Wed, 10/06/2021 - 3:07pm admin
Howell County Ghost Town
Like several towns in Howell County, Sterling owed its existence to the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis Railroad. Officially created with a post office, railroad officials supposedly named the railroad construction camp for "John Sterling, who had come from Illinois, entered land there, and built a cabin." Maybe so, but the county records don't record all this. The Sterling camp was on agricultural land not available for homesteading. What is known for sure is the place called Sterling was a large sawmill operation during the early pine forest harvest on the northern edge of Howell County. The Texas County line is only a half-mile to the north.
KCFS&M Railroad executive George H. Nettleton owned a large tract of land just south. Nettleton held hundreds of acres in the towns he platted along the railroad, and many communities bear his name in their street and subdivision monikers.
Sterling had a post office from October 4, 1883, until November 30, 1906. The community that started around a country store held that identity for decades. It still possessed a highway sign when I was driving US Highway 60/63 north in the 1970s. The next generation will likely not know of its existence.
There was a Sterling railroad depot, school, church, and voting precinct in the early years. Perhaps due to its proximity to Willow Springs three miles north, the community never developed into a proper town. I think Sterling was intended to be surveyed, platted, and sold by Nettleton to create a city centered on processing timber and shipping lumber. Railroad access there was also used to ship cattle for a short period, but most of the population moved elsewhere when the timber played out.
In 1887 the post office closed for three years. Its re-opening corresponded with the arrival of a Quaker settlement and the building of a "Friends" church in 1890. In December 1891, the West Plains Gazette editor wrote, "The Quaker settlement near Sterling, in this county, is growing very rapidly. This is a class of citizens of which any county can be proud. We understand that new additions to the settlement are constantly arriving." Railroad passenger and freight service was the lifeblood of Sterling, but its location on a ridgeline that steeply descended to the south led to several derailments and accidents.
On October 4, 1897, Sterling made statewide news. The Howell County News reported: "Monday morning passenger train No. 3, eastbound, due here at 10 a.m., ran into a covered wagon containing seven persons near Sterling and about 3 miles northwest of Willow Springs, and instantly killed six of them and probably fatally injured the seventh. The wagon road crosses the track at that point, where there is a deep cut, approached from the other side by a sharp curve, and it has long been considered a dangerous locality, being called Dead Man's Cut."
"The whistle was blown, and the bell rang as the curve was rounded by the train, and it is said that the engineer also shouted to the driver of the wagon to not attempt to cross. All the warnings were unheeded, and the wagon was struck squarely in the center, knocking it into kindling wood. It was driven by a farmer named Philip Wooten. The other occupants were: Philip Wooten's wife, (the only one not instantly killed), his grown daughters, Amanda and Dora Wooten, his grandson, and Francis Malbrey (his daughter) and her infant child. His son-in-law had just crossed the track in another wagon. The train was in the charge of Conductor Hathaway and was driven by Engineer Dulan, both of Springfield."
"The victims of this accident lived in Texas County, and they were on their way to Arkansas to pick cotton. The bodies were gathered up by the train crew and taken to Willow Springs, where an inquest was held, during which the train was detained there. It was not found that any blame could be attached to anyone but the driver of the wagon, whose view was probably obstructed by the wagon cover. The wounded woman, the only survivor, had a thigh broken and was severely bruised about the head, and is believed to have sustained internal injuries. Her recovery is very doubtful."
Violet Wooten died later the same day, making a total of seven killed in the accident. The passenger train crew took up all seven bodies, who were buried in a common grave in the Murr Family Cemetery north of Cabool in Texas County after the inquest.
The Springfield Leader & Press added that "the crossing was on a curve and a heavy grade and had a bad reputation and is regarded by persons living near there as an extremely dangerous place."
In 1904 the Frisco Company, new owners of the KCFS&M Railroad, initiated a new survey from Sterling looking for a way to reduce the grade as their tracks plunged downward as they progressed south. Sharp curves were smoothed out, and "Dead Man's Cut" was eliminated.
The Sterling post office was closed on November 30, 1906. In 1920 Howell County Commissioner Frank Sass closed the polling precinct at Sterling in a cost-cutting measure. Though re-opened briefly at the behest of Charles Ferguson; the polling place was permanently closed in the fall 1925 election.
The train depot soon followed and became a hangout for hoboes jumping on and off freight trains. Hoboes sleeping in the abandoned depot were blamed for a fire in December 1932, destroying the building.
One by one, the landmarks associated with the Sterling name disappeared, and nothing to identify a community remained.
Today across Highway 60/63 on the west side, a highly visible landmark bears the name "Sterling Hollow Lake" on US Forest Service property. The lake, built before Forest Service ownership, was constructed roughly in the shape of the United States. The four hundred-foot long, fifty-foot high earthen dam has been under scrutiny for the last few years. According to the Forest Service, "An evaluation of the inundation area downstream of the dam showed there is a probability for loss of life in the event of a sunny day breach. A sunny day breach is a breach that would occur without rainfall, such as an earthquake or a piping failure."
The lake, built in the 1980s, is on the head of Sterling Hollow on a branch of Middle Indian Creek. It is a community lake, though access is difficult, mainly from the Missouri Highway Patrol truck weigh station drive high above the north end of the lake. It appears the future of the lake is a significant drawdown of its water. A beautiful scenic overlook remains.
Of the ghost towns of Howell County, Sterling has perhaps become most ghostly.