by Bill Mardis
“It’s a little curious.”
Martin Shearer, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Development Foundation, was talking about apparent tunnels and walkways beneath the ground where the former Ferguson Shops were located. The development foundation, current owner, is preparing the land for possible industrial sites on property vacated by Crane Company in 2006.
“To rehabilitate the area, we’ve got to find out what’s below,” said Shearer. Both he and Mark Bastin, assistant executive director, admit to be completedly confounded by the unexpected, man-made cavities beneath the surface.
The Ferguson Shops were built at the site in 1906 and operated by Southern Railroad to repair steam engines. Some 600 men were employed at the Shops and most worked seven days a week. They were paid high salaries for that day.
The Shops were the lifeblood of Pulaski County and the area. Southern Railroad was always looking for good workers. A boy coming out of high school with mechanical ability might apply to the Southern for a job, score well on the test, and be sent to the railroad's own vocational school in Knoxville for training as a railroad machinist.
Steam-powered train engines had limited range and needed complete servicing in a fully equipped rail yard. Every steam engine on the railroad was brought to the Shops for inspection and repair after 100,000 miles. Southern Railroad, now Norfolk Southern Corporation, built the Shops in Ferguson, a town named after Edward Ferguson, a Cincinnati attorney instrumental in bringing the railroads main line through this area.
Two trends meant decline for Ferguson Shops. First, the automobile replaced the passenger train as the favorite means of transportation. Even worse, diesel engines replaced big steam engines. Diesels could run from Cincinnati to Chattanooga without servicing, so Ferguson Shops were obsolete. Six hundred jobs fell to 400, then 200, then 100, then 50 and finally the yard closed altogether.
Light at the end of the tunnel was Lake Cumberland, impounded shortly after the Shops closed. The lake, a Mecca for tourism, changed the economic climate of the area.
The late James A. “Onion” Eastham, a former Somerset city councilor, worked at the Shops and talked about his experiences with the railroad. However, he did not mention the underground areas during an interview several years ago with the Commonwealth Journal. Most former employees of the Shops would be at least in their 80s, and none, if still around, is available for information.
The tunnels are rapidly being uncovered. Heavy equipment on the site is excavating the area. Bastin said the cavities will be filled with gravel and the surface leveled, waiting for a possible “we will build to suit” building or blacktopping as needed in the future.
A quick tour of the 375,000-square-foot, almost ghostly former Crane building, shows lots of empty space, and some being used for storage of products made by other local industries. Part of the massive structure rests atop the concrete slab that formerly supported the Ferguson Shops.
“We want to rehabilitate the building,” said Shearer. “It’s too large in these economic times for one manufacturer, but it could house up to three firms,” he said. Infrastructure for each section of the building could be separate for each user, he indicated.
Crane Company, makers of ceramic bathroom fixtures, operated in the building from the 1970s until it closed February 14, 2006. The building and surrounding property, about 55 acres, are prime industrial locations, Shearer noted.