Steam fueled a revolution, but was risky

Rusty Iron Best Friend

It’s been nearly 17 years since the Case 110 steam traction engine boiler explosion at Medina, and we hope and pray such a tragedy never occurs again.

The Medina disaster was, however, 170 years after the first recorded boiler explosion of a steam engine in the United States and there were many more through the years.

As the 1820s rolled around, the industrial revolution was just getting started, with England somewhat ahead of the United States.

One of the prime movers of the revolution was the steam engine and its ability to pull multiple cars of goods and people rapidly and efficiently along tracks laid across the country.

The first such railway to use steam power was the Stockton and Darlington in England when in the fall of 1825 George Stephenson built a small engine and used it to pull 38 “waggons” loaded with coal and people.

The train reached speeds of 12 and, briefly, 15 miles per hour, but still took two hours to cover eight and a half miles.

Fifty-five minutes were taken in two stops for minor repairs and deducting this time an average speed of 8 mph had been reached.

Not everyone was happy; an 1825 Quarterly Review (English) article observed,

“It is certainly some consolation to those who are to be whirled at the rate of 18 or 20 miles an hour by means of a high-pressure engine, to be told that there is no danger of being sea-sick while on shore, that they are not to be scalded to death, nor drowned, nor dashed to pieces by the bursting of a boiler; and that they need not mind being struck by the flying off or breaking of a wheel.

“What can be more palpably absurd or ridiculous than the prospect of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s Rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate.

We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

This country wasn’t far behind and like the early British railways, the first lines in this country used horses or mules to pull the cars.

A few locomotives were imported from England but the first home-built engine in the U.S. seems to have been the Tom Thumb.

This diminutive machine was cobbled together by Peter Cooper and made its first run on the Baltimore & Ohio RR in August 1830.

Meanwhile, as folks moved west, businessmen in Charleston, South Carolina, cast about for a way to bring cotton and other inland products into town for shipment.

In December 1827, the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company was established.

By the summer of 1830, the company had built six miles of track west of its terminal at Charleston. The railroad’s chief engineer, Horatio Allen, had traveled to England to study and operate steam locomotives and he recommended a new locomotive built by the West Point Foundry of Cold Spring, New York.

In October 1830, the ship Niagara docked at Charleston and unloaded the new locomotive which was named the Best Friend of Charleston.

The loco burned wood and made about 6 to 8 horsepower with speeds of 30 mph empty or about 12 mph loaded.

The machine weighed about 3.75 tons (minus fuel and water) and had an upright boiler, while the two drive wheels on each side were connected by side rods and a small tender was included for fuel and water.

There’s no information on who designed the locomotive. The new locomotive was shipped knocked down but was put together and readied for trials during November and December.

Then on Christmas Day of 1830, Best Friend of Charleston made its maiden trip pulling cars carrying 141 paying passengers, making it the first steam locomotive to pull a regularly scheduled passenger train in the U.S.

A local newspaper burbled a few days later, “The one hundred and forty-one persons flew on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space…leaving all the world behind.

On the return we reached Sans-Souci in quick and double quick time, stopped to take up a recruiting party-darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames on either side-passed over three salt creeks hop, step and jump, and landed us all safe at the Lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared.”

The Best Friend of Charleston continued operating daily and remained in service for six months until June 17, 1831, when the locomotive racked up another claim to fame, although not a desirable one, as the first locomotive in the U.S. to suffer a boiler explosion.

This being South Carolina during the pre-Civil War days, the fireman on the locomotive was a black man who had not been instructed in the intricacies of steam operation.

While in the freight yard, the engineer, Nicholas Darrell, was away from the engine supervising the connection of several cars to the train. The fireman is said to have been annoyed by the constant whistling and hissing of the safety valve so to stop the noise he in some way tied or wedged the valve closed.

Of course, this allowed steam pressure to build and the boiler exploded, hurling metal fragments over a wide area and killing the poor fireman (whose name is never mentioned), although the engineer was uninjured.

Another locomotive, named the West Point, then went into service but potential riders were a little leery of another such blast.

To make them feel safer the railroad attached a flatcar loaded with cotton bales between the engine tender and the coaches to take up the shock in case of an explosion.


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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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