The Little River

Monday, November 12, 2007

In the early part of the 20th century, America had already witnessed the development of an amazing transportation infrastructure -- roads, canals and railroads -- that would allow for the free flow of commerce and provide the impetus for the nation's westward development. By 1905, the U.S. was engaged in one of the largest engineering projects in the world, the Panama Canal. Against this backdrop, a handful of civic and business leaders embarked on another super-sized project to drain more than 1 million acres of Southeast Missouri swampland, converting it to one of the most productive agricultural areas anywhere.

One hundred years ago this month, the Little River Drainage District was incorporated, and by 1928 more than a thousand miles of ditches had been dug and more than 300 miles of levees had been built.

The basics of the drainage district are simple: The elevation of Southeast Missouri drops as you travel from north to south. With a system of ditches and levees, the area's water would naturally flow away into the Mississippi River.

In addition to the canals and levees, the drainage district relies on diversion of streams as they enter the flat lowlands of what once the largest swamp to be found. The 451-mile-long Diversion Channel and its protective levee cut across the northern bounday of the drainage district between Cape Girardeau and Scott City.

Larry Dowdy, who serves as the district's executive vice president, secretary-treasurer and chief engineer, runs the day-to-day operations of the district, which requires constant maintenance to keep the gravity flow of water working properly. The district operates under the direction of a board of supervisors, of which there have been 27 since 1907.

Why is it called the Little River Drainage District? The swampland was so watery when early French settlers arrived that they called it the Little River to distinguish it from the big river -- the Mississippi -- just to the east.

The story of the building on the ditches and levees is a fascinating one, and the district's history is being collected at Kent Library on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University.

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