The Little River Drainage

Before a series of large levees were constructed by the federal government to harness the Mississippi River, its flood waters regularly spilled across much of southeast Missouri. The Missouri Bootheel once was a natural basin to catch all of this water, a swamp unsuitable for any kind of habitation.

Soon after the beginning of the 20th century a group of visionaries saw the potential benefits of converting the swamps into an area that would be suitable for habitation. They knew if they drained the swamp the soil beneath the water would be some of the richest soil in the nation for farming.

There had been talk around 1900 about draining the land. Finally, in January 1905 a meeting was called in Cape Giradeau, Missouri to discuss how the project could be completed. At this meeting the ground work was laid for undertaking what soon would become the largest drainage project in the United States. The Little River Drainage District was created. A plan for construction of an elaborate network of drainage ditches, canals, and levees was devised and eventually carried out.

Drainage of the region opened up land for settlements and agricultural and industrial use. Before the land was drained, less than 10% of it was clear of water; now, approximately 96% is clear and water free year around.

District Features:

Today, the district overseas and maintains numerous drainage facilities which help make Southeast Missouri swamp free and clear of unwanted water. The district is responsible for operation of 957.8 miles of ditches and 304.43 miles of levees. The Little River Drainage District is the largest drainage facility in the United States. It serves an area 90 miles in length and varying from 10 to 20 miles in width. Its boundaries stretch from Cape Girardeau to the Missouri - Arkansas state line. The district is made up of 540,000 acres. However, the district keeps 1.2 million acres of land drained of unwanted water.

The district serves parts of seven Missouri counties: Bolinger, Cape Girardeau, Dunklin, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Scott, and Stoddard. All of its funding comes from property owners within the district who are assessed annually on the basis of benefits received.

The district is made up of two parts: a head water diversion system at the north end and the main lower district runoff of approximately 1,130 square miles of hill land. The headwaters diversion system consists of 50.25 miles of channels, 44.73 miles of levees, and three water detention basins.

The lower district to the south provides local drainage for an area about 750 square miles or about 480,000 acres, and furnishes, in addition, a drainage outlet for 960 square miles or about 614,000 acres. In total, the lower district provides drainage for 1,710 square miles or 1,094,400 acres.

In the lower district to the south there are 849.6 miles of ditches, 241.6 miles of levees, and three water detention basins. The longest ditch in the district is Ditch Number 1, which is approximately 100 miles in length and runs from the north end of the district to the Missouri - Arkansas state-line border. Also in the main district there are five ditches running parallel, which requires over one - quarter of a mile wide right of the way.

Early Construction

The drainage project itself is, indeed, remarkable. In 1976, the district was recognized at a Bicentennial Commemoration gathering of the Missouri Society of Professional Engineers. The Society described the drainage project as "a major engineering accomplishment" and gave special mention to a drainage district founding supervisor and engineer, Sterling Price Reynolds, who died in 1968 at the age of 106, having dedicating half of his life to the district.

The history of The Little River Drainage District, which drains Southeast Missouri, is unique. The drainage work was long and tedious and required the expertise of some of the best engineering minds in the nation. When it was finished, more than one million cubic yards of earth had been displaced; this was a greater mass of soil than in the construction of the Panama Canal. Although setbacks were encountered, in the end, The Little River Drainage Facility proved to be a sound, public corporation which stood the test of time.

The drainage was accomplished from 1914 to 1928 through construction of 957.8 miles of ditches and 304.43 miles of levees. Since 1931 the same facilities have been operated and maintained with assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Swamp Land Act of 1850

The land that lay within the District was granted to Missouri under the Swamp Land Act of September 28, 1850. In turn, Missouri conveyed the land to the counties in which the land lay in. The land remained vested in the counties for most of the last half of the 19th century because the counties were unable to find anyone willing to assume the burden of taxes on swamp land considered unless.

The swamp's dense forests contained millions of feet of marketable timber. Some of the oak trees circumferences reached 27 feet and some of the Cyprus trees circumferences reached 10 to 12 feet. In the late 1800's, lumbermen recognized the value of abundant timber and bought up most of the land. But after the land was cleaned of its oak, hickory, gum, and cypress, the lumbermen found that they had to pay taxes on unproductive land.


You may wonder what this has to do with Gideon. If it were not for the Little River Drainage Project, Gideon and the rest of the bootheel would still be underwater.

Also the main reason this town was started was because of the large quantity of trees. The trees were cut and used in the Gideon Anderson Lumber Company. When the company cleared the whole area of timber to make money, they also made the land more habitable. But without the Little River Drainage District Gideon would not be a town.


Information from The Little River Drainage District Booklet
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