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.
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
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County: Cape Girardeau County