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MISSOURI STATE ARCHIVES
Little River Drainage District

Introduction

Southeast Missouri’s “Bootheel” is a natural basin for Mississippi River flooding. For much of its history the land was an uninhabitable swamp. In the early twentieth century a system of ditches, levees and canals was constructed to drain the swampy land. It was the world’s largest drainage project, and by its completion had moved more earth than the construction of the Panama Canal. The Little River Drainage District was constructed between 1914 and 1928. It consists of 957.8 miles of ditches and 304.43 miles of levees. It covers 540,000 acres and drains a total of 1.2 million acres. The land that makes up the Little River Drainage District was granted to Missouri in the Swamp Land Act of 1850. In the late 19th century, the land was purchased by private lumber interests and cleared of its abundant timber. A new solution was sought to make better use of this uninhabitable and unproductive land. In 1907, a meeting in Cape Girardeau laid the groundwork for a massive drainage project. The construction was funded by a tax levied on land owners within the district. The headwater diversion channel system was built by electric and steam draglines and directs runoff in the northern portion of the district, while the main lower district- a system of levees and ditches built with floating dredge boats- provides local drainage and serves as a drainage outlet for the wider District. Since 1931, the headwater diversion channel mainline levee has been maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Collection

The Little River Drainage District Collection contains over 3000 images that document the construction of the Headwater Diversion Channel and levee in Southeast Missouri, the five parallel floodway ditches, and hundreds of miles of additional ditches. While the majority of prints record the construction, other subjects are found among the photographs. Floods and overflows, particularly the 1937 Mississippi River flood, are included. Agriculture and the changing landscape, development of the railway system, construction of numerous communities, Civilian Conservation Corps, and individuals important in the development of the District are also contained within the collection.

Rights and Reproductions

Copyright is in the public domain. Items reproduced for publication should carry the credit line: Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives. To order a reproduction from the archival TIFF file, inquire about permissions, or for information about prices, contact Missouri State Archives at: (573) 751-3280 or email archref@sos.mo.gov.

How to Use this Collection

This collection may be browsed in its entirety or it may be searched by title, description, date and subject.

Additional Resources

More information about the Little River Drainage District may be found at:

  • Southeast Missouri State University Special Collections and Archives:Little River Drainage District Records, Little River Drainage District Finding Aid
  • National Park Service Comprehensive Concept Map
  • Little River Drainage District
  • SEMO Port

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