A Locomotive Is Buried Below This Skyscraper

January 8, 2017

The incredible account of building what was once Florida's tallest skyscraper around an entombed steam locomotive.

(Howard Lawson)

In 1901, the Great Fire consumed most of Jacksonville along with the entire wooden covered docks and railroad tracks that ran along Bay Street. As the docks burned the waterfront fell into the river taking with it many railcars. Perhaps the locomotive we found was trying to get out or maybe making one last run to save whatever needed to be saved. Only problem the entire city was in flames and there was nowhere to go. The timbers collapsed, the docks were consumed and the locomotive slipped into the mud hissing and steaming as the water rushed over it.

Independent Life Building site prior to its construction. (State Archives of Florida)

During construction of the Independent Life Building, the entire city block was excavated to a depth of 20 or 30 feet. A massive interlocking metal wall was driven around the perimeter of the block with well points every couple of yards. Large diesel pumps ran 24/7 keeping the river out and the water table down. We drove hundreds of I-beam pilings and hollow pile casing hundreds of feet into the ground with these steam powered drills and pile drivers. The drill bits cost $10,000 each and were made by Howard Hughes’ Tool Bit company out in Texas. One bit was delivered on a tractor trailer. It would bore through rock. As we were drilling and jetting an awful noise occurred as we hit something metal. It was the locomotive. Several guys climbed off the rig and we went down and started digging. We removed the main bell and a few plates. The reaction was not well received. The job halted, we called the big dogs and the suits at Independent Life. Everyone was afraid if the press got a hold of this the entire project would come to a halt. It was decided there wasn’t enough time or money to recover it. I found a lot of artifacts from the gates were shut and everyone went home.

Everyone always asks, "Why wasn't the locomotive salvaged or reclaimed?" On a job this size there is tremendous coordination involving time and money between dozens of companies. We even debated about not telling anyone that we discovered it while drilling. A few executives from Independent Life came out to the job site and we gave them a few artifacts. A few more artifacts were looted and snuck out by workers. I had the task of locking up the site at 5:00pm everyday and I spent a lot of time poking around in the rubble. My uncle told me to keep quite if I ever found anything else. I found a lot of bottles and such and it I found it fascinating poking thorough the "char line" from the 1901 fire. It smelled as if the fire was the day before. Lots of molten glass and metal and charcoal.

This style of locomotive from the turn of the century is buried beneath the Wells Fargo Center today.

The Wells Fargo Center (former Independent Life Building) today. (Ennis Davis)

Narrative provided by John C Christian: Jacksonville resident, history buff and a former employee of Raymond International.

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