The Little River Story

“The Little River” is an untold story of unimaginable scope. It is the story of a determined people reclaiming close to 1 million acres of swampland and charging headlong into the 20th century. With a wide cast of characters of national politicians, railroad tycoons, bankers, military engineers and timber companies to local politicians and businessmen, carpetbaggers, labor leaders, squatters, homesteaders and river traders, the story of the Little River Drainage Project is living American History.

Since the beginning of the continent, floodwaters from the Mississippi River and the Ozark foothills have carried sediment and silt through Southeast Missouri, which is a natural basin for Mississippi River flooding—making it an uninhabitable swamp. The Swamp Land Act of 1850 reverted federally owned swampland to states that agreed to drain the land for agricultural use. Missouri, in turn, granted the Southeast Swamp to the counties in which it was located. The counties found it difficult to title the land (considered worthless) until timber companies recognized the value. Once the timber companies removed the swamp’s prime lumber, all that remained were burdensome taxes on stump-ridden, swampy land.

Regional landowners at the turn of the century recognized that if they could drain and clear the land they would have farmland unequaled in fertility. However, the job seemed too big; not even the government had undertaken anything of this magnitude.

After 1904 and the start (and example) of the Panama Canal, plans for the Little River Drainage Project began, which were immediately opposed by the railroads—who opposed any additional taxation on their large land holdings. The legal fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme court, which ruled in favor of the Drainage Project. Plans for draining the swamp began in 1907 and were finalized by the end of 1909.

Work began in earnest in late 1913 … and through WWI, disease outbreaks, 24-hour work schedules, floods and equipment disasters, they worked straight through to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. While the country would enjoy two more years of prosperity before the onset of the Great Depression, Southeast Missouri, and the drainage project, had been devastated by the flood. They would require the help of the federal government.

In 1928 Congress approved the Flood Control Act of 1928, which gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers control over floodwater activities, and—most importantly—blanket immunity for damages caused by flood control. With the help of the federal government and the Corps, improvements to existing levees began, which, ultimately, ushered in Missouri’s agricultural windfall.

The Little River Drainage Project was constructed between 1913 and 1928 and now consists of 1000 miles of ditches, 300 miles of levees, covers 550,000 acres, and drains two million acres. It is maintained by the Little River Drainage District, based in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.