persons are dangerously injured except the Negro, who had his thigh broken. The accident occurred in consequence of the Negro holding down the safety-valve while Mr. Darrell, the engineer, was assisting to arrange the lumber-cars, and thereby not permitting the necessary escape of steam above the pressure the engine was allowed to carry."

The wreck of the "Best Friend" was sent to the shops of Mr. Dotterer for repairs and such alterations as were found upon experiment to be necessary.

Railroad men of the present day will no doubt ask, "Why was the engineer, Mr. Darrell, not at his post upon the engine, and why was he attending to the arrangement of the lumber-cars, leaving his engine in charge of his Negro fireman?" To these questions we will reply by stating that, at that early day in railroad affairs, no such officers of a train as conductors, flagmen or brakemen, had been instituted. The engineers of locomotives, like the drivers of the old-fashioned stage-coaches in by-gone days, and of the horse-cars used up on railroads, had to do their own hitching up, etc. Hence the reason why Mr. Darrell was not on the engine during the arrangement of the train. At that time every thing had to be learned as the necessity demanded it. Previous to the explosion of the "Best Friend," an accident occurred at a switch, which is explained by Mr. Allen, the chief engineer, and which called for a new order from the directors, which we will insert as an illustration of our remarks in the case of the explosion:

Charleston May 14, 1831. TO ELIAS HORRY, ESQ., PRESIDENT—

SIR: I hasten to communicate the causes which produced the accident of yesterday afternoon. It originated in the wild derangement of the tongue, which guides the wheel through the turnout, by some ill-disposed person, and was rendered injurious to the car by the imprudent speed allowed by those who had the management of the engine—the tongue having been nailed to its proper position, but was made loose by removing the fastening, and was probably shaken from its place by the speed with which the engine and one car had preceded the one injured. Directions have been given to pass the turnout at moderate speed, and the attention of the person in charge to be constantly kept on the road in advance of the engine.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,
HORATIO ALLEN.

Extract from the minutes, July 3, 1831, in reference to the order above alluded to by Mr. Allen:

Resolved, That in future not over twenty-five passengers be allowed to go on each car. That the locomotive shall not travel at a greater speed when there is attached:

One car and passengers at fifteen miles an hour. Two cars and passengers at twelve miles an hour. Three cars and passengers at ten miles an hour. And that directions be given to that effect.

The foregoing will no doubt draw a smile upon the faces of engineers and railroad-men of the present day. It only serves to show the crudeness of railroad experience, at that early day, of locomotives.

The following letter from Mr. Nicholas W. Darrell, the first locomotive-engineer in America, will, we trust, be read with interest, especially by his fellow-engineers and railroad-men. It was received in answer to some inquiries made of him by the author, in reference to the "Best Friend."

Charleston, September 2, 1869. MR. H. BROWN—

DEAR SIR: Your letter came to hand a few days ago, and I now hasten to reply to it, with all the information I can give you upon the subject at this distant day, drawn from memory alone, as I have no notes to which to refer.

In the spring of 1830, Mr. E. L. Miller, of our city, entered into a contract to furnish the South Carolina Railroad with a locomotive that should travel ten miles an hour, and draw three times its own weight.

Under this contract Mr. Miller brought out his engine, which was built at the West Point Foundry in New-York City. The engine arrived by the ship Niagara in Charleston, in the latter part of October, 1830. The engine was called the 'Best Friend, of Charleston.' Mr. Julius D. Petsch and myself had served our apprenticeship with Mr. Thomas Dotterer, of the firm of Dotterer & Eason, as machinists and engineers, and were engaged to put this engine together, and made the first run or trial trip, when she proved equal to double the stipulations of the contract, running at the rate of sixteen to twenty-one miles an hour, with forty or fifty passengers in four or five cars, and making thirty to thirty-five miles per hour without cars. From this date I was regularly engaged as the engineer of the 'Best Friend,' the first locomotive ever built and run in this country, in the actual service of a company.

In June, 1831, the boiler of the 'Best Friend' exploded, while in charge of myself. She was rebuilt by Mr. Thomas Dotterer, who substituted straight axles and cast wheels and wrought tires, for crank-axles and wood wheels with iron tires. Her name was also changed, and called the 'Phoenix.' "During the repairs and alterations of the 'Best Friend,' a second engine, called the 'West Point,' arrived in Charleston, and was put upon the road. Of this engine I was also engineer. When the 'Phoenix' was repaired, she was run by Henry Raworth as engineer.

I continued to run the 'West Point' until the first eight wheel engine was brought out, called the 'South Carolina,' built in New York, after plans of Mr. Horatio Allen, then chief-engineer of the South Carolina Railroad. Julius D. Petsch, Nicholas W. Darrell (myself ), John Eason, and Henry Raworth, were the first to run locomotives. We were all apprentices of Mr. Thomas Dotterer, and natives of Charleston. I have been constantly in the employ of the South Carolina railroad from December 8, 1830, to the present time; was born on the Jan. 12th day of November, 1807." Attached is a rough sketch of the 'Best Friend,' made from recollection alone, yet I was so long upon the machine, and had her so many years before my eyes, that her general form and appearance can never be forgotten. I have shown the sketch to many of the old hands now living, and they all exclaim at once, 'There is the old "Best Friend!" 'When I run the 'Best Friend,' I had a Negro fireman to fire, clean, and grease the machine. This Negro, annoyed at the noise occasioned by the blowing off the steam, fastened the valve-lever down and sat upon it, which caused the explosion, badly injuring him, from the effects of which he died afterward, and scalding me. I hope this information will be of service to you. If you require any other facts in reference to the first engines, let me hear from you.
Yours with great respect,
MR. W. DARRELL, First Superintendent of Machinery, South Carolina Railroad.

The following letter from James M. Eason, Esq., of Charleston, South Carolina, who is a manufacturer of steam-engines, boilers, and machinery, will serve to establish the fact that, not only was the South Carolina Railroad the very first in the world built expressly for locomotives, but it was also the pioneer in having the first locomotive for actual service in America built for their use; also the first to order a locomotive to be built in their midst and by one of their own native mechanics and citizens:

OFFICE OF J. M. EASON, MANUFACTURES OF STEAM ENGINES, BOILERS, AND MACHINERY.CHARLESTON, S. C., September 24, 1869. MR. H. BROWN ESQ.—

DEAR SIR: I enclose you a note from old Mr. Darrell, and also a photograph of him which I prevailed upon him to have taken for you. If of any interest to you, I could send you a photograph of Thomas Dotterer, who, in early railroad days, built the 'Station,' the first locomotive ever built with outside connections and straight axles. After the explosion of the 'Best Friend,' he changed her to straight axles and made iron wheels. Mr. Dotterer was considered one of the best natural mechanics of his day. J. D. Petsch, N. W. Darrell, Henry Raworth, John Eason, etc., were the early locomotive-engineers here, and were all apprentices of his. Every master-machinist in charge of the South Carolina Railroad machinery and shops, up to this day, was his apprentice.

I remember the first trip of the 'Native.' She had been started out to run up the road, and I well remember the great prejudice which Mr. Dotterer had to encounter against his plan of outside connections, which was then urged to this effect: that the power, being applied to the end of the axle, would rack the road to pieces and the engine too; that the thing (not calling it an engine) would not do, etc. But, nothing daunted, he made the engine and sent it out. Evening came, and the locomotive, probably the second ever run on the road, certainly the first after the 'West Point,' did not arrive with the train. Great uneasiness was manifested by the officers of the company, for in those days everybody interested attended at the arrival of a locomotive. Finally night came on; neither the regular train nor the little 'Native' (for she only weighed about four tons) was in sight, and the murmurings could be heard in knots of persons and officials, that the damned thing had broken the road, or blown up, or some other casualty had happened to her, and prevented the arrival of the other locomotive and train.

My dear sir, imagine Mr. Dotterer's feelings; but behold him, the man of genius, standing amid the bickering of men, almost fearing that his little engine was the cause of the delay, when a voice cried out, 'She's coming!' and the sparks from the smoke-pipe were observed (for in those days spark-arrestors were not perfected). Then a general rush to hear the news to see what caused the detention, and learn the fate of the poor home-made 'Native,' when a cry from a faithful friend of Mr. Dotterer. 'Why, 'tis the Native pulling locomotive and train!' Then look at Thomas Dotterer, with a heart full, with teardrops on his eyes, as the smile of successful championship and confidence in his work played upon his countenance. I stood beside him at that moment, and shared with him in his pride. If I had the time and the ability, I could gather many interesting facts of early railroad times here in our old city, for I can remember many things. But I only intended to enclose to you Mr. Darrell's letter and his photograph, and trust you will excuse me for thus intruding on your valuable time.

Very respectfully, yours, etc.,
JOHN EASON.


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