April 6, 2014

‘River Rat’ Walter Ferguson, a legend along the Miami River and businessman, dies at 90

When the Miami River rattles its tributaries to reveal tales of the colorful characters it has known, one person’s story could bubble to the surface.

When the Miami River rattles its tributaries to reveal tales of the colorful characters it has known, one person’s story could bubble to the surface.

Walter Ferguson, “a true American character and a self-made man who brought himself up from a 14-year-old boy working on the Miami River to be a prominent and successful businessman,” died March 31 at 90 in Fort Myers, his son-in-law Chet Zerlin said.

He was a fiercely proud, and self-proclaimed, “River Rat.”

Ferguson, who had homes in Coconut Grove and LaBelle in Hendry County, arrived in Miami at 14 from North Carolina and lived on the streets, Zerlin said. He started washing boats on the Miami River, sold the Herald on street corners, and soon discovered he had a knack for fixing things — in particular, diesel engines.

Work was good along the Miami River, which, as a conduit for importing and exporting to and from the Caribbean and Latin America, provided sustenance for Ferguson.

“He worked as a kid with the WPA [Works Progress Administration] building Matheson Hammock,” said Finley Matheson, a member of the pioneering Matheson family. “In the ’30s he was building the stone walls and dredging out Matheson Hammock. He had such a fascinating history with Miami, growing up here and running his business.”

Ferguson, fresh out of the United States Merchant Marine, where he learned engineering, and with work under his belt at a Rochester, N.Y., railroad company, returned to Miami after World War II.

“When the war ended, the Navy had a bunch of diesel engines stored all over the world where they were accessible if needed in the Pacific and Atlantic. Walter acquired a lot of them. I don’t know how he did that, but he was able to get them and shipped back here, and that’s how he opened his diesel engine business on the Miami River, and he was in that business for a long time,” said a friend, retired urologist Dr. Joe Fitzgerald, a historian for the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club in Coconut Grove. Ferguson was a member.

“He lacked a lot of formal education ... but he had considerable education in the businesses he was in,” Fitzgerald said. “His memory was unbelievable, fantastic. He could remember every detail about every diesel engine or ship’s engine that he worked on.”

The business he made his name on was Southern Diesel Engine Repair, and Ferguson’s clients included the tugboat operators who pulled freighters laden with imports and exports — cars, bicycles, unmentionables — along the Miami River, as well as cruise ships and the occasional visiting celebrity. Ferguson worked on Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso, and Southern Diesel became the area distributor for Twin Disc Inc., a marine diesel products manufacturer.

“He is what we call a true Florida cracker,” said friend Bruce Matheson, a fourth-generation Miamian. “His greatest accolade is that he was a Miami River Rat. ‘Nobody down here but us River Rats.’ That’s another expression he liked. He grew up on the river. He knew all the people up and down the river and used to swim in the river when it was clear and clean. He was an institution unto himself. He knew my grandfather, he knew my father, and he knew me and so he was a person who appreciated the unique natural environmental characteristics of South Florida, Dade County in particular.”

Somehow, this man whose hands could make a diesel engine purr, found himself on the board of SunTrust Bank where he handled loan approvals.

“I always described Walter as the Will Rogers of Miami and I think to those of us who knew and loved him, that said it all,” said Ramiro Ortiz, a former SunTrust president and current president/CEO of HistoryMiami, a museum Ferguson championed. “He had a way of dealing with complex problems and arriving at some very common-sense solutions.”

Ferguson could don a boardroom suit. But he also bought property in LaBelle and turned it into a working farm that produced oranges, pineapple and watermelon, Zerlin said. Finley Matheson recalled how Ferguson cooled off employees at Southern Diesel by providing ice-cold watermelon he brought from his farm. Southern Diesel was old-fashioned, like its owner. No AC.

He traveled the world and sometimes he did the steering. A vacation to the Yucatán required a drive back to Miami in his pickup truck when a ship line that had whisked him and his pickup there went bankrupt. It took Ferguson a good week to wend his way home along the coasts of Mexico, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana. “That was the sort of person Walter was. Nothing could slow him down or stop him if he wanted to do it,” Fitzgerald said.

“He loved … machinery, women and fine red wine,” Finley Matheson said.

He liked a challenge, too. Ferguson built a working two-thirds-scale steam-powered version of the African Queen that he dubbed the Florida Queen. He raced Finley Matheson in the Volvo Open Race two years ago. Ferguson’s Florida Queen against Matheson’s steamboat, Krakatoa.

“Walter won,” Matheson said, chuckling. “But it was a photo finish. He won fair and square.”

For Ferguson, it all flowed back to that Miami River he loved.

“Walter’s passion for preserving the history of the Miami River was very important to him,” Ortiz said. “That was his livelihood. He used to describe himself as a River Rat and he was a product of the river and that is where he was happiest.”

Ferguson is survived by his son Robert, daughters Susan Zerlin and Linda Krater. Services were held in LaBelle. A memorial service at Biscayne Bay Yacht Club is pending.

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