Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The Largest Drainage District in the World

by Martha Hutchens

This is not a river!
Diversion Channel, part of the Little River Drainage District, photo by Martha Hutchens

Can anyone name an excavation project that moved more ground than the Panama Canal?

The Suez Canal? Well, you’d be right, but I’m looking for something a bit more obscure.

You see, I grew up in Southeast Missouri, an agricultural powerhouse. Both my grandfathers and my father farmed there. My brother farms there even now. But my great-grandparents didn’t even live there, and there’s a reason.

No one lived there, or at least very few. The land was a swamp, and was in fact nicknamed “swampeast Missouri”—a nickname we still claim. But that was to change in the 1920’s.

The story begins with a federal law entitled The Swamp Land Act of 1850. This act allowed the federal government to transfer the title of swamp land that they owned to the individual states. The states agreed to make the land they received productive.
photo from deposit photos
Missouri received the title to thousands of acres in the southeast corner of the state—an area residents refer to as “the Bootheel,” for reasons that are obvious once you look at a map. The state then transferred that title to the counties that contained the swamps. There the idea of productivity languished, because the swamps were so large.
photo by Martha Hutchens
Eventually, lumber companies realized the value of the timber in those swamps, which had oaks with a circumference a large as 27 feet! But once the readily-accessible trees had been harvested, these companies owned land that brought them no profit. Even worse, they paid taxes on that land. As a final insult, the transfer of this land from the federal government was predicated on the land being made productive.

Notice the horses in the bottom left corner.
Courtesy of the Missouri State Archive
This brings us to 1905, when a group of businessmen got together to establish a tax-funded drainage district which would attempt the world’s largest drainage project. Missouri had paved the way for this group in 1899 by allowing tax assessment to fund such drainage districts, but not all businessmen in the area were happy with the plan.

The largest land owners in the area at the time were several railroads, and they would have paid the majority of the taxes to drain the land. They challenged the constitutionality of the Missouri law that allowed this district. In The Little River Drainage District v. Louis Houck, the Supreme Court upheld the law. 

Work began in 1913. While taxation paid for a lot of the project, bonds were also issued.

photo by Martha Hutchens

As I mentioned, I grew up in Southeast Missouri. The land is flat. As far as you can see, there is no difference in elevation, other than a few places where the land subsided during the great earthquakes of 1811-1812. While this is true to the human eye, the surveyor’s tools reveal that there is a slope—of one foot per mile! This insignificant fall in elevation made the drainage system possible.

Houseboat in a ditch
Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

The project took about 20 years. Workers lived on houseboats, endured mud and mosquitoes, and ran steam-powered dredges. The great Mississippi flood of 1927 nearly doomed the project, but the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in when it was tasked with flood control along the entire Mississippi.
Repairing a ditch in 2022, photo by Martha Hutchens
The district still operates today, maintaining the ditches and levees on an operating budget of around a million dollars per year. This budget is met by a tax on the land that the district drains.

A project this size demands a few numbers.
Bridge over one of the ditches, notice the man on the bridge
Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives
66 million cubic yards of material was moved in the formation of the district.

The district contains 1000 miles of ditches and 300 miles of levees (in an area that is slightly less than 80 miles north to south and significantly less east to west.)

The district covers 550,000 acres, but drains a total of 2 million acres.

Bales of Cotton, image by Robbie Burnett

Each of the seven counties in southeast Missouri produces over 10 million bushels of corn, 150,000 bales of cotton, 4 million bushels of soybeans, and 500,000 bushels of wheat. Four of the counties also grow rice, producing up to 5 million hundredweight per county.

The seven counties of the bootheel make up 6% of the area of Missouri, but provide a third of Missouri’s agricultural products.

My grandparents moved to southeast Missouri from Arkansas. They visited before they moved. When my grandfather asked my grandmother what she thought, she said, “Here, they leave more in the fields after the harvest than we put in the barn.” They farmed in southeast Missouri the next year.
Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website, www.marthahutchens.com

After saving for years, Dot Finley's brother finally paid a down payment for his own land—only to be drafted into World War II. Now it is up to her to ensure that he doesn't lose his dream while fighting for everyone else's. No one is likely to help a sharecropper's family.

Nate Armstrong has all the land he can manage, especially if he wants any time to spend with his four-year-old daughter. Still, he can't stand by and watch the Finley family lose their dream. Especially after he learns that the banker's nephew has arranged to have their loan called.

Necessity forces them to work together. Can love grow along with crops?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your post today. It's hard to imagine the scale of that drainage system. But obviously with the amount of crops you detailed it's worthwhile!