He has been called the City’s most loyal employee, in service for 120 years now. On the few occasions when he has taken a break, his employer fields calls to be sure he is in good health. Should you forget your watch while working Downtown, you’ll still know when to go to lunch and when to go home at the end of the day.
Big Jim is a 32″ copper steam whistle sitting atop the JEA waterworks pump house at Main and 1st streets in Springfield. Big Jim sounds four times each work day: 7 a.m. (or so I’ve been told), noon, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. For several years, he was atop the Southside Generating Station formerly located to the east of the School Board building on the South bank. There was a period of quiet, but otherwise he sounded the alarm during the Great Fire, marked the end of wars, and rang out for 100 seconds on the centennial anniversary of the Great Fire, among other remembrances and celebrations.
If you’ve never heard Big Jim, you might not recognize the sound at first. Listen closely at the top of those four hours. It’s a low, three-note clarion that tapers away after a minute. It might sound like an air conditioner or a distant train. If you find yourself at 1st and Main, or anywhere in Springfield, you won’t miss it.
A game I usually play Downtown, if the timing works, is “Can you hear Big Jim from here?” I have heard him from Hemming Park many times (the east side is better, as the Skyway can muffle the low tones), by the old Post Office and Federal Court House, in the Grand Reading Room of the Main Library (less so the other areas), on East Monroe and while visiting with the turtles and fish at MOSH. On occasion, I have heard him sounding the 1 o’clock whistle from St. Nicholas. It shouldn’t be a surprise, with sources claiming the tone can be heard for 10 miles.
“Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage” describes Big Jim as “the smallest object included in this historic inventory, and yet it is encountered daily by more people in Jacksonville than any other landmark.” Big Jim, according to T. Frederick Davis’s “History of Jacksonville, Florida,” was invented by John Einig in 1890. He named the whistle after his brother-in-law, James Patterson, who crafted the whistle. Mr. Einig patented the design and made other whistles and devices using steam power.
Early in his career on the north side of Downtown, Big Jim had a buddy named Old Joe, a 10-foot alligator living in a pond at the waterworks grounds. Old Joe came to Jacksonville in 1887 as an attraction at the Sub-Tropical Exposition, according to Davis. After his death, Old Joe was stuffed for perpetuity and was said to be kept at the waterworks.
Mr. Einig, on the other hand, is buried up Main Street at Evergreen Cemetery. Other notable burials there are architect Henry John Klutho, city founder Isaiah Hart, his son and former governor Ossian Hart, former governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and his granddaughter and Jacksonville Christmas Party organizer Dorcas Drake.
Why do I love Big Jim so much? Probably because he connects me to my family in an indirect way. Although I grew up in Lawtey, my family has been in Jacksonville for generations. My mother, uncles and grandparents heard him every day when they lived in North Shore. My great-grandmother may not have heard Big Jim sound the alarm for the Great Fire — she was on a steamship on the St. Johns at the time — but she grew up hearing his daily call, along with her mother and sister. Most of my family worked for the City, so you might say they had a hardworking co-worker.
If you find yourself outside on a workday at, say, 12:59 p.m. or 4:59 p.m., give yourself an extra couple of minutes, take a breath, and listen. Connect with workers, residents, and tourists of bygone days. Think about how far Jacksonville has come since 1890, since 1901, since 1967.
More Big Jim resources:
Metro Jacksonville.com: Urban Parks (See the last photo in the story set for an image of Big Jim. He’s the slim, dark fellow among the four round objects on the right side of the roof.)