What Lies Beneath

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// by Modern Cities

During construction of the Independent Life Building adjacent to the Main Street Bridge and the Jacksonville Landing (what is now known as the Wells Fargo Building) between 1971 and 1972, a steam locomotive was found buried deep underground. The structural pilings of the building were placed around this locomotive, which is still buried beneath the building to this day. Following is the story of what many scoff at as being merely urban legend, as told by a first-hand eyewitness—John C. Christian: Jacksonville resident, history buff and a former employee of Raymond International.

The Auchter Company was the building’s general contractor, but Raymond International excavated the entire city block and built the foundation for the future skyscraper. The lead superintendent, C. J. Holmes, was my next-door neighbor and I was his assistant gopher. I was just 17 years old and barely out of high school. I had to join the union to be employed and only a handful of people knew that Holmes was my uncle. Old-timers didn’t take a liking to a wet-behind-the-ears kid working out of the main trailer.

When Isaiah D. Hart laid out the town of Jacksonville in the late 1830s, there were only several dozen people living in the community of The Cow Ford. The Cow Ford was located on the north bank of the St. Johns River at the foot of present day Liberty Street. Kings Road from the St. Marys River approached the area from the Northwest and angled through current day Downtown on a Southwest course to the river.

The new town of Jacksonville drew its existence from the trade on the St. Johns. There were no railroads in the 1830s and 1840s and no goods arrived by Kings Road—as it was a poor road and was traveled by foot and horseback only. A shallow draft schooner and steamboat arrived only once a week bringing supplies and mail. When the railroad arrived, it came in from a Westerly direction and the main terminal was about where the Prime Osborn is now. That area became LaVilla and was a separate town. The railroad and the new age of steamboats merged at the river all along Bay Street. Sail-powered vessels continued as well.

Every conceivable business and trade squeezed in along the waterfront, the main business being the export of lumber. Hundreds of thousands of board feet of lumber left the docks monthly. Boats brought logs in and sawmills on and near the docks produced lumber and shipped it right back out to markets worldwide. The railroad built docks and laid tracks over the marsh between Bay Street and the river. In 1876, the tracks stopped just short of present day Main Street. By the late 1800s and early 1900s the track extended hundreds of yards to East Bay Street.

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 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.

During construction of the Indepen-dent Life Building, the entire city block was excavated to a depth of approximately 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. Hundreds of I-beam pilings and hollow pile casing were driven hundreds of feet into the ground with 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—but not everything. At one point, an awful noise occurred as the bit hit something metal. It was the locomotive. Several guys climbed off the rig and we went down and started digging. The main bell and a few plates were removed. The discovery was not well received. The job halted and executives at Independent Life were called. Everyone was afraid if the press got a hold of this, the entire project would be stopped. It was decided there wasn’t enough time or money to recover it.

A common question is, "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. There was even debate about not telling anyone what we discovered 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 PM everyday and I spent a lot of time poking around in the rubble. My uncle told me to keep quiet if I ever found anything else. I found a lot of bottles and such and I found it fascinating poking thorough the "char line" from the 1901 fire. It smelled as if the fire happened the day before. u