Big Jim, the steam-throated metronome for daily life in Jacksonville, Florida

Big Jim
Big Jim was the steam-throated metronome for daily life in Jacksonville, Florida

If you grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, particularly on the north side, you knew that it was not your pocket watch, or your wristwatch, or even the old grandfather clock in the corner that was in charge of your life, it was a 32-inch copper steam whistle that had been installed at the municipal “waterworks” beside Hogan Creek near first and Main streets in Springfield in 1895.

At 7 AM, noon, 1 PM, and 5 PM, “Big Jim” blasted into life with a long, throaty baritone. Big Jim did more than mark the time. That melodious whistle, heard for 10 to 15 miles in all directions, shaped our lives even as it unfailingly measured the passage of time.

When the whistle sounded at seven, for those of us already up it provided a milestone regarding the progress we were making in our preparations to depart for whatever destination the day required. When we heard it, we knew we either had a few more minutes to pick out the clothes from our meager wardrobes or, if we were lucky, perhaps a few more minutes of blessed semi consciousness. It marked the start of another eventful day in our lives.

Five hours later, for most of us, it signaled the beginning of a one hour period, during which, we expected to get lunch, before the second whistle sounded at 1 PM. No one that I know ever got the full hour for lunch. Most of us were at schools or businesses that allowed, on average, half an hour to scarf down the sandwich we had slapped together on the “drain board” at about the time the whistle had blown at seven that morning.Waterworks Park Big Jim

I hadn’t thought about it much until recently, but now I realize that sandwiches had their own continuum. They ranged from the “baloney and bread” variety, up to the king of all sandwiches, as far as I was concerned, scrambled eggs and bacon on Merita bread with salt, pepper, and mayonnaise.

In between, perhaps one “slice” up from baloney was the old reliable, “P, B & J” – peanut butter and jelly. In the hard to categorize, but among those making infrequent appearances were: sliced banana with mayonnaise; thick sliced tomatoes with salt, pepper, and mayonnaise; sliced Vienna sausage and mayonnaise; potted meat with lettuce; and, egg salad. At the top end of the Sandwich Continuum were, in addition to scrambled eggs and bacon, leftover meatloaf with mayonnaise, and sliced turkey and stuffing with mayo.

By the time Big Jim sounded at 1 o’clock, we were back to our studies if we were at North Shore Elementary School, Kirby-Smith Junior High School; or, Andrew Jackson High School. But as dirge full as the 1 o’clock whistle might have been, it also sent a tingle of hope – in  just a few hours, school would be out and we could resume our real lives and activities. For those of us in high school at the time, that certainly included checking out the action at Bailey’s Drive-in.

The 5 o’clock whistle for those of us still in school at the time generally signaled that we had better be home and ready to sit down for whatever dinner are stay-at-home moms had prepared for the evening. In our neighborhood, when Big Jim sounded, you had better be at your house, washed up, and ready to say the blessing. Otherwise, if for example, you were still playing some game of flying bombers over Germany from a big camphor tree down the street, dressed appropriately for the occasion with your war surplus earphones and an empty former gas mask bag that now served as a “parachute,” you might not hear Big Jim. That would require that “Little Woodrow” (Dad) would step out in his front yard and let out his own whistle, which surprisingly, could be heard for several blocks in every direction. I tried often but I never learned how to whistle like that. If that didn’t get you home in less than five minutes for the white rice-lima beans-tomato and lettuce salad-sliced bread-ice tea dinner, you are probably going to be yard bound for at least a week.

Big Jim at 5 o’clock told us the workday was over, let life begin.

North Jacksonville Baptist Church
North Jacksonville Baptist Church

Monday through Saturday, Big Jim was the steam-throated metronome for our daily existence in Jacksonville, Florida. Interestingly, in looking back through my “mind’s eye” I do not remember Big Jim sounding on Sundays. I can remember sitting in the steamy hot auditorium of the North Jacksonville Baptist Church, circular fan sawing away at the heavy air with almost no effect, and furtively watching my wristwatch creep up to – and then pass – noon with a heavy heart. It was looking like yet another Sunday with the pastor calling for a fourth or even a fifth verse of “Just As I Am…” in the hopes that a wayward soul would decide to mend their ways. I don’t remember Big Jim intruding on those desperate, life-changing decisive moments in church of a Sunday morning.

Big Jim did not only blow four times each weekday. Rarely, the whistle would blow on special occasions, and sometimes, alarmingly, it would signal citywide emergencies.

The space between the western edge of the North Shore neighborhood and the Norwood neighborhood was occupied by the Glidden Paint Company. Like the name suggests, it manufactured paints and related products. Several times a week switch engines would chuff past Carlton’s drugstore, McMichael’s drugstore, and Setzer’s grocery store at 54th and Pearl heading half-mile west to a spur that led into the plant where it delivered and picked up paint products. Somehow, they frequently timed the train’s Pearl Street crossing as we were walking home from North Shore Elementary School.

The engine would stop near the intersection of 54th and Pearl, and a “switch-man,” riding on the “cow catcher” would light a phosphorus flare to wave to a stop the few cars passing on Pearl Street that were in grave danger from the old switch engine.  After the train and its 5-10 box cars and gondola cars had passed, the switch-man would drop the lighted flare by the tracks.  And, the rush was on.

Every boy that had been soaking up the excitement of a real steam engine at work just a few yards away, was racing to be the one that got to the flare first.  We knew that the fiery, molten phosphorus that was dripping from the end of the flare was highly dangerous — to both hands and lungs.  But waving the burning flare around for a few minutes was worth the risk.

As North Shore residents were well aware, the freight train was delivering and collecting a variety of highly flammable materials stored at the Glidden plant.  These petrochemicals tended to catch on fire – and blow up spectacularly – every year or so. Most of these fires were quickly put out by the firemen responding from Engine Company Number 15, that had been built on a vacant lot next to the Baptist Church at 54th and Pearl streets in about 1948.

There were a handful of fires on the other hand that over the years have remained in my mind as truly spectacular. Typically, we would hear the pop pop pop of barrels of something flammable blowing up, followed by thick plumes of oily smoke. Within seconds, we could hear the wailing moan of old Engine 15, a venerable LaFrance truck with ornate gold detailing highlighting its old-fashioned open fenders.

If you were close enough to the station, you would hear the mysterious bell signals which share their secrets only with the firemen who were typically inside watching television, or perhaps sitting outside in their “firemen’s chairs.” Scrambling activity inside brought quivering anticipation for the neighborhood boys close enough to actually see the firemen go out on a real “run.”

Further thumping and booming at the Glidden plant soon made it clear that Engine 15 would need much more help.

Within minutes, trucks were responding from Brentwood, Norwood, and Panama neighborhoods. The drivers of these trucks were not always familiar with the chopped up layout of West North Sure. I remember an evening Glidden fire which was highlighted by my dad, my brother and I climbing up on the roof to watch the spectacular sheets of flame at the Glidden plant, watch 50-gallon drums of formerly volatile liquids convert themselves into liquid-fueled rockets that launched hundreds of feet into the air leaving flaming trails of fire and smoke behind them, catch huge pieces of ash that were wafting down like snow on to our roof, and climb down to explain to the lost drivers of the wailing engines that came down Duray Court only to find it was a dead end, how to backup to Elwood and use Crestwood Drive as the route to the plant.

It was on one of those occasions that we realized how serious the situation was when we heard Big Jim begin to wail, not the long blast of seven, twelve, one, or five, but a long series of short blasts that sent the hair on the back of your neck straight up. Big Jim was calling every fireman in the city of Jacksonville to respond to what we now knew was a real emergency.

The bizarre entertainment of a huge fire a mile away was over.

Big Jim not only told the time, but also told us a great deal about how we should react and feel as a community.

In a way, during those days, Big Jim was the beating heart of our city.

© Tracy D. Connors 2015 All Rights Reserved

About Tracy Connors

Tracy D. Connors graduated from Jacksonville University (AA), University of Florida (BA), the University of Rhode Island (MA), and Capella University (Ph.D. with Distinction, human services management, 2013). Ph.D. (Honorary), Leadership Excellence, Jacksonville University, December, 2013. Designated a "Distinguished Dolphin" by Jacksonville University, Feb. 2, 2010.