Shortly after the start of the twentieth century a group of businessmen  came together for the determined purpose of draining Southeast Missouri. This job proved to be the largest engineering and drainage job ever completed at the time. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama  Channel The job started in 1909 and was completed in 1926. The cost of $11 million.  In today money, according to the web site Measuring Worth the labor value, using unskilled labor would be $485,000,000.00 with the real value set at $275,000,000.

One half a million acres of timber covered swamp was converted into rich farm land. Not only some of the riches in the state, but some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world.

Thad Snow, a Charleston planter, dubbed it "Swamp-East" Missouri. Others referred to it as the Big Swamp, the Great Swamp, or the Dark Cypress. It was a flood plain covering the ares of Southeast Missouri south of the Benton Hills and almost uninhabited by people. Wildlife was abundant in the area, including deer, bears, squirrels, and reptiles. This, the largest wetlands in the interior America, was also infected by swarms of mosquitoes.

The project did not meet universal approval. Railroads such as the Frisco, Cotton Belt and the St. Lou8is, Iron Mountain and Southern had built lines into the forest to haul out the timber and did not want to pay for its construction with the timber gone and seeing no freight to replace it. Louis Houck, railroad builder from Cape Girardeau, opposed it all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Many more years were required before the land was cleared and became productive. Surviving the depression, where the Little River Drainage District almost went bankrupt, the area recovered into a booming agriculture area. Today, there is little sign that 98 percent of the land was unproductive because it was covered by water.


The critical evaluation of draining Southeast Missouri has been done in this blog very efficiently. It narrates the advantages this mission provided to the engineers and drainers. It was not approved universally due to some unfavourable conditions arising from this project. It was good from the agricultural point of view.


Thank you for giving us a bit of a background of Little River Drainage District. I didn't know it was about to go bankrupt during its early days. I am glad to see how successful it is right now. It's true that you'll undergo a lot of things before you achieve success. This story is a proof of that. So do not complain if you are on the darkest moment of your life! Instead, find a way to stand up.

08/26/2016 3:17am

Well drainage nowadays has been neglected and even Government officials and people never realize how important it is to humanity and balance ecosystem. We should all be proactive and be aware on how to take part on its preservation. We must educate the youth and especially our own children of being responsible citizens.


Now this is one of the biggest river in the world. The real value is so huge.

03/09/2017 8:34pm

This is very relevant on importance of effective drainage system. Engineers and various industries investing on proper and effective drainage system must also think the value of Agriculture land. Government officials play vital roles on preserving Agricultural land and effective planning on providing drainage with irrigation at the same time. This will be a great job to be done when doing it with great planning and evaluation with a lot of critical things to consider. We all hope that this little River Drainage be built successfully without fear of destructing Agricultural areas of the land.

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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