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Behind the scenes of a midnight move

Browse Behind the scenes of a midnight move

Best Friend locomotive on a turntable
Pat Barber, president and CEO of Superior Transportation, sits in the Best Friend’s engineer’s chair as his crew prepares to roll the locomotive onto a turntable in the Goode building lobby. (All photos are by Tommy Burkhalter)

The story of Norfolk Southern’s ‘Goode friend’

In 2007, a moving crew with Superior Transportation of North Charleston, S.C., pulled in front of Norfolk Southern’s David R. Goode Building in Midtown Atlanta with precious cargo: replicas of the Best Friend of Charleston steam locomotive, its tender, and two coaches.

One by one – the rear coach car first, the engine last – a crane lifted the pieces off flatbed trailers and placed them on a custom-built metal turntable outside the building’s tall, glass-paneled lobby. Then, using hydraulic toe jacks, steel wedge bars, and muscle, the crew maneuvered them through a narrow opening created by removing two glass plates, turned them 90 degrees, and pulled, pushed, and cajoled them onto a wood and steel display track.

Six years later, on an unseasonably cold Friday night a week before Halloween, most of the same Superior crew returned to Atlanta to do the whole thing in reverse. This time they had an advantage – because they got the train into the lobby, they knew they could get it out.

That did not mean their task would be any easier.

An American original

Most NS employees probably know something about the Best Friend of Charleston. The original steam-powered locomotive, built in 1830, was operated by the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Co., NS’ earliest predecessor company. The state’s legislature chartered the railroad in 1827 at the urging of Charleston merchants, who saw it as a way to expand commerce during an economic downturn. Forged in a New York foundry and transported in parts to Charleston by ship, the Best Friend was America’s first locomotive built for regular passenger and freight service. It made its inaugural run on Christmas Day 1830 over a six-mile track.

The Best Friend had a short life. On June 17, 1831, less than six months after its debut, the locomotive fell victim to one of the country’s first serious railroad accidents. While waiting to start a run, the locomotive fireman, annoyed by the hissing sound of escaping steam, tied the engine’s safety valve shut. The boiler exploded, killing the fireman, scalding the engineer, and destroying the engine.

In 1902, NS predecessor Southern Railway purchased the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road. 1n 1928, to celebrate the Canal and Rail Road’s 100th anniversary, Southern built the Best Friend replica using the original blueprints. Southern deployed the replica train as a good-will ambassador, offering short excursion trips in towns and cities across its network.

In 1993, in recognition of its Charleston ties, Norfolk Southern donated the replica to the city. For years, the city kept the little train inside a shed that was a former Southern train depot, occasionally removing it for public viewing. In 2005, as part of Norfolk Southern’s 175th anniversary celebration, the city loaned the Best Friend to NS for display on Wall Street at the New York Stock Exchange and outside the company’s headquarters building in Norfolk.

Soon afterwards, Charleston began planning a new museum facility in its historic district to showcase the Best Friend. In 2007, city officials again loaned the locomotive to Norfolk Southern for display in Atlanta during the construction period. In return, the railroad donated $250,000 to the city’s building project and sent the Best Friend train to its Chattanooga Locomotive Shop for a complete refurbishment, including a gleaming new paint job.

During its nearly six-year stay in the Goode building lobby, in full view of passersby on bustling Peachtree Street, the train proved to be a unique draw.

“We frequently had sightseers taking pictures and children coming up to take a look, and you could see the excitement on their faces,” said David Goodson, NS superintendent facilities. “A lot of employees appreciated its presence there, too. We’re all very proud of our history, and knowing our history goes back that far and having a little piece of it in the building has been good.”

However, on the last Friday of October, it was time for NS employees to say goodbye – Charleston had the new facility ready and the Best Friend was going home. During his lunch hour that Friday, Mike Rimer, NS manager fleet planning, stood on the veranda outside the lobby taking photos of the locomotive with his phone camera.

“It has a lot of history to it. I think people are going to miss it,” said Rimer, a fourth-generation railroader whose ancestors worked for Southern.

No ordinary move

Superior Transportation, hired by NS to move the train, transports big industrial equipment such as power plant components and giant tire molds and presses. By comparison, the Best Friend locomotive – at about 8,000 pounds the train’s heaviest piece – was a relative lightweight. What made this move special was the 85-year-old locomotive’s historical importance.

 “We move million-dollar machines all the time, but they can be replaced,” said Pat Barber, Superior’s president and CEO. “This has got museum value to it, which is priceless, really, so that’s the challenge – to make sure we take good care of it from beginning to end.”

Atlanta officials gave Norfolk Southern permission to close the two southbound lanes of Peachtree Street from 10 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday, providing Superior eight hours. They would need most of that time.

The night was one of the coldest of the season, eventually dipping into the low 30s early Saturday morning. A breeze funneling down the block of high-rises made it seem even colder. The moving crew also had to be mindful of the weekend activity on Peachtree, which is packed with nightclubs and arts venues. During the night, traffic never stopped moving on the two northbound lanes in front of the Goode building. Several times NS security had to step in to redirect pedestrians, including symphony goers in tuxedoes and evening dresses and club-hoppers in Halloween garb.

Shortly after 10 p.m., when police placed traffic cones to block Peachtree between 14th and 15th streets, a truck with a 70-ton, 125-foot crane mounted on it and three flatbed tractor-trailers rumbled up. One of the trailers carried the turntable needed to remove the train from the lobby.

There was not much wiggle room. The coaches, with their side-mounted step ladders, were the widest pieces, measuring 92 ½ inches. The opening created by removing two of the glass plates was 95 inches. A turnstile lobby door that extends inside the building added another obstacle. Outside, the leafy crowns of two black oak trees, mere seedlings when Superior delivered the Best Friend, now stretched up 15 to 20 feet along Peachtree. The moving crew had to airlift the engine over a street lamppost, between the trees, and onto a trailer.

Setting up for the move took about an hour. To prevent damage to the lobby’s granite floor, the brawny crew members put down a black plastic sheet, covered the sheet with plywood, and placed 3/16th-inch steel plates on top for the turntable to roll on.

The Best Friend would be the first to go. Barber climbed up on the locomotive and sat in the engineer’s chair. His crew removed wooden “chock” blocks that had kept the locomotive in place on the display track. Six movers positioned themselves around the back and sides of the engine. Barber released the engine’s handbrake.

“OK, come on,” he said. The men pushed. After six years at rest, the wheels creaked and squeaked. The engine inched forward. “Hold it a second,” Barber said, checking its movement. “Beautiful. Come on ... Easy … All right!”

With the next push, the Best Friend rolled onto the turntable, with about eight inches to spare between its front end and the turnstile door. The men attached canvas straps to the wheels and turntable frame and winched them tight to keep the engine in place. Next came the trickiest part – spinning the engine 90 degrees so it could be pushed out onto the veranda.

Moving Best Friend locomotive out of the Goode building
The Superior Transportation crew puts muscle into turning
the Best Friend to move it out of the Goode building lobby.

The turntable consisted of two fabricated metal plates connected by a king pin that allowed the top plate to spin around. Barber had it built six years ago to move the Best Friend into the lobby, and it had not been used since. To turn the engine, the crew used hand-cranked hydraulic jacks to lift the turntable above the wooden crosstie at the end of the display track.
“Try it now,” Barber said. “Ready, 1, 2, 3, Go!” Eight men pushed, pulled, and grunted. The engine didn’t budge.

“I don’t think it wants to leave,” joked Tommy Burkhalter, who stood watching nearby. “It wasn’t this stubborn coming in here.” Burkhalter, a member of the Charleston chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, had arrived earlier in the evening from Charleston to record the Best Friend’s return on video and digital camera. Burkhalter is a big fan of the Best Friend. His hometown of Williston, S.C., located on the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road’s original main line, has an image of the Best Friend on its town seal. Burkhalter, now in his 40s, rode on the Best Friend train during a Southern Railway excursion trip to Williston in 1981. 

“I thought it was the neatest thing I’d ever seen,” Burkhalter said. “It’s an amazing piece of engineering that Southern built from scratch, and it’s from an era of steam that is gone, so whether it’s the original or not, the replica is unique and historically significant.”

Now, Burkhalter waited to see what the movers would try next. Barber told his crew to loosen the canvas straps from around the engine’s wheels. When they did, the engine moved forward slightly, and the turntable slipped free of the track.

“Whoa! Right there!” Barber shouted. “OK. I think we got it.” After re-tightening the straps, the men pushed and pulled again. The turntable swung around beautifully.

With that accomplished, the crewmen placed rollers under the turntable to push and steer the engine through the plate glass opening. Barber, acting as guide and cheerleader, urged them on. “Everything’s looking good, keep it coming guys,” he said. “Slow … you’re doing fine … come on out.”

Finally, after a little more than an hour, the Best Friend and crew were outside – and greeted by one more delay. After the crew attached rigging cables to each corner of the locomotive, the crane operator recommended using a heavier hook and rigging after giving the engine a test lift. It took about 30 minutes to change out the rigging.

Crane lifting Best Friend locomotive
Like a scene out of “Mary Poppins,” the red and green
Best Friend “flies” through the air as a crane lifts it off the
Goode building veranda.

The men then hooked the cables to the locomotive and backed away. The crane operator tightened the cables. Suddenly, the Best Friend was hovering above the plaza. As the crane operator lifted the locomotive higher and swung it toward the street, the scene appeared to be something straight out of “Mary Poppins,” a festive steam engine magically flying across an urban streetscape.

“That’s awesome,” said Tommy Rollings, NS assistant building superintendent, his head tilted skyward. Moments later, after the Best Friend landed safely on the tractor-trailer, Rollings breathed with relief. “I was just hoping that everything held steady,” he said. “I didn’t want that thing to fall.”

One by one, the Superior crew repeated the process three more times, using jacks, wedges, and brawn to remove the Best Friend’s consist. At 4:30 a.m., they loaded the final car. On Nov. 3, the crew completed the job, safely moving the Best Friend into its new digs in Charleston.

The last goodbye

Scattered groups of employees who work third shift in the Goode building gathered on floors overlooking the lobby to watch the moving operation. Some who worked earlier shifts took one last photo of the train as they left for the day. Those employees said they were sorry to see the train leave.  

“There’s some people that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other, but I’d say most people in here would rather for it to stay,” said Joe Lord, general superintendent transportation, who works in the building’s control center.

“I really enjoyed it at Christmas time when they decorated it with lights,” said Cinda Carlyle, a clerk with Operations Service and Support.

“It’s the nostalgia, I guess,” said Karen Baker, a chief OSS clerk. “I like the old steam engines and the old trains.”

“There’s going to be a void,” added Ron Graves, another OSS clerk.

A big question on their minds: What will replace the train display?

Goodson, the building superintendent, said it will be early next year before anything is announced publicly about use of the lobby.

“We’re not looking for another artifact or historical piece,” Goodson said. “It’s going to be a more usable space and more geared toward our employees and our business. As sad as it is to some to lose a piece of history, really a piece of Norfolk Southern history, I think it presents an exciting opportunity to embrace our future and put a new face on our building here. I’m in the newer generation of railroaders, so I’d like to think we’re trying to plan for my 30 years of being here.”

Best Friend locomotive in Goode building
With only 2½ inches of wiggle room, the Superior Transportation crew pushes the last Best Friend coach through an opening in the Goode building’s plate-glass lobby, as David Goodson, NS superintendent facilities, watches closely.