Little River: Where has it Gone?
Little River: Where has it Gone?
By: Mike Shain
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.