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When was the Little River Drainage District formed and where is the Little River?

The Little River Drainage District is the largest drainage district in the United States. It was formed in 1907 by private landowners who sought to drain the Missouri "glades," the largest wetland in the nation, consisting of approximately two million acres of swampland and forest. Today the nearly 1000 miles of ditches collects the water from seven counties, and 1.2 million acres and moves it into the Mississippi River near Helena, Arkansas. before the land was drained only ten percent of the area was suitable for agriculture and residency. Currently, 96 percent is clear and water-free year round. The ditches and levees were constructed in approximately fifty years, the largest land transformation in the world.

According to "Almost Yesterday,"

It seems like Almost Yesterday that a contract was issued for the construction of the headwaters of the Little River Drainage District. The date was November 27, 1912. The contract was awarded to the D.C. Stephens Company of Buffalo, New York, with work on the project expected to begin in the summer of 1913.

This specific contract called for the creation of a drainage river thirty miles long from near Allenville on the west to the Mississippi River on the east. The new channel would be approximately one-hundred feet wide and twenty feet deep.

It was this water from the north and west that had for generations regularly renewed the great wetland regions of Southeast Missouri, giving rise to the area’s identification as “Swampeast Missouri,” or the Missouri “Glades.” The area was sometimes dry, but often wet. The giant wetland was one of the most distinctive features of 19th century Missouri.

The commissioners of the Little River Drainage District announced that this single contract called for the Stephens Company to be paid $1.25 million for clearing 4,000 acres of timber, building approximately forty miles of levees on the south side of the headwater, and moving eight-and-one-half million yards of soil…making this the largest single contract for earth movement in world history.

The vision of the Little River commissioners was that the east-west channel across the top of the system, and a series of smaller parallel ditches running north and south to the Arkansas border, would drain the great Missouri wetlands. The result was the greatest man-made transformation of the landscape in world history.

Center for Regional History
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Last modified   07/18/2009

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