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CHAPTER XXXI

FIRST LOCOMOTIVE-ENGINEER

 

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 knew him.

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:" DEAR SIR:

"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 follows:

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.

"Yours truly,
"J. D. PETSCH.


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