In the 1850s, William B. Ferguson, in true entrepreneurial fashion, agreed to deed a strip of land through his farm to the North Missouri Railroad, later known as the Wabash Railroad. This was done on the condition that they build a depot on his land and make it a regular stop. This stop, known as Ferguson Station, became the center of activity around the area, and Mr. Ferguson subdivided his land and sold lots to businesses and homeowners. By 1894, population had reached 1,000 and the town of Ferguson Station was incorporated as a fourth class city.
Thomas January, a wholesale grocer, director of the North Missouri Railroad, and St. Louis County's first Treasurer, contracted with the railroad to enlarge a spring-fed lake on his property, and use the water to supply the tank at the depot. A small part of the January estate was later sold to the railroad for use as recreation area for company employees, and it became known as the Wabash Club. In 1948, the City of Ferguson purchased the property for JanuaryWabash Park, which now contains one of the most heavily fished urban lakes in the State of Missouri.
Streetcars Lead to Expansion
By the end of the 1800s, Ferguson was a major hub for both freight and passenger rail traffic. As many as six trains a day served commuters working in St. Louis, and Ferguson became a popular location for suburban executive homes. In 1900, a streetcar line opened connecting Ferguson and Kirkwood, another growing suburb 10 miles to the south. Former slaves of Thomas January and other slaves freed after the Civil War contributed to the early establishment of a racially diverse population.
The city boomed during the post-World War II era. Commuter trains were replaced by automobile traffic. Plentiful employment was provided by new industries, including the relocated headquarters of Emerson Electric Company. Scores of new homes were built and the city's population continued to expand. In 1954, Ferguson became a charter city, one of the first in St. Louis County to adopt the council-manager form of government.
Ferguson Station Depot Restoration: The Hub of City Growth
Located in the heart of downtown Ferguson, the railroad depot was the hub around which the city grew and developed. It was built some time between 1879 and 1885 using a standard station design common throughout the Midwest. It is the only known example of this design remaining in Missouri.
The depot was Ferguson’s first meeting place. Churches met and organized here before building their own facilities and citizens registered to vote and cast their ballots at the depot. The community fire alarm was a train engine whistle, as there was always an engine in the yard. The whistle also served as the town clock, signaling noon lunch and suppertime. It also rang in the New Year and announced the end of World Wars I and II.
The telegraph at the depot served as a communication link to the world. At its peak, 42 trains a day served the depot and it commanded a 24-hour freight junction with eight tracks for switching until 1948.
Passenger service stopped in 1960 and use of the building for signal crews of the Norfolk Southern Railroad ceased in 1988. At the urging of a citizens’ group, the city appointed a committee to pursue preservation of this important piece of history. In October 1991, the city purchased the building for $1 and entered into a long-term lease for the land.
A transportation enhancement grant of $108,884 launched the city’s restoration project, which, in the end, cost more than $459,000. Unexpected removal of hazardous materials cost an unexpected $93,000. The remaining space is used for historical displays.
In October 2000, the city leased half of the building’s interior to two local families for the establishment of the Whistle Stop Frozen Custard Shop. The business provided most of the interior finish for the building, with historic themes being used throughout. The displays were made possible by a partnership between the City of Ferguson, the Ferguson Historical Society, and a generous contribution from Emerson Electric Company, headquartered in Ferguson.
Valuable assistance was also provided by the Wabash Railroad Historical Society, the Missouri History Museum, and the Museum of Transportation. Many residents also donated their time and expertise to the project.
Past Meets Present
The project has preserved an important piece of Ferguson history and created a new business and visitor attraction that serves as an anchor for downtown Ferguson. In 2001, the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission awarded the Ferguson Station Depot an Adaptive Reuse Award for the unique nature of the effort.
The project is representative of creative solutions, public and private partnerships, and volunteer participation that is driving Ferguson’s future.