Drainage Reclamation

1909 - 1940

This picture is reminiscent of the large dragline excavators used by engineers to create hundreds of miles of drainage ditches and canals in the Southeast Missouri Bootheel region. The project, known as the Little River Drainage District (LRDD), was one of the most significant land transformation projects ever undertaken, encompassing over 500 thousand acres. After years of planning, construction on the initial phase began in 1914 and was completed in 1928. Today the system includes over 900 miles of ditches and 300 miles of levees that drain over 1.2 million acres of swampland and transports more than 31.5 million gallons of water to the Mississippi River annually.

The LRDD project drastically changed the Bootheel region. Before the Civil War, the area was primarily a densely vegetated swamp created from the overflow from surrounding rivers. Most trees had been removed by the twentieth century, revealing some of the most fertile lands in Missouri and the country. Eager to use the land, entrepreneurs attempted small drainage projects. However, it was not until the Missouri legislature established drainage districts that encompassed multiple counties and had power of eminent domain that real progress happened. Once the engineers completed the planning, contractors worked for more than a decade to complete the system, using massive dredges and tractors like those pictured here. 

Although the project created fertile crop lands, there were environmental costs. The canals and levees built to control the water changed the rivers and aggravated flooding problems while preventing regular restorative silt deposits. Altering the environment and reducing wetlands diminished essential habitats for many birds, fish, and animals. Nonetheless, today, the reclaimed area produces almost a third of Missouri’s economic output, including corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, vegetables, rice, cotton, grain, peaches, watermelons, and other fruits.

Object Details

Categories: Health, Science & Technology

Creator: Little River Drainage District Corporation (Cape Girardeau, Mo.)

Date: 1909 - 1940

Subject: Ditches; Earthmoving machinery; Spoil Banks

Collection Name: Little River Drainage District Collection

Contributing Institution: Missouri State Archives

Accession Number: LRDD 2412

Copy Request: 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 [email protected]

Rights: Copyright is in the public domain. Items reproduced for publication should carry the credit line: Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives.

County: Cape Girardeau County

Region: Southeast

Type: Photograph

Language: English

Latitude: 38.583301

Longitude: -92.177898