Springfield: Big Jim

by Tim Gilmore, 1/18/2019

In all capital letters, the headline shouted, “UNNECESSARY NOISES SHOULD BE ABOLISHED,” then in smaller letters, “State Board of Health Shows their Evil,” such noises delivering “Severe Shock to Neurasthenic Patients.” The Tampa Tribune headlines referred to January 1914’s last weekly bulletin from the Florida State Board of Health.

from The Tampa Tribune, January 28, 1914

The bulletin decried “the ‘auto beau,’” lamenting how “Unfortunate indeed is the neighborhood inhabited in these days by the popular society girl, who possesses an assortment of ‘automobile beaus,’” who run their “auto engines” late at night when returning the girl home. The section called “Church Bells” began with the curmudgeonly sentence, “There’s another useless noise.”

Jacksonville Waterworks, prior to 1900, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

Big Jim, the bulletin explained, was “the pet name for a great brazen-throated steam whistle at the city’s waterworks, which is sounded four times every week day to announce the beginning and ending of work hours at 7, 12, 1 and 5 o’clock.” And when streetcorner fire alarm call boxes rang the fire department from any neighborhood in the city, Big Jim answered, and “day or night, this great deluge of noise is poured forth on an innocent public.”

Like the cornet of legendary New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden, Big Jim could be heard, according to the Board of Health, three to five miles away.

Big Jim had whistled through his air-gun gullet since 1890, a decade after, as T. Frederick Davis wrote in his 1925 history of the city, “John Einig of Jacksonville made it with his own hands out of sheet copper.” Einig named it for his brother-in-law, Jim Patterson, and patented the design. In fact, other sources attest, Patterson built the whistle.

Einig built steam whistles for boats and ships as a hobby, but the city had no steam source big enough for the whistle until the Jacksonville Waterworks installed new boilers beside the electrical plant in 1890. Einig began work for S.B. Hubbard, hardware, in the 1870s, retired as vice president, and died but 57 years old, two years before World War I, in 1912.

John Einig, from findagrave.com

In honor of John Einig’s death, Big Jim blew open his metal throat and bellowed a great mourning keening over the city for one full minute.

Six months before the start of World War I, three years before America’s entry, the Board of Health reported, “We are a nation of nerve-wracked people. Any extreme noise aggravates such persons.” The bulletin considered “the strong, rugged city man,” tragically “compelled to seek rest in his annual vacations in order to ward off the breakdown, and he seeks it in the quiet of the country where he may escape the noise, which has worn him perilously near to the breaking point.”

One third of city-dwelling Americans, the Board of Health said, suffered from neurasthenia, a term used by late-Victorian alienists and early 20th century psychologists for a condition that included headaches, high blood pressure, fatigue, depression and anxiety. In the 1880s and ’90s, European medical writers began referring to neurasthenia, a condition to which Americans in particular seemed susceptible, as “Americanitis.” Just after the turn of the 20th century, Rexall Drugs started marketing a product called “Americanitis Elixir” for “nervous prostration” and “nervous derangement, exhaustion and debility.” The Elixir was 15 percent alcohol and contained chloroform.

Big Jim, argued the Board of Health, had served Jacksonville as its alarm clock for too long. In fact, the board believed, the relationship was the other way around. The city served the whistle as slave. Big Jim demanded citizens get out of bed, get to work, go to lunch and finish lunch. It informed nervous urbanites “when (but not where) the fires were.” People depended on Big Jim blindly and believed him indispensable, when really he was “a relic of the village stage of Jacksonville’s development.”

The Board of Health failed to mention that Big Jim sounded the clarion on May 3, 1901, the dawn of the Great Fire, which decimated the city and nearly wiped Jacksonville from the face of the earth. Only the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake fire exceeded it.

Four years after the board’s hysterical bulletin, Big Jim blasted to Northeast Florida a fanfare for the armistice that ended World War I. It had ballyhooed the ignition of public electricity in the city in 1895, electric lighting having first lit the St. James Hotel downtown in 1893 and blinked on down Bay Street two years later. It would trumpet the peace at the end of World War II.

Jacksonville Water Works, 1930s, courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

The city ignored the Board of Health’s call to quiet Big Jim and managed somehow to survive. In early November, 1933, the Associated Press noted “the huge steam whistle at the city waterworks” with its “copper-throated shrill,” which “signaled to Jacksonville the hour of the day, blowing for 30 seconds at a time.”

Nearby residents had complained to the Jacksonville City Commission, hoping to shut Big Jim’s mouth, but the City decided “half as long a whistle would do,” and shortened the steam blast to 15 seconds. That semi-censorship didn’t last long.

The AP said, “Half a century ago a man named Einig, a Jacksonville marine engineer, tired of hearing the ear-piercing screams of steam whistles on ships and locomotives. While his wife struck chords on a piano, Einig invented a new whistle.” He gave the city one of the first “Einig whistles.”

On September 10, 1971, Big Jim went silent. At first, almost nobody noticed. The Associated Press remembered the recent “clamor to keep the whistle working in 1966, when the steam boiler in the old water works in downtown Jacksonville went out of service and Big Jim was due to be retired.”

The Jacksonville Electric Authority had moved the whistle to the Southside Electric Generating Plant, on the Southbank of downtown, where it continued to mark time regularly, the city’s metronome, its timepiece, its balance, the structure regulating this illusion of time that keeps Jacksonville from sinking into its swamps and / or capsizing into the ocean.

Jacksonville Southside Electric Generating Station, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

In late September of ’71, the AP explained that since the whistle “required two men to handle the operation,” the City decided to automate it. During the transition, the City removed Big Jim from service, and the city paid no attention. Personally hurt, Lou Winnard, managing director of the Jacksonville Electric Authority, said, “We had only three telephone calls in protest.”

It wasn’t right. Big Jim was (and is) the poet laureate of Jacksonville. Big Jim bellowed when an aneurysm blew on King Street, when a saint coughed her death rattle on Riverside Avenue, when a boy fell in love at first sight with a strong-willed gamine on the street called Boulevard, when a baby blared (what an orchestration!) a first breath and scream on Brady Road, when the innkeeper killed himself in the Terminal Hotel at the corner of Bay Street and The End of the Line, when a vestal virgin down on Timothy’s Landing and a guilty self-flagellating Southern Baptist on Cedar Creek, unbeknownst to each other, broke their first orgasms either side of the night, when 513 cats meowed in blind unison across the city, when a corpse on Florida Avenue finally burst, exuded death gases, when a schizophrenic, overextended on the last Jetty stepped into the ocean, found God, and saved the whole world. (Otherwise where would we, you and I, be now, on either side of this story?)

In 2001, Big Jim came home. The JEA shut the switch on the Southside Generating Station, opening up what boosters had long noted was prime downtown riverfront development land. The electric company moved Big Jim back to the place from which he first served the city, the Waterworks at the northern border of Downtown, and the southern border of Springfield. But, as Sandy Strickland explained in The Florida Times-Union’s “Call Box” column, “Big Jim needed steam, and the Springfield plant no longer produced it.”

Innovations ensued. A “garage-size set of equipment” moves a rotor fast enough to shoot “shock waves through water.” Countless minuscule bubbles instantly form and pop and blast heat through the old copper windpipe.

Then, as if Big Jim hadn’t experienced enough in his long life, lightning struck him in 2012 and stopped the music until summer’s end, 2013. Meantime, Springfield had fallen back in love.

“In Springfield,” says Kiley Secrest, artist and architectural portraitist, “We love Big Jim. Everyone in the neighborhood uses it as an added guide for time. We’ve been hearing that same sound for over 100 years.”

Jacksonville Waterworks, 1900, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress

Patsy Bryant grew up on the Southside, off Philips Highway and Emerson, and says, “Before they built the interstate, we could hear it all the way out there. I found it reassuring, something that reminded me that some things were reliable.”

Springfield resident Jess Wieland says, “My four year old is an early riser.” Jess tells him he has to sleep “until the seven a.m. whistle.” Noon “is the lunch whistle, one is nap time, and five is when he feeds the dog. He thinks everyone abides by the nap whistle, like siesta in Mexico.”

Sarah Clarke Stuart says, “It punctuates my weekdays. But in a gentle way.” It’s the sound of Sarah’s taking her son to school. Writer and English professor, she hears it from her Springfield home and hears it from her office at Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Downtown Campus.

Joey Rosa moved to Springfield last October, “kept hearing that thing and wondering what the hell is that? I didn’t like it, found it annoying, but he’s grown on me now, especially knowing the history.”

Kasey Herbert hates the old whistle because it wakes up her two year old. Phillip Edward Yaz Heilman had “never heard anything like it before moving to Springfield,” though it “provides a sense of timeliness to the day.” Bruce Groover loves Big Jim because the whistle “feels very Jacksonville. It’s like a throwback to the industrial past, which the urban core still resembles. It fits the vibe of living in the Springfield I was drawn to. I’ve only been here about six weeks, but I expect to hear it and it gives me comfort when I do.”

Often when Heilman hears Big Jim, he “spends a few moments considering people starting another day, breaking for lunch, or going home for the evening.” Synesthetically, the whistle shows him a snapshot of the incalculable activity of a city in the moment.

Jacksonville Water Works, 1906, courtesy Florida State Archives, www.floridamemory.com

Drew Edward Hunter says, “I. Love. Big. Jim! He’s one with Springfield. 7.12.1.5. Long may he sound!”

I take a notion from Drew, punch that code into an old Atari game console system, see what happens, reopen the X-Files, hope it doesn’t push past midnight the Doomsday Clock.

Einig’s horseless carriage in Jacksonville, courtesy strollingamok.com

And if it’s true Einig invented his steam whistle while his wife played piano, somebody bang out that concerto. Somebody tickle the ivories. Somebody steam the whistle. And if it’s true that in the late 1890s, John Einig built Jacksonville’s first horseless carriage, the original local self-run vehicle, {also known as} [ot-oh moh-beel], pronounced thus in the South, somebody motor the auto loco. We’ll play a jazz combination like nobody’s ever heard.

Somebody said all human hollers—via saxophone or coloratura soprano or Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster guitar—seek to reclaim the wolf from our domestication of the dog (and ourselves). That’s why we love Big Jim. He’s the mouthpiece. Four times a day, the city throws its head back, wrenches up the ancient urge from its depths, and casts into the stratosphere the wail of its wild soul.