At first sight, this 120 year-old local icon is rather underwhelming. Made of copper and roughly the same height as a fire hydrant, it stands without fanfare on the roof of Jacksonville Electric Authority's waterworks plant on Main Street. But make no mistake, this is the real deal. Sometimes called the "oldest city employee", Big Jim is still at work. Every day at 7 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., the whistle that is the voice of Jacksonville bellows 3 tones simultaneously for 80 seconds. From it's vantage point, Big Jim can be heard for at least 10 miles, but with the right wind, the authoritative moan can be heard as far away as St. Johns Bluff, Mandarin and even Marietta, GA.
Installed in 1890, Big Jim retains the nickname bestowed by its builder, James Patterson. Powered by steam generated by boilers for over a hundred years, twenty-first century technology- hydrodynamic cavitation now creates the steam that gives the whistle its commanding sound. In fact, if residents don't hear that familiar sound, they flood the switchboard at the utility company with calls of concern. To preserve the tranquility of weekends in the Springfield neighborhood it calls home, Big Jim takes Saturday and Sunday off. Other than a two week period in 1971 when it was down for maintence workers to automate the timing mechanism and a "tune-up" in 1997, Big Jim has only had one or two sick days, most notably in 1976 when an unknown malady kept it from sounding the hours.
Big Jims initial job was as a factory time piece and fire alarm. It was the first warning many residents had when the Great Fire erupted in 1901. But the whistle's booming baritone has also heralded celebrations such as the end of both world wars and every new year since 1892.
In 1996 when the waterworks on Main Street no longer used boilers to drive the city's water pumps, rather than scrapping the historic whistle, JEA offered to move Big Jim to its new Southside Generating Station on the opposite bank of the St. Johns River. It stayed there until October of 2001 when the utility decommissioned the station. Although silenced, Big Jim was moved back to the waterworks downtown for safekeeping. Public outcry and civic-minded groups began working on a plan to reactivate the whistle that had become the pulse of the city.
Fourteen months later, due in no small part to the generosity of JEA, Big Jim once again assumed its duties, only to fall victim to the City of Jacksonville's Environmental Quality Division in the summer of 2004. The Jacksonville EQD, acting on a single complaint, stated that the whistle violated of the City's noise ordinance. Not to be denied, the public and JEA pushed for and received an exemption from the City of Jacksonville. According to Gerri Boyce, Media Coordinator for JEA, Big Jim will continue to mark the time for city residents well into the twenty-first century.