Little River: Where has it Gone?

Published: Apr. 24, 2008 at 7:47 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 28, 2008 at 4:42 PM CDT
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Little River: Where has it Gone?
By: Mike Shain

One of the greatest engineering accomplishments in American history is seen daily by thousands of people who have no idea what they're looking at.  And they have no idea how different their lives would be without it.
Mike Shain looks back more than a century to the start of a project that might well be impossible today.
Back when Millard Fillmore was president, Congress passed and he signed the Swamp Act of 1850.  It's purpose was turn millions of acres of swamp into productive farm land.
Half a century later some enterprising people in southeast Missouri came up with a plan that has affected hundreds of thousands over the years and even today.
It's a piece of history we're living daily, the Little River Drainage District.
"My Uncle John came in 1880," said Rosemary Lumsden. What he found was the area's few residents living afloat.  The flooded land was good for commercial hunting.
"How much of it [farm] would be farmable without the Little River Drainage District?" asked Mike Shain.
"None of it.  It would be a swamp," Lumsden said. 

The swamps were full of valuable hardwood trees, cut and taken to sawmills like Himmelberger Harrison in Morehouse.  But lumber companies were left paying taxes on thousands of acres of cleared swamp land.  They wondered what to do with it.

"I know that from Cape Girardeau to the Arkansas/Missouri state line there is a 100 foot drop in elevation, 100 miles in distance so you got one foot per mile.  I doesn't seem like much but that's enough," said Larry Dowdy, drainage district manager.

Enough to construct a system to drain the swamp covering much of the Missouri bootheel.  The Little River Drainage District was born to do it. 

By the early 1900's, equipment was available to move lots of dirt.  And move it they did, more dirt than was moved to build the Panama Canal.
First the Diversion Channel, that's right, the big stream crossed by Highway 25 and Interstate 55, used by thousands of motorists daily.
A century ago, work began on the Diversion Channel and this levee.  On this side, flooding.  On the other side, almost dry.
Consider the flooding from the recent downpour.  Without the 45 mile long Diversion Channel all of this water from several creeks and the Castor and Whitewater rivers would have rushed down on the bootheel.
"If you get a 12 or 13 inch flood over four or five days instead of 18 hours, you can handle that.  But whenever you get that much water coming in at one time, there's just no way you can handle it in a delta that is what we're in.  We're in a swamp.  Southeast Missouri was a swamp," Dowdy said.

Houseboats were home to many of the men and women who dug 950 miles of drainage canals and built 300 miles of levees.  To do this work, they were tough but certainly not rough.

"Now here's these women that followed their husbands from goodness knows where.  Some came from Kentucky, some from Illinois.  They were living in a tent and if you know what it's like out in the winter, it gets cold and this is year-round they lived that way.  But they brought these fine dresses and their hats, so when the photographer came in to do the photography, they dressed up in their finery," Lumsden said. 
While the Little River Drainage District benefitted timber and farming, it made dry land for homes, towns, industry, and jobs.

"Many of the things we have here would not be here if not for agriculture.  Without the flood control and drainage that our district and other districts provide, we wouldn't have our agriculture," Dowdy said. "You can't grow cotton, corn and soybeans in standing water."

Construction of the Little River Drainage District which drains about 1.2 million acres, about the size of Delaware, began in 1909 and was all but finished by 1928.
But work continues, mowing levees and dredging ditches.
Part 2

The great New Madrid earthquakes created a big swamp in southeast Missouri.

That swamp was fed by small streams including Little River.

Draining the earthquake swamp became one of the greatest engineering marvels of the 20th century.

It's the best kept secret in the Heartland, the Little River Drainage District.

Let's follow this old map of southeast Missouri back to when the only towns shown are cape girardeau and new madrid.

The largest feature on the map is the great swamp beginning just south of Cape and extending west of New Madrid into Arkansas.  Another feature was marked Earthquake Lake.

The lake and most of the great swamp were created by the earthquakes of 1811 and 1812.

The Little River Drainage District went to work in 1907 on a 20 year project that drained the great swamp and created the land many of us call home today.

We sometimes forget that agriculture is by far the biggest business in southeast Missouri, generating more income and jobs than anything else.

Little River Drainage District makes this possible with its 960 miles of ditches draining 1.2 million acres of rich bootheel land.

"We kind of fly under the radar.  People see the flood control but pay no attention to it. They think that this just happened," said Larry Dowdy, drainage district manager. 

Drivers along Highway 60 don't realize its path once was swamp and bog.

"Used to be the only way you could go east or west was by train if you could afford a ticket. Otherwise, you walked the tracks to Dexter or Sikeston. The railroad was the only high ground," said Rosemary Lumsden.  Her uncle moved to southeast Missouri in 1880.

Other roads including I-55 might not have been possible without drainage of the swamps.  The drainage district takes its name from a stream called Little River, a major source of flooding in the flat bootheel.

Today, Little River is dry in most places. A stretch in Morehouse is just a remnant of what it was a century ago.

The miles and miles of ditches that turned the area from a swamp a century ago to some of the richest farmland in the world is maintained by taxes on the landowners it benefits.

It costs the landowner $3 an acre to maintain the system.

"Do you complain about taxes?" asked Mike Shain.

"No! It's a bargain," said Lumsden. "The county collects the tax and turns it over to the district and they manage it very well."

The recent floods show flooding but also reveal how well the system works.  Standing water from the downpours drained away and no levees broke.  Planting will be late but not impossible.

We take for granted the water always gets away.  But what would happend if there was no little river drainage district? What would the bootheel become?

"I think in seven to 10 years water would be over Highway 60 down at Morehouse," said Dowdy.

Taxes pay for dredging and mowing that go on constantly.

You may wonder where the Little River District's water ends up.  It ends up in the Mississippi River near Helena, Arkansas.