Head Water Diversion Channel 

In 1850, the Secretary of War Conrad authorized Charles Ellet Jr., one of the best trained civil Engineers in the county, to investigate flooding along the Mississippi. Conrad also called upon the Corps of Topographical Engineers to do the same.

The Corps of Topographical Engineers was founded by Congress in 1813 and reorganized in 1816 and 1838. They were under the authority of the War Department and in charge of surveying for civil works projects, including navigation improvement.

Illness among the engineers in the field and other support crews hindered the survey to the point it ground to a haul. After work on the survey resumed in 1859, a report of 660 pages and dozens of maps was submitted in 1861. This was the most extensive study of a river done anywhere in the world and remains a classic in American hydraulic engineering. Military engineers were now, as was the national government taking responsibly to improve navigation.

Disastrous floods of the past had made it clear that without scientific knowledge of the Mississippi, engineers could not protect the alluvial lands. With the completion of the Mississippi Delta Survey, the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which in 1863 was merged with the Corps of Engineers, proved that it was one institution capable of gathering and analyzing the information necessary to plan flood controls program on a large-scale needed to protect citizen along America’s waterways

The act which created the Mississippi River Commission, (MRC), in 1879, it was given the task of preparing, surveying, examining, and investigating ways to improve the river channel. Responsibilities also included protecting the banks of the river, improving navigation, preventing destructive floods while promoting and facilitating commerce and the Postal Service.

While the MRC was given large responsibly, the Commission was limited in funds and limited in its flood control efforts. Public opinion, at the time, was so opposed to federal intervention that until 1917 congress dared not reveal that federal funds to protect private property were used during floods. While such appropriations were made between 1879 and 1917, it was publicly announced as applying only to aid navigation.

In 1882, the River and Harbor Act relieved the MRC of the responsibilities of doing the work of improving the River. MRC became the planning agency for work done on the Mississippi River while the actual labor became the responsibility of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At the Corp of Engineers suggestion, the Lower Mississippi was divided into four separate Districts, each under a District Engineer. The first district started at the mouth of the Ohio and extended to Island Number 40. For a while the District Engineer was located at Cairo, this soon proved impractical and his office was moved to Memphis.

Bank protection along the entire length of the River seemed to be out of the question. Yet, caving bands and erosion was central to the river’s problems. A problem the nation would have to eventually face. In1901 the estimated annual caving rate per mile of river was about nine acres while the erosion volume was 972,092 cubic yards per mile. These actions was creating a problem as two-thirds of the erosion was building sand bars that obstructed navigation, changed the channel while good land was lost to farmers.

When the MRC was only three years old nature challenged it with one of the greatest floods in the known history of the Valley. At Memphis, the Mississippi was in flood from January to March in 1882 this being one of the longest periods in the rivers history. Floods along the River are frequent. Almost yearly, some flooding occurs, three out of five years the water becomes a serious concern. The density of settlement was growing within the Valley. The embryonic levee system made each major floor more disastrous.

February 23, the New York Times reported that between Cairo and Memphis only twelve points of land were visible. Deep water extended throughout the St. Francis and White River valleys. Along the River in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri came reports of drowning and disaster. Houses, cabins, livestock and trees were tumbling along in the rivers current. Pemiscot County was entirely under water.

The Rivers and Harbor Act of August 2, 1882 gave the MRC its first money for improvement in the Lower Mississippi. There was a however in the bill, none of the $4,123,000 was to be used constructing levees. Even the horrendous destruction of the 1882 Flood failed to shake the traditional position relating to levees as a private and state responsibility, not governmental.

Despite Congressional reluctance to spend federal funds for flood control levee development moved forward in the 1880’s. In 1886, the House Committee on Levees and Improvements of the Mississippi River recommended a $3,000,000 appropriation to strengthen the Mississippi river levees. The Bill’s language helped pass the legislation as it indicted the levees purpose was to aid navigation.

Major flood came to the Lower Mississippi Valley in 1884, 1887, 1898, 1903, 1907, 1912, 1913, 1916, and 1927; between 1893 and 1942, 33 rising water exceeded the flood stage at Memphis, an average of three major floods every five years. After each flood public pressure from the public called for national levee appropriation, but navigation had first priority. Some people believed there was but one answer to both flood control and navigation, which was straightening the Mississippi channel.

During the 1897 flood, a Senator suggest the construction of seven or eight parallel levees placed at right angles to the Mississippi River and the river bank all the way across to the St. Francis Basin on to Crowley's Ridge. Thus, the flood water would be temporality impounded between the levees and when the flood receded, the water could be released back into the river.

In the late 1890’s the United States Corps of Engineers begin constructing main line levees along the Mississippi River. A levee would stop the river from its annually gift of water to the Little River Valley. This raised hope among the people living in the Lowland repeatedly covered with water. One reason for the yearly overflow of the Mississippi was being brought under control. Himmelberger had proven it was possible to drain the land. Before, this had been a task assumed to large, even for the federal government. Now it was starting to seem possible.

Talk had started in the early 1900’s about how desirable a large scale drainage project was. If it was possible in a small scale, like in New Madrid County by Himmelberger, why not on a larger scale, like the entire Bootheel?

In January of 1905 the Missouri Legislature’s first order of business was to enable the formation of a large, single drainage district with the power to support the project with the power to tax.  On April, 1905, Missouri State Senator from Cape Girardeau R. B. Oliver introduced a bill giving permission to form the Little River Drainage District. April 8, Governor Joseph Wingate Folk signed the bill into law.

The district could not be formed until a state circuit court approved its plans. On September 20, 1905 the Stephen Oliver law firm filed in New Madrid Circuit court the longest petition filed up to that time in a Missouri civil processing. In the 285 page, the filing traced the district boundaries in the proposed district, outlined its plan and sought authority to levy taxes to carry out the drainage improvement and its maintenance and the facilities that were to be built.

Louis Houck v. Little River Drainage District

Opposition developed almost instantly. The railroads had been given large tracks of lands to build into the swamps to service the timber industry. If railroads were not the biggest landowners in the drainage district, they were one of the largest. The timber was quickly disappearing; with it gone, so was their revenue. As of yet, the farming community was small. Thus the railroads saw themselves as financing, almost alone, the work of the Drainage District. Therefore, the Cottonbelt, Frisco and the St. Louis Iron Mountain railroads along with Louis Houch fought the taxing portion of the law that formed the Little River Drainage District.

In 1898, Louis Houck builds a railroad, later to become part of the Frisco system, into Morehouse. Although the construction was shoddy and unsafe, its building rewarded him thousands of acres of swampland. As a supporter of Southeast Missouri Houck built railroads into this swampland, the more settlers, the more people to transport, more lumber to move from the swampland.

As the Little River Drainage District work increased the value of the land Louis Houck owned, at first thought, you would think he would support it. Yet, he fierily opposed the Little River Drainage District, especially its power to tax. Twenty-five cents per acre does not seem much to pay for what you would get in return. But if you owned several thousand acres and already was over extended financially, $1,000 was a lot of money (think in terms of 1909 dollars).

So, on October 27 and 28, 1915, Houck challenges to Little River Drainage District’s right to level taxes; that the state of Missouri did not have to power to grant such an enterprise the right to tax. He also claimed he was deprived of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution without due process of law.

The U. S. Supreme Court in Louis Houck v. Little River Drainage District agreed with the Missouri Supreme Court in saying that the plaintiffs, Houck, was wrong in all its claims. Missouri’s Constitution bestowed the right to create the Little River Drainage District with taxing powers. In this instance, this tax did not deprive him of Due Process. The power to tax is not to be confused with eminent domain; it is not necessary to show special benefits in order to lay a tax, which is an enforced contribution or the payment of public expenses. The district had a legal right to levy a tax for its operations. While the district covers 540,000 acres, legally it can tax only a total of 435,680 acres.

Supreme Court case Louis Houck v. Little River Drainage District set precedent quoted in at least three other High Court cases in the 1920’s. On March 9 – 10, 1921, Miller & Lux v. Sacramento Drainage District the plaintiff argued much the same as Houch did in 1915, the results were the same.

Ironically, the Arkansas Legislature in 1915 crested the Little River Drainage and Levee District in Southwest Arkansas. The same situation arose when the Kansas City Southern Railway 14,400 acres of property was assessed within the drainage district. In March and April of 1923, Thomas Sheriff v. Kansas City Southern Railway heard similar arguments concerning tax assessments violating the company’s right of due process. Again the Louis Houch v. Little River Drainage District ruling was supported.

Early in 1926, the Norborne Land Drainage District of Carroll County, Missouri was sued by at least five individuals. Involved were at least 24,000 acres within the taxing influence of the drainage district. Justice Holmes delivered the opinion of the Court in Cole v. Norborne Land Drainage District of Carroll County, Missouri quoting Louis Houch v. Little River Drainage District in dismissing the case.

Little River Drainage District Become Reality

On November 30, 1907, the Little River Drainage District was incorporated in the Butler County Circuit Court at Popular Bluff. The case was changed out of the proposed Drainage District in a change of venue. The Drainage District was organized and existed under provision of Article 3, Chapter 22, of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, 1899 and its amendment.

In December of 1907 all the land owners in the Little River Drainage District voted on a board of directors. Each land owner had one vote for every acre they were assessed.

The first Little River Drainage District Board of Supervisors was John Himmelberger, C. W. Henderson Alfred L. Harty, Mr. Reynolds, and A. J. Matthews. Mr. Himmelberger was selected as president of the board and George S. Hansford the secretary-treasury. Hired by the board as the first chief engineer was Otto Kochtitzky; and they selected the Oliver and Oliver, Senator’s Oliver’s’ law firm as legal counsel.

In formulating a “Plan for Drainage” some of the top engineers were consulted. The Chicago firm of Isham Randolph that had been involved in the Panama Canal constructed added his input. Also consulted was the dean of the Engineering School of the University of Iowa, Daniel Meade.

From around Cape Girardeau to the Arkansas state line, there was a 100 feet drop in elevation. As the distance is about 100 miles that is an average drop of one foot per mile which should allow easy drainage. This was the center point in the Little River Drainage District plan to drain the bootheel. Some people questioned if this drop in elevation was realistic in expecting gravity to pull the water off the land. The engineers were confidence it was.

When everyone agreed on the proposed “Plan of Drainage”, it was submitted to Colonel J. A. Ockerson, a member of the Mississippi River Commission; C. E. Elliot, head of the land reclamation division of the United States Department of Agriculture; and the chief engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers. They all saw the plan as workable. Then on November 15, 1909, the plan was approved by the Board of Supervisors.

To many the swamp seemed too big to be drained. Water covered most of the land for 90 miles north to south and from 10 to 20 miles wide. Approximately 96% of this land was unfit for human habitation. The plan was unique; nothing like it on this scale had ever been tried. The residences of the Little River Valley were assured the plan was feasible

Natural topographical boundaries also helped define he plan. To the north were commonly known as the Benton-Commerce Hills and the foothills in the areas of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties. On the east was Sikeston Ridge which ran from the hills to the Mississippi River at New Madrid. Crowley's Ridge bordered the valley on the west, with four breaks, from the hills on the north into Arkansas.

A five mile levee was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers before the planned building of the drainage system. Known as the Old Rock Levee Road it ran between the hills in North Scott County and Cape Girardeau. It was to prevent the river from overflowing, at times, into the area to be drained.

The planners recognized the necessity of dividing the Little River Valley into two areas. Some 700,000 acres of highland drained into the Morehouse Lowland. This was to be worked as a separate part of the plans than that of the Lowland.

   Little River Drainage District Headwater Diversion Channel

Extending from the northwest corner of the district, in Bollinger County eastward along the foothills in Bollinger and Cape Girardeau Counties and into Scott County where it meets the Mississippi River was called the Headwater Diversion Channel. As the name implies, this diversion channel collects the runoff water from the hills to the north and directs it through this channel. Water is collected as far west and north as Fredericktown and drained into the Mississippi. The northern district controls runoff of approximately 1,130 square miles of hill land.

The Headwater Diversion Channel flows west to east diverting the headwaters the Castor and Whitewater rivers and Crooked Creek directly into the Mississippi River south of Cape Girardeau. It was constructed between 1910 and 1916 and diverts their share of the water away from the rest of Little River Valley.

While this diversion channel is only about 45 miles in length, its importance is impossible to overstate. Without it, the success of the lower efforts has been questioned.

On to south side of the headwater diversion channel is a levee which is maintained judiciously. This prevents the diverted water from flowing southward. Such is the object of the channel it protects. Stopping this water makes the lower system work more efficiently.

This levee is bordered on the north by a floodway ranging is width from 900 to 1,100 feet running from Dutchtown, located southwest of Cape Girardeau and runs to the Mississippi River. Within the Headwater Diversion Channel are three detention basins. The west basin covers 9,856 acres nearly 15.5 sections; a middle basin has 9,000 acres; while the eastern most of the basins contains 3,300 acres.

These are to provide storage space when excessive rainfalls trigger sudden rises of the many small steam dotting the hills. Before now, they have entered the Caster and Whitewater rivers and rushed toward the Lowland. Now the west to east headwater diversion channel, protected by a levee set back on the south some 1,000 feet with redirect the water to the Mississippi. The lower parts of the Little River Drainage District will only the water collecting within its boundary.

During periods of high water, these basins store flood water to protect the levee just to the south of the floodway. Should this levee be compromised, the water would flow southward through the entire drainage district and the Bootheel into Arkansas before reaching the Mississippi River.

Construction of the headwater diversion channel and some of the ditches bean in 1914 and completed in 1920. In 1921 work began on Sals Creek channel and levee and at the same time on the Castor River and the western extensions in Bollinger and Stoddard counties. Work in the western extension involved construction of 12 ditches totaling 75.56 miles long with 7.67 miles of levees.

In 1924, completed in 1928, a “Revised Plan for Drainage” was put into effect. This plan enlarged some of the original ditches and levees and constructed new channels and levees.

More retention basins were dug under the revised plan. Upper and  Lower Caney Basins were found to be need in the Scott County Hills between Chaffee and Oran and Jenkins Basin between two hill south of Painton in Stoddard County was added to the system. These basins were built to hold runoff from the surrounding hills until the outlet ditches had fallen enough to handle the water. Caney and Jenkins basins both have concreter culverts designed to retain most of the hill runoff during periods of heavy rainfall.

The single largest contract let by the Little River Drainage District was to Stephens Company. For payment of $1.25 million, they were to clear 4.000 acres of timber, construct approximately 40 miles of levee, and moving 8,500,000 yards of soil. This contract was to be fulfilled in the lower Little River Valley. This was the largest single contract for moving earth up to this time in world history.

Since the early construction the Corps of Engineers have constructed a series of relief wells on the protected side of the mainline levee south of the he headwater diversion channel, the work being completed in 1985. This $2,000,000 project relieves pressure on the levee during high water.

   Semo Port

The Semo Port area near Cape Girardeau is in part of the land-form known as the Mississippi River bottom lands. The Post’s property while part of the river’s flood plain includes diverse land forms including button lands, terraces, and ridge tops. This land is used primarily as farmland and has several industrial sites. Also included are the regional airport and three rock quarries nearby.

Important water supplies near the Port area include the Mississippi River, Headwater Diversion Channel, Ramsey Creek Diversion Channel, Marquette Lakes, and Cape LaCroix Creek. All of these are man-made water courses with the exception of the Mississippi River.

The Head Water Diversion Channel drains parts of seven counties with a total drainage area of some 1,200 squares miles. Flowing from west to east with drainage into the Mississippi near Cape Bend upstream and northwest of the Port the Head Water Diversion Channel diverts water from rivers and streams as they come from the Ozark foothills directly into the Mississippi River. Built between 1910 and 1916 by the Little River Drainage District this is a key element in the drainage of the Bootheel.

Located south of the Head Water Diversion Channel is the Ramsey Creek Diversion Channel Flowing eastward along the foot of the hills southwest of Scott City then along the levee eastward and northward passing the northwest edge of Scott City where it joins the Head Water Diversion Channel between Interstate 55 and Semo Port Railroad Bridge.

The soil excavated from these to diversion channels built the original levees between 1910 and 1916. The scope of the 1927 flood prompted Congress to initiate the Mississippi River and Tributaries Project (MRT) under the over site of the Corps of Engineers. The MRT Project authorized rising and strengthen the mainline levee of the Mississippi River to surpass the projected 500 year flood elevation. Without these levees, Water during major floods along the Mississippi would return to its ancient channel to the southwest causing extensive damage and destruction across the Bootheel and Northeast Arkansas.

The Marquette Cement Company or Cape Girardeau dug the Marquette Lakes. One of the two lakes is north of the Head Water Diversion Channel and the other south. Originally these were clay pits dug to furnish clay two mile north to the cement plant. This part of their operation continued for several decades’ from the early 1900’s through the 1950’s. Marquette Lakes are used today for recreation.

Cape LaCroix Creek empties into the Mississippi in a south Cape Girardeau industrial area next to Cape Girardeau municipal sewage treatment plant. Originally the creek meandered through lowland from Cape Girardeau southward to the Semo Port’s Harbor. The Head Water Diversion Channel runs farther south with its north ditch cutting the old creek bed.

            Lower Little River Valley

South of the long levee is the Little River Valley proper. Here, drainage is controlled by various ditches. Usually these waterways are roughly one mile apart. Most of them are channeled into a large ditch, referred to as a floodway. These floodway canals are 210 feet wide.

The Castor River was directed into such a floodway staring about two miles north of Buffington. Ditch Number1 runs southwesterly from about five miles south of Cape Girardeau, then bending due south just north of Oran to join Little River Drainage District floodway west of Morehouse. Originally the plan specified for 85ditches to be built in the lower section of the Little River Drainage District, including the longest, the 100 mile Ditch Number 1. South of Vanduser where Little River was detoured into a ditch and from that point south for several miles is dry part of the year.

The floodway that started just north of Buffington is 210 feet wide for about 20 miles before being widen to 550 feet. This wider channel runs for about 35 miles and then was widen to 610 feet all the way to the state line. The fill from these floodway was deposited along the ditch banks to form levees.

In the lower Little River Valley, the Little River Drainage District made use of the natural drainage patterns. Over the years ditches were dug, such as the drainage system instituted by Himmelberger with his agreement with New Madrid County years before the Little River Drainage District was formed. All of these piece-meal units became part of the new, more complete system of excessive fluid removal.

Otto Kochtitzky, in 1881, was sent into the Little River Valley to survey the area between New Madrid and Malden for the Arkansas Railroad. After the rail line was sold to the Cotton Belt system, he moved to Cape Girardeau where he married and lived while he had a land trading business.

In 1903, Kochtitzky published “Map of the Lowland of Southeast Missouri.” It covered the seven counties that would eventually make up the Little River Drainage District. Also that year, according to the Caruthersville Democrat, on December 23, the county court of Pemiscot sold 12,000 acres of land lying along the Little River and including Flag Lake. It was sold to a syndicate of capitalist represented by Otto Kochtitzky.

The buyers of this large block of land indented to secure drainage that made that body of wet land fit for farming. The newspaper further stated the land owners in Dunkin County were speculating that the large landowners of the adjacent land in draining their property would increase all the property values without them investing on their part.

There was an increasing cry for a drainage district to control land speculation. Citizen of Dunklin County realized that other counties were rapidly moving ahead o them in population and taxable wealth because the people had seriously taken up the drainage question and at work digging the ditches for drainage.

With the formation of the Little River Drainage District in 1907, because of this history within the district, Kochtitzky was appointed chief engineer. His expertise and experience was used in making the plans that drained the area.

Special equipment had to be invented to ditch the swamps of Southeast Missouri. Bulldozers were too heavy and not build to operate in the water such as covered the land. Drag lines needed a base to stand on and room to freely swing their booms. Largely to the efforts of Kochtitzky, a walking excavator was invented. After a water–course was started, the excavator was located in the ditch and excavated from there to extent the waterway and move downstream as the channel lengthen.

Kochtitzky, even after he retired in 1910, worked to support the drainage system as landowners in the district. He fought various legal battles to make the district a reality. That year, Kochtitzky and Warner with Otto Kochtitzky and John E. Warner as principals, established an independent consulting firm. They acquired dredging contract throughout Southeastern Missouri and Northeast Arkansas. At one time they had seven large dredging machines on projects. During World I, their business suffered when Kochtitzky turned most of his attention to managing his son’s business affairs and it never recovered. After a series of financial setbacks that included machine obsolescence and problems with contracts, the business dissolved.

The lower district or southern part of the Little River drainage system, some 750 square miles, or roughly 480,000 acres and drainage outlets for 960 square miles or about 614,000 acres were drained. To accomplish this, 849.6 miles of ditches with 241.6 miles of levees, and three water detention basins were dug.  It is estimated 31.5 million gallons of water travels through the system annually. Through a system in Arkansas not control by the district the water eventually flows into the Mississippi River at Helena, Arkansas. Some of the water had traveled 231 miles to reach the Mississippi River.

Drainage of the Little River Valley was accomplished from 1914 to 1928. Since 1931 these facilities have been under the oversight of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and maintained by them.

Before the swamp was drained, the only road out of Cape Girardeau heading south was the Bloomfield Road, which followed the ridges of Crowley's Ridge .If Little River Drainage District had never been built, Southeast Missouri as we know it would not exist.

Two things coincided with the start of the construction helped the projects’ success. Lumberman fought the building of a lock and dam in Keokuk Iowa, in 1913, stopping the floating log drives down the Missouri River. Timber companies then started looking south for hardwood forest.

Between 1909 and 1926, $11 million dollars was spent on the project. Cost to the state or the federal governments were nothing. The landowners taxed themselves to pay for the Little River Drainage District. The 2,300 landowners within the district pay an average of $2.50 per acre to maintain the system.

Constructed of the Panama Canal ended the following year, leaving large numbers of experienced men seeking work in the earth-moving business; many of them came to Southeast Missouri. This made it possible to complete the job as quickly as it did. Thousands of workers participated in the incredible difficult and dangerous work of clearing the swamps, by hand, of the trees and stumps.

Missouri turned control of this vast expanse of land to the counties during most of the last half of the 19th century and the counties were unable to find anyone willing to assume the burden of taxed on swamp land considered unless.

Within these dense swamp forests were millions of feet of marketable timber. Some of the oak trees circumferences reached 27 feet and some of the Cyprus trees circumferences reached 10 to 12 feet. In the late 1800’s, lumbermen recognized the value of the abundant timber and bought up most of the land. But after the land was drained and cleaned of its oak, hickory, gun, and cypress, the lumberman found that they and to pay taxes on unproductive land. Then the landowners, mainly railroads and lumbermen, but the number was growing as insurance company and speculators were attracted to the area made an effort to attract farmers started in earnest. This would be a chance to make revenue off selling land once considered useless.

     The Bridge Question in the Diversion Channel Area

During the 1910’s, Cape Girardeau adopted an unofficial motto . . .”You can’t there from here.” The Diversion Channel sarcastically became referred to as “The Big Ditch.”

An economic boom was having an economic boom thanks to the Little River Drainage District. However Cape Girardeau was missing this economic growth because of the lack of bridges. The Big Ditch was an obstacle just as formidable as the Mississippi River. But at least the river had ferries, which the drainage district would not allow because of the damage to the new levees.

Something as big and complex as the project untaken by the Little River Drainage District is impossible to build without opposition, lawsuits, and horrible political war. This project was no exception. Louis Houck saw a bright economic future for the swamp land of Southeast Missouri. His investments of time and money in building railroad throughout the region shows this.

Houck has some reservation about the project to drain the Bootheel, but in general, he agreed with Otto Kochtitzky’s vision of the economic advantage it would bring to the area. However, it did not take him long to see the negative impact its building would have on his economical situation. His family, owning extensive land in the development area which had taxing powers and powers of eminent domain he saw as a threat. In his view, the job was too big and would be a waste of money.

Louis Houck and family waged an impressive battle for year, but mostly unsuccessful, against the Little River Drainage District. He saw a conspiracy of greed between the drainage district, large lumber company like Himmelberger-Harrison and International Harvester, real estate speculators, outside investors along with their allies in county and state government.

The diversion channel, as Houck saw it, would flood Cape Girardeau. He claimed it was totally unfair for the landowners near Cape Girardeau to suffer while the landowners in the southern counties benefited. Houck happened to be a large landowner in the area proposed for the Diversion Channel. His point was valid as people in Allenville and Dutchtown have had recurring flooding problems


Houch challenged the authority and constitutionality of the drainage district with repeated lawsuits. He was, however, unable to beat them in courts of law. After becoming sick of dealing with his litigation, the district gave him over $100,000 to compensation for “alleged damages” to his land. They soon found out their hopes of this shutting his up did not work.

     Houck Opposes Bonds to Build Bridges

Because of an oversight, the law creating the Little River Drainage District had a loophole. One that had became a hotbed issue. The drainage district was not required to pay for bridges over the Diversion Channel. Houck jointed in the public outrage about this loophole with enthusiasm to sire protest because the county would be responsible to pay for such bridges.

In June 1914, work started on the Diversion Channel, shortly afterwards, the “bridge question” came to top. A new reality surfaced in some town that they would soon be cut off from the rest of the county unless bridges were constructed. Bridges no one wanted to pay for. When Cape Girardeau County sued the district in 1915 they were granted a temporary injunction prohibiting the district to cut through any public road unless they built a bridge. This injunction was soon lifted with the case eventually making it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Clearly uncomfortable with the way the law was structured, the court claimed a studied effort had been made to render the law ambiguous and vague. Houch saw this to prove his theory was true and argued about a conspiracy to favor a select few was duping the public. While unhappy about it the court felt they had no choice but to uphold the law in favor of the drainage district, Claim they only interpret the law not make it, therefore the remedy lies with the legislature.

In 1917, in an effort to fix the bridge problem a bill was introduced in the legislature; it failed to pass. Meanwhile, the Diversion Channel dig had reached Allenville. Here there were several roads, including the Cape Girardeau to Bloomfield Road, which was soon to be cut off. Still the county refused to pay for permanent bridges. Near Craig’s Gap the county located an old iron bridge they could relocate as a stop-gap at Allenville. This hand-me-down temporary bridge was a permanent fixture un6til it collapsed in 1977 under the weight of a tractor.

When the Diversion Channel reached the Mississippi River, several rickety temporary bridges had been constructed. One was built at Blomeyer on which is now Highway 25. Another at Rock Levee Road near today’s I-55. Being unreliable, every big rain washed these crossing out.

In Cape Girardeau a meeting to discuss a $200.000 bond being passed to pay for permanent bridges. Ex-Mayor Will Hirsch spoke at the meeting calling the present bridge situation ridiculous. Cape Girardeau was losing business to Cairo and other cities to the south were acquiring a lot of the trade that was coming to town before the drainage channels were cut through the lands south of the city.

           Newspaper War

The bond issue was vigorously opposed by Louis Houch. He though another effort should be made to get help for the legislature, as suggested by the Supreme Court, in making the Little River Drainage District pay for the bridges. An unsigned response was made in the Weekly Tribune newspaper attacking Houch, but his name was not mentioned. They ask if one man could undo what the whole legislature did, why has he not come forward and done it? They furthered suggest anyone opposing the bond issue was trying to kill Cape Girardeau.

After the bond issue failed by a large margin, Houck went on the offensive to use the ballot box to his advantage. His new plan was to run his son Giboney for the state legislature. He was a one issue candidate that of fixing the bridge question once and for all. He claimed those who benefit the most from the drainage work should bear the burden. Where bridges built over the Diversion Channel crossing public roads should be paid for by the Little River Corporation.

Louis Houck posted an ad in the Southeast Missourian, just before the election, attacking the drainage district. The bridge law in his view was an outrageous burden that should not have been placed on the people unjustly.

Giboney won the election by only 16 votes beating the incumbent Fritz Siemers. He was the only Democrat in Cape Girardeau County to win a seat in this voting.

The bridge on Rock Levee Road, the main road south of Cape Girardeau was out again before Christmas. During the winter of 1918-19 the road was out more often than it was open. Dennis Scivally, county engineer, wanted to build a steel bridge. At this time, it was not possible then because the drainage district was reconstructing the main Diversion Channel levee, moving it backward some 100 feet.

Losing the road south into Scott County was a huge setback for Cape Girardeau, especially the business community. Little River Drainage District became the target of displeasure and the focus point of their scorn. The newspaper Southeast Missourian joined the fray with a series of editorials having ingredients of intent focus on the evils of the Diversion Channel.

The newspaper claimed only the landowners supported the Little River Drainage District. The other citizens favored doing whatever of necessary to remove the burden of the drainage district. The cost of building bridges would drain the life out of Cape Girardeau for generations to come. A ringing endorsement was given Giboney Houck’s mission to pass a bill in the state legislature requiring the Little River Drainage District to pay for bridges across its own channels.

Weeks following, the St. Louis Times ran an editorial repeating the idea that Houck simply was carrying a grudge against the drainage district. Of course, this was challenged and done so in a front page counterattack in the Southeast Missourian. One of the largest shareholders in the St. Louis Times was Mr. Buder who also was a big landowner in the Bootheel.

Jack Blanton of Paris Missouri, respected as one of the great country editors of Missouri, took sides against “rich landowners” buying worthless land and reaping large profits by having outside land taxed to pay for bridges; his copy was reprinted in the Cape newspaper.

In the next issue of the Missourian was an angry story about the Bridge Bill being gone missing during a committee hearing. Rumors that it was stolen by the bills opponent excited the editors of the bill’s supports. However, the bill had been overlooked in a stack of papers

On April 7, a copy of the bulletin was printed in the Missourian. Next day the newspaper printed a rebuttal shifting the idea they the drainage lawyers; were the one using propaganda to mislead to deceive as to confuse the issue. Even suggested in a sarcastic statement; the “honorable gentlemen” working for the district would not write a bulletin which contained such gross inaccuracies.

Another diatribe followed in the next publication. Here they accused the drainage district of deception. According to the Missourian, the original bond issue had included money for bridges, however, the district decided to use that money for other things. In reality, the district had quiet paid for some bridges. Thus, the landowners were paying for bridges the district had no intentions of building. This, according to the editorial, was a matter of court records.

This editorial also claimed railroads were paid in cash by the district to build permanent bridges across the Diversion Channel. It is possible the drainage district believe it would be easier to pay off the railroads that risk a lawsuit against the Missouri Pacific, or Frisco empires. The Houcks and Cape Girardeau County, compared to the railroad were small bumps.

         Missouri Legislature

In the state legislature, Giboney Houck teamed up with D. A. J. Speer of Bollinger County. Bollinger County was facing the same problem with their roads being cut off at the southern end by the Big Ditch. Together, they endorsed legislation.

Back in Cape Girardeau, a rumor was making the rounds that the bridge question was simply a dispute between Houck and unnamed persons. Therefore, the state should stay out of the feud. On January 29, 1919, this rumor triggers an angry response for the Southeast Missourian calling it a lie without foundation; just an unscrupulous ploy trying to undermine the will of the people.

Giboney Houck reporter to the Missourian he was optimistic with the progress of the bill as it went from committee to the full house. In this, he proved to be naive. The Little River Drainage District with its allies was fighting with an all-out lobbying effort. In the District April issue of their quarterly bulletin, the bill was attacked along with the Southeast Missourian and the Houcks. An unknown writer accused the newspaper of carrying persistent and insistent propaganda\a of misstatements, misrepresentations and innuendo.

Giboney was right in believing his bill would pass the house it did, only to die in the senate. Co-sponsor Speer claimed he found out the power of money in the legislative system, along with the weakness of human nature and the lover of money. The Bridge Bill attracted more lobbyist than any other bill that session.

        The End of the Great Diversion Channel Bridge War

The Houck’s did not give up fighting the drainage district about financing bridges. However, it was to no avail. The Great Diversion Channel Bridge War was over.

Not depending on a favorable outcome of the legislative battle in the 1919 secession, Cape Girardeau County officials rejected a consideration of a proposal to build a low-cost suspension bridge at the Rock Levee Road crossing. Instead, a St. Louis company was hired to build a temporary bridge, costing $4.000 expected to last only eight to ten years.

In later years this bridge proved to be a bottle-neck to traffic. This location included not only the Diversion Channel Bridge, but the Rock Levee Road also had to cross a lateral ditch along with Ramsey Creek. The bridge across the lateral ditch deteriorated to where it had a 2-ton load limit and was frequently closed for repairs. During 1922, the bridge was blocked by two hours because of a 200 car road blockage. This roadblock was only one of many traffic stoppages at the Rock Levee Road Bridge.

The bridge building problem was solved late in the 1921 when the Missouri Legislature passed a day on gasoline. As money pilled in, Missouri went on an ambitious road building program. In 1925, the state highway department built a $150,000 bridge across the ditches on Route 9, later becoming U.S. Highway 61, south of Cape Girardeau.


On October 1, 1913, $4.75 million in bonds were issued at five and one-half percent interest to finance the district’s work. This first offering was the largest amount the drainage district issued. As the district had few offers for this issue, Mr. Himmelberger and Mr. Harty were appointed to negotiate the sale. This sell financed to construction of the Headwater and Ramsey Creed Diversion Channels and their 85 ditches.

World War I slowed the selling of an additional bonds issued on December 1, 1819. This million dollar bond issue carried an interest rate of five and one-half percent. Additional funding was required to finish the Headwater work.

On the first of October, 1920, it was necessary to issue another bond offering. To make possible the Sals Creek and Castor River improvement, an additional $600,000 was needed. This issue carried six percent interest.

Seven months later, April 1, 1921, a $750,000 bond issue, again at six, percent interest was necessary. This issue was to support the western extension.

In the middle of 1924, a revised plan was proposed. The Little River Drainage District plans were always changing and covering problems not foreseen in the original planning. The “Revised Plan for Drainage” was completed in 1928. In the Upper District, some of the original ditches and levees were enlarged. New channels and levees were constructed. An additional three retention basins were built. In October of 1924, $4 million at an interest rate of four percent were issued to finance the revised plan.

During the Depression of the 21930’s, trouble struck. The Little River Drainage District defaulted on a $8,018,000 payment. To the districts critics, this was a self fulfilled prophesy. They had said from the start the project was too large, too expensive and would be a large burden on the landowners. They knew the landowners would never recover the benefits estimation. Had it not been for the depression, the payment would not have been a problem.

Few district landowners were able to pay their drainage taxes after the depression hit. Faced with this dilemma, those of little revenue and a need for a lot of maintenance work, the Little River Drainage District desperate needed money. Thus, the district reduced the amount f unpaid back taxes, sometime as much as 20 percent, and canceled all penalties on back taxes in hopes the farmers would be able to pay the reduced sums.

However, these efforts did not help. Few legitimate farmers were able to hold on to even a part of their lands with titles to much of it went to county courts or was returned to the drainage district and to be absorbed by large insurance companies with enough backing to ride out hard times. The land reverted to per-drainage values of a few dollars per acre.

With a lot of help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a bondholder’s protective committee and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Little River Drainage District was refinanced on October1, 1937 by the corporation for $2,405,000 with interest rates between one and one-half and two and one-half percent.

In 1938, the Little River Drainage District officers met at Morehouse and burn all the old bonds.

By 1964, the district was able to retire all its bond indebtedness after the Reconstruction Finance Corporation discounted some of the bonds. Since this time, with a few exceptions, the district has operated within its budget each year.

Between 1907 and 1928, the Little River Drainage District spent $11.1 million reclaiming Southeast Missouri for the flood waters; contemporary cost in 2011 is $276,000,000.

With the expiration of its 50 year charter in December 1957, the Butler County Circuit Court extended it into perpetuity.

In efforts to equalize the drainage and overflow protection in all parts of the district, supplement to the original plan were approved of the years by the Board of Supervisors and the Butler County Circuit Court. Modifications were approved on May 12, 1947; February 15, 1952; October 11, 1954; and November 9, 1965. Approval was given for enlarging ditches, strengthening levees and protecting them from bank erosion.

Corps of Engineers Activities

Until 1931, after the overwhelming flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927, the Corps of Engineer did not work within the Little River Drainage District. As a result of the flood, the Mississippi River Tributaries Law authorized the Corps to maintain the Headwater Diversion Channel mainline levee. Because of the importance of maintaining that levee, the Corp was assigned to care for it. This levee protected a large area to the south which was an important part of the Corps system that drain a third of the interior of the United States.

Since that legislation and until 1989, the Corps of Engineers has spent more than $12 million within the District, enlarging and strengthening the levees and installing rip-rap and sod protecting the banks from erosion.

West basin control works, known locally as the Block Hole, was constructed to stop erosion of the diversion channel in the west basin which had washed out. This was an important structure in the overall flood control plan. Realizing its importance, the Corps repaired the damage. Ever since, it has operated successfully.
Floods and the Little River Drainage District

Headwater Diversion Channel

Louis Huck v. Little River Drainage District

Little River Drainage District Become Legal

Little River Drainage District Headwater Diversion Channel

Semo Port

Lower Little River Valley

The Bridge Question in the Diversion Channel Area

Houck opposes Bonds to Build Bridges

Newspaper War

Missouri Legislature

The End of the Great Diversion Channel Bridge War


Corps of Engineers Activities



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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


    January 2015
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    Little River's Geographic Past