Sep 032011

Replica of The Best Friend of CharlestonA great editorial in the Charleston Post & Courier today….

The Best Friend of Charleston is coming home, but the timetable is still uncertain.

Nor is it certain that the artifacts belonging to the independent Best Friend of Charleston Museum will be included in the exhibit.

Now that the city is pushing forward on its plans to prepare a permanent home on John Street for the steam locomotive, it also should ensure that the appropriate artifacts are displayed with it.

The Best Friend — actually a replica of the first steam locomotive in the country to establish regularly scheduled passenger service — is in Atlanta on display at Norfolk Southern Railroad, which paid the city $250,000 in return for permission to restore it and keep it for five years. That time is up in 2012.

The agreement requires the city to use that money for a permanent home for the train. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said it will be supplemented with money from a tax increment finance district.

The building to be redone is between the Children’s Museum and the Visitors Center. Architectural drawings show a glass extension for The Best Friend. Mayor Riley said the building will have public restrooms, a conference room and space for a private endeavor like a restaurant or gift shop.

The city expects to seek proposals from the private sector before the end of 2011 and hopes the project will be complete, or nearly complete, in the fall of 2012 when the city’s contract with Norfolk Southern ends. Norfolk Southern has indicated it will afford the city more time if necessary.

Meanwhile, Mary Lehr, president of the Charleston Chapter of the National Railway Society and energetic advocate for The Best Friend, is struggling to keep the small Best Friend Museum open in makeshift space at Citadel Mall.

The museum could use modest financial help to continue that good work now and when the Best Friend returns.

She would like the collection of artifacts to be exhibited with the Best Friend — particularly those tools, uniforms, lanterns and more that are directly connected to The Best Friend and are on display in Atlanta. They would enhance the exhibit.

The Best Friend was conceived of when Charleston was in an economic recession as people moved inland. The 1830 train is credited with bringing prosperity back to Charleston. It was destroyed in an explosion. Its remains were used to make another locomotive, the Phoenix.

As the country struggles to pull out of a major recession, providing a Charleston home for The Best Friend would be a reminder of what ingenuity and perseverance can do — and what The Best Friend did for Charleston.

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