WE have mentioned the name of Mr. Nicholas W. Darrell (whose
likeness is herewith presented) as the first engineer of the two
first-built locomotives in America; and we are also indebted to
him for the descriptions and the sketches of these pioneer machines
for railroad usefulness, the "Best Friend, of Charleston,"
and the "West Point."
A few months only after we received from Mr.
Darrell's own hand these letters of description and sketches,
the old veteran in railroad service, from his age and infirmities,
yielded up his spirit to the God that gave it, and died in Charleston,
the place of his nativity, and of his long career of usefulness,
on the 4th of December, 1869, beloved and regretted by all who
In December, 1830, Mr. Darrell stood upon the platform of the
"Best Friend" as its engineer. What imagination could
then have conceived any thing like our present system of railroads,
covering a continent with a net-work of iron stretching out its
arms from the Atlantic to the Pacific? Yet, at that very time
and place, 1830, at Charleston, existed one of the small beginnings.
The man who helped to give the initial impulse to the wheels of
locomotion has recently departed this life, beloved and respected
by a large circle of friends and acquaintances, but almost unknown
to the public; yet, in Charleston, he was known and appreciated.
His body was attended to its last resting-place by the entire
force of officials and employees of the South Carolina Railroad
Company, and numerous friends, and the work shops were closed
in token of respect for the first locomotive-engineer in America.
The following statement is from the Charleston Courier, January
1,1870. It without doubt will be read with a great deal of interest,
especially by locomotive engineers of the present generation.
Nicholas W. Darrell, and the first American-built locomotive.
"In the November number of the Rural Carolinian, the first
credit was given to Mr. Darrell, as being the engineer of the
'Best Friend,' the first American-built locomotive, which engine
was brought out to this city in the latter part of December, 1830."
This article was copied into the New York Scientific American.
Subsequently, No. 23 of the same has the following editorial:
"The first man who had charge of a locomotive in the United
States turns out to be not Nicholas W. Darrell, as stated on page
325, current volume, in an article copied from the Rural Carolinian,
but John Degnon, 48 First Street, New York. We had the pleasure
of a call from Mr. Degnon, a few days since, and he explained
to us that he was the man who took charge of the 'Best Friend'
on its way to Charleston, and that he run this locomotive three
months, or thereabouts, meanwhile giving Mr. Darrell the necessary
instructions to qualify him for the post. The following year he
executed a similar commission with a second locomotive. In proof
of his statements, Mr. Degnon referred us to Horatio Allen and
other prominent engineers and manufacturers of this city. 'Honor
to whom honor is due!'"
The first article in the Scientific American the author read
with great interest; but, on seeing the second article in the
same journal, he was no less surprised than embarrassed, for he
thought he had killed the claim of Mr. Darrell beyond the possibility
of a doubt. He immediately addressed a letter to Mr. John Degnon,
No. 48 First Street. At the same time he addressed a letter to
a friend in Charleston, requesting him to institute the strictest
inquiries into the subject. To the first letter to New York, the
author received in reply a letter from James H. Degnon, the son
of the aforesaid John Degnon, informing the author that his father
had but a few days before breathed his last, and that he would
procure all the information upon his father's mission, with the
necessary vouchers from the best authorities, to establish his
claim to the honor of being the first engineer in reference to
the "Best Friend." Two years have passed away, but not
one line from young Degnon, to substantiate his father's claim,
has come to hand. Meanwhile, thanks to the author's friend in
Charleston, and unfortunately for Mr. Degnon, there is still another
living witness, in the person of Julius D. Petsch, Esq., who will
speak for himself. Mr. Petsch is probably the oldest machinist
in our country. He was connected, as "chief mechanical superintendent,"
with the South Carolina Railroad, under its most successful administration,
and is still. We would like to know upon what railroad Mr. Degnon
gained his experience, in those early days of railroads, to be
able to teach any person how to run a locomotive.
The following is Mr. Petsch's statement to the author:"
"I noticed an article in the Rural Carolinian, in reference
to Mr. Nicholas W. Darrell being the first engineer of the locomotive
'Best Friend,' and fully substantiate what is there narrated.
I have subsequently seen an article in the Scientific American,
in which a Mr. Degnon, claims being the first man who run the
engine 'Best Friend,' and instructed Mr. Darrell for three months,
which statement is entirely incorrect. I will give the history
of the 'Best Friend' in as few words as possible, which is as
Mr. E. L. Miller, who ho contracted with the South Carolina
Railroad Company to furnish them with a locomotive suitable for
their road, was behind time in its delivery. His excuse for being
so was, that he could get no one at that season of the year to
come out South with the engine, and, as there was no one in Charleston
competent to put the engine together, he was forced to delay the
shipment of it until late in the season, when he would be able
to bring a competent person with him to erect the same. This letter
of Mr. Miller's was at the time published in the daily papers
of Charleston. He, however, brought the engine to Charleston,
without his competent man, and called upon Mr. Thomas Dotterer
to give him assistance in putting it upon the road. I was at that
time foreman of Mr. Dotterer's establishment, and was requested
by him to undertake the job. I at first declined, on account of
Mr. Miller's published letter; but, to please Mr. Dotterer, at
last consented. I took Mr. Darrell who, like myself, had served
his apprenticeship with Mr. Dotterer, and was just out of his
time, to assist me. After erecting and putting the engine on the
road, I ran it for three or four days, having Mr. Darrell with
me all the time, then turned her over to him as engineer, in which
capacity he continued until it exploded its boiler. I might mention
that, previous to its explosion, Mr. Dotterer had cast and put
under her (under my superintendence) a pair of new driving-wheels,
in place of the original, which were made of wood, and which gave
out after running about a week or ten days."
"The second engine was called the 'West Point,' and was
built at the establishment of that name in New York, where the
'Best Friend' was also built. Mr. Darrell ran the 'West Point'
while the 'Best Friend' was being rebuilt. The third engine was
the 'South Carolina,' an eight-wheel engine, built at the same
establishment, on a plan furnished by Mr. Horatio Allen, chief
engineer of the road, and was the first eight-wheel engine ever
built. Mr. Degnon came out with that engine on the part of the
West Point company, and superintended its erection. After he left,
I gave her in charge of Mr. Darrell. So you will perceive that,
so far from Mr. Degnon running the 'Best Friend' and teaching
Mr. Darrell, he did not come to Charleston until after Mr. Darrell
had run the 'Best Friend' until her explosion, and had been transferred
to the second engine, the 'West Point,' and had run it for months.
You are aware that, from the time of putting cast-iron drivers
under the 'Best Friend' until the completion of the road, I had
charge of the machinery department of the South Carolina Railroad.
Mr. Horatio Allen, and Mr. D. Arnold, his assistant, can vouch
for the facts above stated. You are welcome to make any use you
may think proper of this communication and vindication of Mr.
Darrell's claim of being the first locomotive-runner on the South
Carolina Railroad Company, which was in 1830.
"J. D. PETSCH.
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