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Work on the Little River Drainage District began 100 years ago today

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This steam-powered stump puller was operated by the Little River Drainage District in 1915. See more photos in a gallery at semissourian.com.
(Photo courtesy Special Collections and Archives, Southeast Missouri State University)
When people think of Southeast Missouri's landscape today, many conjure up images of the small, rural towns that dot the area or perhaps the region's vast and productive farmland.

But it's doubtful most think of the work that began 100 years ago today on the Little River Drainage Project.

Before the construction of levees that harnessed the floodwaters of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Southeast Missouri was a natural basin for their overflow and also served as a water deposit for the Ozark streams that flooded out from the hills and twisted across the region. The result was nearly 2 million acres of swampy and overflowed land deemed unfit for cultivation and inhabitation, nicknamed "Swampeast Missouri."

The land, initially owned by the U.S. government, was granted to the state of Missouri through the Swamp Land Act of 1850. But, not knowing what to do with it, the state conveyed the land to the counties encompassed by the great swamp, who in turn sold the land at a low cost to private entities with the stipulation that the land be developed and drained. But, by the end of the 19th century, the only thing being drained from the swamp was its timber.

"The timber companies came in and cut as much timber from the swamp's forests as they could," said Dr. Joel Rhodes, history professor at Southeast Missouri State University. "When that was gone, the land returned to its previously worthless state. Then people started to think about ways to make the land become valuable again."

Headwater Diversion Channel, circa 1925, built by the Little River Drainage District.
(Photo courtesy Special Collections and Archives, Southeast Missouri State University)
What happened next was the incorporation of the Little River Drainage District in 1907 by a group of men who had been involved with timber interests and now wanted to create farmland and enterprise zones out of the swamp. The district's original five-member board of supervisors, which included names like Matthews and Himmelberger that were synonymous with wealth in Southeast Missouri, knew that by draining the swamp they could increase the value of the land and sell it for development.

The new district, named for a tributary of the St. Francis River, included almost 560,000 acres in parts of seven Bootheel counties -- Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Scott and Stoddard. There had been plans dating back to the 1840s to turn the swamp into farmland, but the task was so enormous the plans were never acted upon. Some area farmers had even tried to do the job on their own with a piecemeal approach. The supervisors issued bonds and received other financing for the project from landowners who agreed to pay taxes on their holdings, and the project was eventually launched Oct. 4, 1912.

But not everybody was happy with the district's proposal to drain the swamp. Louis Houck, a prominent civic leader and landholder at the time, fought the district's development plans.

"Houck's concern for the public good ended at the edge of his private interest," Rhodes said. "He was concerned that the land he owned south of Cape, and also his railroad interests, would become damaged by flooding caused by the district's project while other landowners would prosper. He also wasn't happy about paying taxes to the district. Houck fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on two occasions to keep his land from becoming involved. He lost both times."

By 1928, after 16 years of long and tedious work and at a cost of more than $11 million dollars, the district had built nearly 1,000 miles of ditches and more than 300 miles of levees, and had drained 1.2 million acres of swamp land in a project that at the time was the largest in the history of the world. When the drainage work was completed, more than 1 million cubic yards of earth had been moved, more than was displaced during the construction of the Panama Canal.

The work that began 100 years ago on the Little River Drainage District has provided many benefits to Southeast Missouri. Land that was once 95 percent covered in water and trees now accounts for one third of Missouri's agricultural income. The roads that were built during and after the project provide the lifeline for the region's economic development. The Headwaters Diversion Channel -- created from land once owned by Louis Houck -- collects water from area rivers and creeks and funnels them into the Mississippi River and away from vital farmland. And the system's 1,000 miles of ditches carries the remainder of the district's low-velocity water into Arkansas, where it flows into that state's collection system and eventually enters the Mississippi River at Helena, Ark.

Larry Dowdy, the executive vice president and chief engineer for today's Little River Drainage District, said that things would be completely different in Southeast Missouri if not for the project undertaken 100 years ago.

"Back then, I doubt that people imagined what this region was going to look like once the project was finished," Dowdy said. "But I have an idea of what things would look like if the project hadn't gone through. Interstate 55 wouldn't have been put in because it would have been too costly to complete. That goes for a lot of the highways around Cape and further south. We wouldn't have near the railroad activity that we do now. Our farm economy would be a shadow of what it is today, and we wouldn't have Procter & Gamble and we wouldn't have Noranda in New Madrid and all of the other institutions that provide jobs in the region."

Dowdy also has an idea of what the district means to Southeast Missouri.

"I'm convinced that there hasn't been anything else that's had the impact of the district for the people and economy of this region," he said. "I also don't think there's been anything statewide to come close to matching it. I won't be around, but here's to the next 100 years."



Pertinent address:

1440 Kurre Lane, Cape Girardeau, MO

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Is this a new story? I thought Larry Dowdy retired as chief engineer for LRDD a couple of years ago.

Nevertheless, this is fascinating history from an important era in Southeast Missouri.

-- Posted by goat lady on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 6:09 AM

Someone needs to contact Joe Brown just south of Bell City as he has photos back from that time in our history. He is a great historian for Stoddard County and can tell you some stories from the peoples side of this. You would be amazed at what took place during this time in the history of Swampeast Missouri.

-- Posted by neeneewood on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 8:25 AM

This is one of the most interesting articles ever printed in this paper. Good job!!

-- Posted by bbqman on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 8:39 PM

Great story keith. And we do need to be reminded of the enormous progress that has occured in our area in the last 100 years. If not for the work the drainage districts have done and continue to do, the area would be a vast and non- productive part of our state.

-- Posted by susu on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 8:40 PM

I have a video of a long-time resident talking about what life was like in Swampeast Missouri


-- Posted by ksteinhoff on Fri, Oct 5, 2012, at 1:54 AM

Enough cannot be said for the the men: Harrison, Himmelberger, Oliver, Matthews and others who had the foresight and gumption to see this project through, or those like the Vandivorts who realized its implications and bet their future on it.

-- Posted by semowasp on Fri, Oct 5, 2012, at 8:36 AM

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Drainage in Southeast Missouri
Historical photos of drainage operations in Southeast Missouri.
Map of pertinent addresses
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