The Best Friend of Charleston, a scale replica of an 1830s locomotive that briefly served the city, will return at long last in September after six years on loan to Norfolk Southern headquarters in Atlanta.
When it does come back, the engine which is nearly 100 years old itself will head for a new glass-enclosed display museum near Ann and John streets downtown, in an area known as the East Shed.
The site will feature more than 3,500-square-feet of museum space. The engine also will be lit up at night for after-hours viewing.
“It may be that the building may not be able to be completed until the train comes in,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley in reference to the physical effort required to move the machinery into place.
The city’s $1 million investment will go for the museum, bathrooms and renovation of some of the East Shed area.
The original Best Friend became the first locomotive line to offer regularly scheduled commercial passenger service by traveling a six-mile path of track from downtown to what today is near Dorchester Road.
The original engine arrived here by ship in 1830 in pieces, from the West Point Foundry in New York. Its inaugural trip came on Christmas Day, carrying 141 passengers. Six months later the locomotive was lost to a boiler accident.
The current replica was built in the 1920s from the original plans. It was meant to be a focal part in the 100th anniversary of the “South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company.” Southern Railway then took the replica on trips across the country, according to the train’s website.
In 1993, Norfolk Southern Railroad donated the Best Friend to the city of Charleston, where it went on display.
In 2007 the engine was moved to Atlanta to become part of a display inside the company’s downtown office building. In exchange, Norfolk Southern paid the city $250,000 and did a restoration.
Riley said the museum will add to the block’s draw, along with the nearby Visitor’s Center and Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry.
Mary Lehr, who operates a museum dedicated to the Best Friend at Citadel Mall, said she is looking forward to the return, slated for around Sept. 15.