John Smith’s Best Friend

John Smith’s Best Friend


When the “Best Friend of Charleston,” a replica of the first regularly operating steam train in this country, made its last trip this season in Louisville, passengers were unaware of this special run. But for John A. Smith, SR control engineer, Atlanta, and engineer of the little train the past 15 years, it was time to say good-bye. With an extra tap on his top hat, a longer pull on the shrill whistle and fond memories flooding his mind, John ended his love affair with his Best Friend.

He’s trading in his cranberry colored 19th century-styled gentleman’s coat and top hat for a fishing pole, home on the river and retirement.



John Smith (left) operated the engineer’s controls of the Best Friend with the help of French N. Duke, SR foreman of engines, Atlanta, and Robert F. Gause, SR electrician, Columbia, S.C.

“I’ve been planning all year for this moment,” John said, rather sadly, “My working life for so long has centered on that train, It’s hard to realize I don’t need to think about it anymore.”

John has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, met thousands of people, counting many no as friends and acquired enough memorable experiences to fill a book.

But most importantly, his role as Best Friend engineer has triggered the squeal of children and adults as he’s started the Best Friend down the track, generating nostalgia and excitement of that first run 153 years ago.

The original Best Friend made its six mile run Christmas Day, 1830, from Charleston to Hamburg, S.C., so named by local merchants who saw the train providing low-cost, dependable transportation, the Best Friend was build for the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, Southern Railway’s earliest predecessor line. It was the nation’s first regularly operated steam passenger train.

John has repeated the tale of the tragic demise of the original Best Friend thousands of times: “The train was short-lived. About six months after the first run, a sensitive fireman, annoyed by the hissing of the steam escaping from the boiler safety valve, decided to hold it down. The resulting explosion blew the locomotives into pieces and the man to ‘Kingdom come’! We were the first company to put a man in space.”

The green and red replica – an operating engine – was built from the original blueprints in Southern’s shops in late 1928 to celebrate the South CarolinaCanal and Rail Road Company’s 100th anniversary. The only design changes are modern safety features and a slight difference in the width of the axles.

During the next 50 years, the Best Friend was featured at the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948, the Diamond Jubilee celebration at Thomasville, N.C., in 1963, the 100th birthday of Ludlow, Ky., in 1964, a Civil War commemoration at Perryville, Ky., the same year and the KentuckyRailwayMuseum at Louisville in 1966. The engine was forgotten.

In 1969, however, W. Gram Clayton, Jr., then Southern’s president and now Amtrak’s chairman, decided to restore the Best Friend for South Carolina’s Tricentennial celebration in 1970. John was selected to oversee the project.

“My first question was, ‘ What’s the Best Friend?'” John remembers.

It took ten months to shape up the little train, including the installation of a new boiler. During the test runs, frequent derailments occurred – 28 in fact – before John realized the tread on the wheels needed to be one half inch wider to negotiate the track.

What started out for John as an occasional weekend rendezvous as an engineer turned into a full-fledged continuing love affair. The increasing demand for showing the Best Friend kept him busy maintaining and chasing it more that full time.

“Many people throughout the railway were convinced I had a glamorous job,” John said. “I liked what I was doing, but the time away from home got tedious.” Luckily for both John and Lillian, his wife of 43 years, she has traveled with hem the past few years.

The Best Friend is usually scheduled along with the Norfolk Southern’s Exhibit Car, every weekend from late march until Late October, for an array of community actives in NS’s 21-state system. The Exhibit Car, a museum on wheels, tells the modern, innovative side of railroading and the continuing role Norfolk Southern and it operating subsidiaries, NW and SR, play in the development of the industry.

Invitations for community visits are handled through the Public Relations Department, but John visits all new location st check the physical arrangements and to meet the representatives of sponsoring organizations.

The little train has visited 220 different cities, given rides to 400,000 people, and viewed by another 4.7 million during its recent 14 years of operation. John has supervised every showing except one.

There’s no doubt much of the Best Friend’s success is due to John. He has the patience, interest and friendly personality deal with the public. He’s hobnobbed with celebrities of all descriptions and captured more radio and TV attention than many well-knowns. He’s led parades, received keys to cities and been made an honorary or a lifetime citizen of many communities. He and the Best Friend have appeared in three movies, the nation’s Bicentennial parade, and President’s Carter’s Inaugural Parade.

As one might imagine, John has his favorite stories, like meeting film star Elizabeth Taylor at a banquet in Danville, Va., and giving her a Best Friend Charm.

“She had just returned from Egypt where Anwar Sadat had given her a huge gold pendant necklace she was wearing,” he said “She accepted our charm with such courtesy and graciousness.”

On Christmas Day, 1830, “The Best Friend of Charleston” highballed at speeds up to 21 miles an hour along six completed miles of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, now part of Southern Railway.

When he, the crew and the Best Friend passed the reviewing stand in the 1976 Inaugural Parade, President and Mrs. Carter and Amy “stood and gave us hearty waves and big smiles,” John said. “Of course, we returned the courtesy.” He later learned that was the only time during the parade that the Carters rose.

John’s had hilarious episodes when his notoriety paid off: “Lillian and I were heading home and I was driving a bit over the speed limit when a patrolman pulled me over. He went through the usual routine, then took a hard look at me and asked, ‘Didn’t you have that little train over in Springfield a few weeks ago?’ I said yes and he continued, ‘Well, be sure to drive carefully. You want to be around to run that train.'”

John’s most touching Best Friend experience occurred several years ago in Charleston. “Handicapped children from three area schools came to ride,” he said “One teacher told me later she was convinced, by their facial expressions, that two deaf children hear a sound when I blew the Whistle. We were equally excited because the children had never heard anything before.

Even though he was among movie stars, beauty queens, politicians and even astronauts, John always helped shine, clean, grease, load , unload and perform any other task that kept is Best Friend in top running order.

John even designed the Best Friend’s carrier cars – a boxcar to house the two coaches and tender and a flat car with a “dog house” that protects the engine. When it is loaded, the train rests on tracks installed inside the cars. An electronically operated 50-ton winch pulls the train on and off the cars.

It’s ironic that John’s 43 – year railroad career ended with steam because that’s how it started.. He joined Southern in late 1940 as a laborer at Finley Shop, Birmingham, washing side rods on steam engines for 33 cents an hour. In 1941, he entered the four-year machinist apprentice program, but actually became qualified in two years because of the ware. In 1944, he joined the Army’s 770th Railway Battalion, attended two diesel schools and spent 11 months in Korea before returning home to Birmingham and Southern Railway in 1946.

John served as diesel shop foreman from 1949 until 1953, moved to Charlotte Roadway Shop as assistant general foreman for a year, assistant shop superintendent for two years and superintendent for three years. The shop developed and built machinery for Maintenance of Way. Under John’s tutelage, the multiple tie and bolt machine and automatic spike driver were build and used extensively for jointed rail installation.

Then John left Southern for five years, did building contract work and a very short stint with the Pennsylvania Railroad as industrial engineer.

Her returned to Southern in 1964 as a system control engineer doing special projects. “I enjoyed that job because it offered such variety,” he said. That’s the job he has now, but he has spent little time at it. “Because of the heavy schedule, the Best Friend consumed all my time.”

When he retires early in 1984, what will John miss the most?

“Meeting the people,” he said. “I love people and these last 14 years gave me the opportunity to work closely with a wonderful variety of people.”

Norfolk Southern will miss this special man who’s been an invaluable link between its railroad and the communities we serve.

                                                                                       The above picture and text were taken from the November/December 1983 issue of Norfolk Southern World Magazine.

UPDATE 2008:

Norfolk Southern and the Charleston Chapter NRHS will have an opportunity to play host to Mrs. John Smith and her grandson, Joel Bailey, in Atlanta GA in May 2008 when they visit the Best Friend of Charleston in the lobby of the Norfolk headquarters.  See photos of the visit with John Smith’s family in our Chapter newsletter.