October 10, 2017

​Don’t be fooled by how shiny it is. The 3,000 pound bronze bell that is the centerpiece of the Firefighter Memorial Wall at Fire Station 1 has been around for a long time – just not always at Station 1.

At the Firefighter Memorial Wall at Fire Station One
Jacksonville was still recovering from the Great Fire of 1901 when city officials ordered the bell in 1902 from the Mc Shane Bell Foundry just outside Baltimore, Md. The massive creation was installed atop Jacksonville’s new city hall at Ocean and Adams streets and would ring out at specific times for nearly 60 years.

In October 1960, Jacksonville Mayor Haydon Burns and numerous city offices relocated to the next new city hall at Bay and Newnan streets. The bell followed, but it was relegated to silence as a display piece in the lobby. Then at some point it vanished.

Years later, in the early 1980s, JFRD Eng. Wayne Doolittle was making good on a project his father, a volunteer firefighter, had  encouraged him to carry out while on the job:  revive the old Station 3 at Catherine and Bay streets as a fire museum. But there was another project that Doolittle’s father championed.

“About a year after I was on the job, my father told me how the police have a memorial service every year, but the fire department really didn’t have anything,” Doolittle said. “He wanted me to work on a firefighter memorial.”

Though assigned to Engine 44 in the mid-1980s, part of Doolittle’s shift was spent at headquarters working on special events, such as fire station openings. On occasion, he would contact the city’s Parks and Recreation Department for event seating and decorations. Sometime in 1986, out of curiosity, Doolittle asked if he could tour the basement of the Parks Department, then located at the Armory Building at Market and State streets.

Over in the corner, a large object shrouded in canvas caught his eye.

“When I uncovered it, I said ‘Holy mackerel! That’ll fit for the memorial,’” Doolittle recalled when he first saw the bell. “It was tarnished, so I knew it had been there for a while.”

Exactly when and how it arrived there remains a mystery. On Scene contacted two retired city employees who worked at the armory when Doolittle discovered the bell, but neither knew exactly when it was transferred from city hall on Bay Street to the Armory. The City of Jacksonville first occupied the armory in 1973 after the National Guard of Florida relocated.

Doolittle’s discovery jump started his work on the firefighter memorial. The first task was convincing the Parks Department to transfer the bell to JFRD. They obliged. Next was the concept.

“I made a couple of sketches and then took it to the director,” said Doolittle, referring to Dale Beerbower, Public Safety Director.

The concept then circulated within JFRD, and the administration decided the new Station 1, under construction at Liberty and Ashley streets, would be the ideal location. Doolittle then took his concept to Mayor Jake Godbold. The mayor gave him the go, but he also required Doolittle to find the funds and to have the memorial constructed before Godbold left office on June 30, 1987 after two terms.

The clock was ticking, but Deputy Director/Fire Chief Miles Bowers had little concern.

“Wayne was always a go getter on anything he started,” Bowers said. “He dedicated his whole life to the fire department and made it better.”

Doolittle launched into fundraising and recruited about three dozen supporters, both financial as well as in-kind donations of labor and materials, blueprint drawings, even the irrigation system and landscaping. Doolittle along with JFRD’s Lt. Harry Kirkpatrick, Lt. Stan Crosby and Eng. S.O. Atkins directly handled the construction.

“It was nip and tuck to get that done in time,” Doolittle said.

Doolittle recalls installing the two flagpoles the week before the station and memorial were to be dedicated. There were also some challenges in mounting the bell which included reinforcing the brick structure and manufacturing a nut to match the ancient bell’s stem threads. But by late June 1987, both new Fire Station 1 and the Memorial Wall were ready.

Bowers and incoming Mayor Tommy Hazouri attended the dedication on June 29. Doolittle had one day to spare on meeting Mayor Godbold’s deadline. When Bowers walked over to the mounted bell, and rung it 14 times for each line of duty death back then, he began a JFRD tradition, and Doolittle made good on his father’s wishes and closed the gap on a department-wide need.