Levees and Flooding in Southeast Missouri

The first flood after the Levee District was organized occurred in May of 1893.As this was not a major flood and no levee work that had been done by the Levee Board, the Levee District was not overflowed.

Four years after the Levee District was organized, 1897, a great flood occurred. A continuous levee, 47 miles, between Point Pleasant to the Arkansas state line had been completed; three levee breaks occurred on this new levee. On March 18, at levee mile 30, at Caruthersville a 3,050 feet wide breach occurred. March 24, at the 44th levee mile, Lindale, a 1,280 foot breach, and the same day at the 46 mile marker, Midway, a 1,350 feet of levee washed away.  

The Flood of 1897 generated a lot of interest in flood control. Several ideas were examined. The idea of using cut-offs to shorten the river was brought up again. Most engineers believed the idea was not practical. They argued the disadvantages out weight what would be gained. The disadvantages would be a change in river slope, increased current, and decreased water levels, especial in low water periods. After all, navigation was the first concern of the nation, not flood control.

One on the many novel and unaccepted ides proposed in the Senate was the construction of seven or eight parallel levees, placed at right angles to the Mississippi River from the river bank all the way across the St. Francis Basin to Crowley's Ridge. While the idea was not unsound, was flood waters would be captured\temporarily between the levees to be released after the water receded.

The Subcommittee of the Committee on the Commerce of the U. S. Senate in their December of 1898 report endorsed the concept of levees to improve the rivers. Slowly over the years the Mississippi River Commission’s thinking had evolved into a levee only policy.

The National government made its first levee expenditure along the upper St. Francis District, 18 million dollars. Fragmented levees were joined and over the next several years and raised until the levee line reached 87 miles

After a swift and undemanding victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, confidence was restored in American with the county entered an Era of Good Feeling. Federal purse string loosened for internal improvement.

Experiments were resumed in the area of Plum Point in Arkansas and other areas, particularly Point Pleasant. These area were especially dangerous to river traffic as they were areas were towheads and sandbars formed changing the channel frequently. Dikes with abates type (barriers of sand, rock, ect.) were constructed to close off secondary channels. This was only partially successful.

In 1890, one of the engineers’ successes was at Cherokee Cross about 90 miles below Cairo near Little Prairie. Here a secondary chute was closed with complete success.

At Hickman, Kentucky, slightly north and east of New Madrid, levee breaches poured 14 feet of water in the town.

Before the 1912 flood damage repairs were completed the valley was hit by the Great Flood of 1913.

 The floods of 1912 and 1913 were costly. They left the levee district on the Mississippi River Valley financial done in. Urgent calls were made for federal financial aid to build a levee system. The 1912 Congress appropriated less money for River and Harbors than any time since the depression year of 1894. Memphis, the Mississippi River Levee Association was founded. Their purpose was to lobby for a federal flood control bill.

Lobbing efforts paid off with the Flood Control Act of 1917. Now, for every dollar provided locally, the national government would supply two. However, the United States entry into World War I during 1917 and 1918, interrupted federal funds. Thus, only $17 million of the promised $30 million was spent on flood control.

More federal money, $60 million spent over a ten year period, was promised in the Flood Control Act of 1923.This was to be spent on levee construction, not navigational improvements. When the levee reaches the height of 22 feet, the people of the Mississippi River Valley bottomlands felt secure behind their levee.

At this time three widely held beliefs concerning major floods on the Mississippi. First assumption was that unless the Ohio River Valley provided extensive water, there can be no major flood. Second, it was believe that all the major tributaries would produce floods at the same time. Third, that if such an event happened, it would be slow about coming down river giving the Lower Mississippi residents ample warming. All three misconceptions were proven wrong in 1927.

No one imagine anything like the 1927 flood which would prove to be the most destructive in the history of the bottomlands. It began in the fall and winter months of 1926. Heavy rains bombard the central United States, bloating the upper tributaries of the Mississippi River.

Between December 18, 1926 and April 30, 1927, rain falling on the Mississippi River drainage basin added up to a total of 144.4 cubic miles. To help understand this Number, compare it to the total movement of water going by the Gulf Stream through the Straits of Florida in 24 hours; 3.7 cubic miles less that the rain fall.

The flood came in three waves. By April enough rain had fallen over the 1,240,000 square miles the Mississippi and its tributaries drain in 32 states and two Canadian provinces, to cover the area in nearly one foot of water, if spread evenly throughout the area. Even after evaporation and absorption, more than 60 cubic miles of water had to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

 New Year’s day, 1927, the Mississippi River at Cairo reached flood stage. This was the earliest on record. By April 15, the entire Mississippi Valley from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico was at flood stage.

During the 1927 flood at Cairo the river was against the levee 88 days; New Madrid 108 days; Memphis 107 days; Helena 11 days, Yazoo City and Vicksburg 166 days; and at New Orleans 120 days. Each day the river was against the water saturated levees increases the danger of levee failure.  And the levee did fail.

The levee that protected Southeast Missouri, Eastern Arkansas, Northwestern Mississippi, and Northeast Louisiana was threatened by the Mississippi. On April 16, the River won, at Dorena, Missouri, 33 miles below Cairo, the levees broke. This was a small unincorporated community in southeastern Mississippi County, Missouri. The District Engineers had recognized a problem here.

The United States Coast Guard Steamer Kankakee was in the area to remove people from the endangered area. Floodwaters covered 135,000 acres of land in the St. John Levee and Drainage District, leaving 7,500 people homeless.

St. Johns Bayou Basin has a different development. Usually the drainage ditches carry headwater flooding from a region and surrounding upland successfully transmit excess surface run-off into the Mississippi River by way of St. Johns Bayou pass through simple gravity gates in the setback levee just east of New Madrid. However, to prevent backwater flooding from overwhelming the St. Johns Basin the gates must be closed when the water level of the Mississippi exceed that of the bayou.

With the flood gates manually closed, headwaters are no longer able to escape into the Mississippi. Thus, accumulated water behind the gates and along the drainage ditches threaten the bayou’s levee system. Then some 10,000 area are subject to 2-year floods while 55,000 acres are threatened to a 30 plus year floods. After a Corps study in 1968, no recommendation for changes were advised.

At this point, the levee was not very tall and people were in the process of enlargement at the time of the break. Before the high water a section of the levee had been removed for repair. Lose sandbags were piled in the low place. When the water got high at this place, water started seeping through. More sandbags were quickly added. Before long, in spite what 30 blacks filling sandbags could do, a stream of water broke through.

Water eat away a big gap formed into a crevasse and to levee was gone with a roar described as sounding like a tornado. 1,000 feet of levee went as if it was made of paper. After the original rupture the dirt wall crumbled into the water at the rate of one foot every fifteen minutes.

There was a small group of trees on the land side of the levee and the rushing water knocked them down as if they were no more than paper. The water carried everything in from of it. The roar of the water kept getting louder. It kept piling through the crevasse like some wild things that was escaping from a pen. Water was a solid wall as it rushed over the land a far as you could see. Buildings were engulfed under water as if they were not there. Chicken, pigs, and cows disappeared, lost forever. A 20 foot high, or higher, wall of water rushed across the land. Fifteen miles away at East Prairie the Cade School House was “beat” down by the rushing water.

Three days later the levee ridge was topped between New Madrid and Farrenburg.  Vast amounts of water rushed into the St. Francis River Basin. One million acres of Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas was flooded.

By April 20th water inside New Madrid was one-and-a –half foot higher than in the Mississippi River in front of the town. The Corp of Engineers sent workers with dynamite to the area. They blasted the levee at the southern end of St. John’s Bayou to allow the water to return to the river.

With the crevasse at Dorena, 300 additional levee guards were added to watch the Lower St. Francis levee along with an additional 25 engineers and inspectors. Near Deering, Pemiscot County, on Little River Drainage District’s Main Ditch Number 8’s levee was blown by unidentified persons. The crevasses’ roar was reported to have been heard over a half mile away. The gap decayed at a rate of four feet per hour.

On May 8, 1927, at the height of the “Flood” earth tremors along the New Madrid Fault was felt over a 250 mile radius. It topped chimneys and shook pictures off the walls. Two days later, a tornado traveled roughly along the St. Francis River.

Health problem accompanied the high water. Drinking water had to be boiled before use. Pellagra became a problem. Red Cross workers gave immunization against infectious diseases.

The magnitude of the flood and resulting disaster of 1927 brought home to the nation at last the realization the problems of the Mississippi River were national problems. To was not a problem solely restricted to a local region as the Mississippi River received waters from at least two-thirds of the states composing the Nation at the time. Herbert Hoover, in charge of relief during the crisis, called for prompt and effective flood control legislation and levee repair whether or not under federal jurisdiction.

The Mississippi River Commission before the 1927 Flood had a policy of levees only policy for flood control. After wards, they were forced to re-examine this thinking. As levees could only be constructed to a certain height before their usefulness became questionable, they were not adequate.

Thus, a levee only policy was abandoned with the enactment of the Flood control Act of May 25, `1928. This act not only enlarged the levees but also included the structure of floodways and spillway. The law authorized large-scale revetments (protection of the banks with willow mats or concrete pads), along with dredging and training works that confine the river to a fixed channel.  

The 1928 act was a variation of the Jadwin Plan General Jadwin had lobbied for this plan for years. He had belittled the levees only plan for years. To him, building levees big and high enough to control another 1927 flood was too costly. He wanted to enforce the existing levees and supplement their protection with floodways and spillways.

President Coolidge had submitted the Jadwin Plan on December 8, 1927 with the recommendation that local interest should provide at least 20 percent of the funding.  While the nation, he believed, should pay for flood protection along the Mississippi even if only a small part of the nation received any benefit.

Senator Hawes of Missouri characterized the plan as the engineers’ efforts to gain power while lessening civilian control of the flood control program. He claimed that the Engineers were endeavoring control a very serious national problem without entirely presenting the river situation in its true light. He was totally against the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. Here, a setback levee parallels the mainline levee from Birds Point to New Madrid with a 1,500 foot levee gap that would be blown to protect Cairo if determined necessary. This plan, he declared, would destroy Southeast Missouri and is unacceptable to the people of the state.

Senator Hawes, after condemning the Jadwin Plan presented his own. He flood control bill called for expending one billion dollars with one-hundred million being spent annually. Senators from Arkansas and Tennessee jointed in denouncing the plan. The Senate passed the bill by a vote o 70-0 on March28, 1928 under the name of the Jones Bill.

President Coolidge called the bill the most vicious piece of pork barrel legislation ever devised by Congress and threaten to vote it if chances were not made. In the House, Representative Strong of Kansas led the opposition. He called the Jones-Reid Bill corrupt and declared “a dozen Teapot domes” were wrapped up in the bill.” April 24, 1928 ignoring a threat by the President, the House voted 254 to 90 passed the bill. A fore night later, a joint committee presented the bill to Coolidge, who signed it the next day. 

The Flood Control Act of 1928 provided for a three-member commission, including the Chief of Engineers, president of the Mississippi River Commission and a civil engineer appointed by the President. The commission was to decide the method of flood control with no local contribution required by law. Maintain of all flood control works, after completion would be done by states or levee districts. Land for spillways would be owned by the federal government.

The plan from Cape Girardeau to the mouth of the Arkansas River required raising the levees from zero to two feet at Birds Point. The floodway from Birds Point to New Madrid would be five miles wide with a capacity of carrying about 450,000 cubic feet per second to protect Cairo. Fuse plug levees were to be constructed at each end to an elevation about five feet below grade of the setback levee.

Unlike the 1927 flood which struck the land suddenly and violently, the 1930-31 droughts was quiet and slow without commotion. Starting in the Midwest and Upper South during the spring of 1930, between March and May, spring rainfall was the lowest on record in Missouri.

Because the drought destroyed crops of a large area, by late summer, it became a national agricultural crisis. In August, President Herbert Hoover, who had directed the flood relief effort in 1927, called a conference of governors from the stricken area. A federal drought relief committee, stated committee, and even local were formed to deal with the problem. In many area, little food and forage was left to support the people in the crisis areas. Hoover opposed federal “doles” to drought victims.

While the federal committee called for federal and stated loans to provide crop seed for the drought-stricken farmers, but did nothing to fill the need for food and forage. Cotton crops were not the only thing affected. Cornfields, gardens, meadows, and pastures dried up and died.

President Hoover handed the problem over to the American Red Cross. With five million dollars in the Red Cross disaster fund, Chairman John Payne was reluctant to provide direct relief to drought victims. This was the same pattern followed during their relief during the 1927 flood giving money and food to the large landowners, however, little of that aid trickled down. His preference was self-help projects such as fall gardens and sowing winter pastures in the drought areas.

As directed by the Red Cross, local chapters distributed packages of garden and pasture seed. As you would think, few of the vegetables the victims planted survived the heat and lack of water. The only vegetables to survive were greens and turnips, which were called “Hoover apples.”

In some of the communities, the planters, they often controlled local Red Cross chapters, feared the seed package and Red Cross rations would discourage their tenants from picking the surviving cotton for reduced wages. They wanted then hungry and desperate. Without the garden crops the croppers would have no choice but to work for less wages, even if weak and hungry.

After the cotton was in, the planters admitted drought relief was needed. Poor grade cotton, short production, and falling prices all together made the 1930 cotton crop worth only a fraction of earlier crops.

In the cotton economy, including Southeast Missouri, farm credit kept the system alive. The fragile plantation credit system, because of the poor cotton crop of 1930, met disaster. Normally, planters borrowed money from bankers to finance their upcoming crop. From these loans planters “advanced” money and supplies to their tenant live off of and plant and raise their crops. After crops were in, the tenant would repay the landowner, who repaid his loan to the bank. With the crop failure of 1930, the cycle was broke as the tenant was unable to repay his loan, so planters defaulted to the banks. Even before this crisis, many of the banks were barley solvent; therefore, many banks closed their doors in late 1930.

With the drought famine growing more acute congressmen from the crisis area called for massive federal aid to help the victims. However, when Congress introduced a bill to provide $60 million in federal loans to drought-stricken farmers, the Hoover administration’s budget director proposed on $25 million for loans. A compromised was reach in December of 1930 for a $45 million farm loan bill. There were no provision for food in the bill; the money was to only be used crop seed and stock feed.  The problem of feeding the farm families was left to the Red Cross.

Although Payne’s lack of enthusiasm to provide direct relief to drought victims, by November of 1930 it became obvious that thousands in the coming winter would be dependent on the Red Cross for help. Local Red Cross chapters begin in December giving out food, clothe, and fodder on a “basis of need.” However, they did no simply hand out tons of supplies directly to drought victims. The organization set up a strict bureaucratic procedure. Locally the Red Cross set up relief committees to oversee the relief aid distributed. Committees sent investigators out into the countryside to scrutinize needy families. After questionnaires were filled out the forms were returned to the relief committees who then issued relief orders. Local merchant were distributes of food, clothing, and even fodder. Then the merchant would then bill the Red Cross for reimbursement. Frequently, bureaucratic incompetence delayed Red Cross aid to victims of the 1930 drought.

Southeast Missouri had been baked for months without rain. New Madrid County wad not had rain for 90 days during the growing period in 1930. The area had been dried into complete poverty. Drought and the depression caused dozens of bands to fail. These bank failures were followed by a wage of farm foreclosures

Many renters and farmers lost their tools, mules and land to foreclosure and to be auctioned at the courthouse steps. Yet, it was the poor share croppers that suffered even greater privation. Desperate croppers felt forced to steal corn from farmers’ cribs. They parched these corn kernels in skillets seasoned with a little lard and salt. These desperate croppers were saved from starvation only by Red Cross relief. More than 22,000 Missouri farm families, during the drought, received relief aid.

      In 1937, the Corps of Engineers won its first major battle against the Mississippi. Making no claims of taming the river, they could, with satisfaction, knowing that at least in this, some considered the flood of the century.                                                                                                                              

      During the 1927 flood the discharge was about 1,800,000 cubic feet of water per second at Memphis. From New Madrid into Arkansas, the river carried approximately this volume of water. Ten years later, with the Jadwin Plan in effect, the levee carried 2,250,000 cubic feet of water per second. This was 450,000 cubic feet of water per second without a break along the main line Mississippi River levee from Cairo to the Gulf of Mexico.

January 16, 1937, residents of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway received warning they the floodway might have to be opened on short notice. Auto, trucks, and wagon with farmers driving their livestock before they were making their way out of the floodway the next day while all the time they were telling the engineers they would not tolerate them flooding the land. Engineers operating the floodway were to use it then the river water at Cairo reached 37 feet. A prediction by the Weather Bureau had set the crest at 55.5 inches.

As high water offers a serious threat to the Bootheel levees during the spring of 1937, volunteer emergency workers rushed to Charleston to close a break in the live. Joining them were hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration workers.

On January 18th a private levee in Tennessee was breach flooding a 25 mile long and four miles wide area giving the system some relief. By the end of February, the worst of the threat of flooding was over and the residents of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway were able to return home. They returned with no assurance they would not be forced to move again. Most of the flooding was from back water. Damage from this food was $6.6 million. The flood control project prevented an estimated $19 million in damage.

On the St. Francis River, in 1937, however, six different breaks occurred. On January 19, crevassing flooded about 50,000 acres near Kennett.

  Engineers were assisting local flood fighters from Kennett to Paragould during 1945. The substandard levees could not hold and three crevasses occurred causing minor flooding in 1945.

In 1950, the levees along Little River were declared 100 percent complete

In 1964, a review report reviews the New Madrid area for flood control and drainage problems in the area’s tributary, St. John’s Bayou Drainage Structure. After the situation near New Madrid underwent an exhaustive study, the Memphis District Corps of Engineers recommended no flood control or drainage improvements were to be made at that time. However, it was recommended an enlargement and clean out of the Verney River and various other bayous and ditches.

In the Flood Control Act of 1965, a recommendation was made for a modification of the Bird’s Point-New Madrid Floodway. In an effort to provide a higher degree of protection for lands inside the floodway the front line levee be modified to a grade 62.5 feet on the Cairo Gage. The fuse plug area was to have a grade of 60 feet. The floodway was then to be used when the water stage reached 58 feet on the Cairo Gage and a stage higher than 60 feet was forecast.

Three dredges were used on the Mississippi to maintain a nine foot navigation channel in 1971; they were the Burgess, the Ockerson and the Potter.  Maintain this nine foot channel was frustrating at times. In a matter of hours the River could dump hundreds of tons of silt into a troublesome stretch.

Near Caruthersville, high water moved a sandbar downstream so fast that a fairly deep channel lost 16 feet of depth in 24 hours. Before a new channel could be dredged through the bar, a dozen tows run aground, including four in just one day.

On March 19, 1973, the Corps of Engineers were assembling at Kaskaskia Island north of Cairo. They met here to evacuate the island’s 300 residences, by force if necessary. At Cairo, there was talk of flooding the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. The highway between Dutch Town and Blomeyer, while not yet closed, was under six to eight inches of water and the bottomland of Cairo there was some residential flooding.

The flood gates at Cairo, Hickman, and Caruthersville were being ordered to be closed as the river at those locations were at flood state. Cairo was critical to any decisions made and determined whether the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway would be opened. Cairo is located on a point of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The water stages recorded on the Cairo gave reveals the condition of both of the rivers.

The Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway was designed to be placed in operation when a 58 feet water stage was posted at Cairo. A forecast of 60 feet had been posted. April 23, 1973, saw the gage at Cairo at 54.3 and the predicted cress state was continually being enlarged.

Engineers ordered the upper fuse plug section of the levee be raised to an elevation equivalent to 60 feet at Cairo. A review of the 1937 flood prompted this action. During the 1937 flood, the river crest rose three feet in a two day period. While the 1967 prediction has yet included a rise to 60 feet, additional rains could push to river over 58 foot stage to prematurely place the floodway into operation.

Phase II emergency operation were put in place; the levee was to be raised approximately. Bulldozers and other heavy equipment were assembled. Portable light were assembled for the U. S. Air force Base in Blytheville, Arkansas, and the Navy installation at Millington, Tennessee. These were needed as plans were to work around the clock.

On the afternoon of March 23rd the emergency started. The plan was to move approximately 35,000 cubic yards of dirt from the land side of the levee to pile and shape it on top of the levee. As the land was went from the continued rains the heavy equipment was having problems operating. When the dirt was pushed to the top of the levee, the heavy equipment was working only inches for the water which was them within 15 inches for the top.

Within 36 hours, the contractors and District personnel completed raised 11 miles of levee some two feet. Thus the operation prevented major flood in the 130,000 acre floodway, saving $31,285,000 damage within the floodway.



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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


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    Little River's Geographic Past