A steam locomotive from bygone days jumps from a photo taken but a few weeks ago. It is another post on the Facebook page Knoxville Tennessee History and Memories from Don Ferguson, who likes to tramp around South Knoxville and Sevier County searching for remnants of the old Smoky Mountain Railroad. He freely shares his photos and historical notes online.
No one is paying him to do this, and he isn’t looking for money for it. He and his wife, Connie, run their Sugarbuzz bakery out of their west Knoxville home. On his off days he’s out with his camera and notebook looking for the old rail line, which went out of service for good in 1961.
“I really enjoy the engagement I get on the Facebook posts. It’s fantastic,” Ferguson said. “Someone who actually remembers it when it was running, or shares a story they heard from a grandparent.”
Most of the railbed that remains is on private property, and Ferguson has rarely had any issue with a current owner not allowing him to take a stroll back in time.
“You ask permission, first of all. You don’t trespass, you be respectful,” he said, adding that sometimes a landowner isn’t available, so he takes what pictures he can from the street.
The arc of Ferguson’s life reads like a Jimmy Buffet song waiting to be written. He was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to parents who were in their 40s upon his arrival. His father had purchased a thoroughbred farm in 1939, but decided to sell his Blue Meadows farm with the birth of his son 15 years later.
Ferguson’s earliest memories are from Coral Gables, Florida, where the family moved after leaving Lexington. Another move sent them to Paducah, Kentucky, and yet another finally landed them in Knoxville. He graduated from Bearden High School in 1972 and the University of Tennessee, after which he spent most of his career in the restaurant industry.
It is quite likely that locals from Generation X and older were served an adult libation or three by Ferguson. He was a bartender at the original Hawkeye’s Corner, Annie’s in the Old City and managed The Half Shell, to name a few of the places he worked before packing it in and heading to the Florida Keys. There he pursued his love of historical discovery diving old wrecked Spanish galleons.
“I’d tend bar over the winters and then pretty much go diving the rest of the year,” he said. At one time, he chartered dive trips out to the various wreck sites, but found that herding tourists in the open ocean was not his cup of tea. “You’re 100 feet down out in the water, look around and you’re missing a customer. It’s not a good feeling.”
He published a book with detailed instructions and coordinates to the wrecks. He has a YouTube channel, Keys Dive Guide, with more than 30 videos, including an interview with the late treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who discovered the Atocha in 1975.
But life eventually brought him back to East Tennessee. He and his wife are not quite ready to retire, but he does foresee slowing down some in the near future.
“We’ve worked awfully hard,” Ferguson said. But slowing down just means more time for exploring the local history that fascinates him.
Beth Kinnane is a freelance writer and thoroughbred bloodstock agent