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Legacy of Little RiverPosted Wednesday, October 17, 2012, at 9:53 PM
It was easy to see that this swamp water was covering some of the richest soil in our nation, and early in the 20th century a group of visionaries began making plans to divert this floodwater directly into the Mississippi river.
The Little River Drainage District was formed in 1907. In the process of creating the Diversion Channel, dredging the lateral ditches, and building levees, this project became the largest drainage system in the world, moving more dirt than was moved in digging the Panama Canal. The system provides drainage for over a million acres of good fertile soil.
Construction of the headwater diversion channel was started in 1914. The channel extends from the foothills of the Ozarks in south Bollinger County, through Cape Girardeau County, and into Scott County, emptying into the Mississippi River. This diversion channel does just what its name implies, as it diverts the water from Castor River and other smaller streams directly into the Mississippi river, a distance of about 40 miles.
I was born and grew up on a 50-acre farm just one-half mile from the head of this diversion channel. I now own the land joining the point where the Castor River was diverted into the channel, and I am probably the only living person to have witnessed the final cut that let the water from Castor River flow down the Diversion Channel.
I have searched every source I can think of, and have not been able to establish the exact date that this cut was made. I did, however, find records stating that "Construction of the Headwater Diversion Channel began in 1914 and was completed in 1920." If this 1920 is the date of the final cut, then I would have been 6 years old when my father hitched old Nellie and Dan to our farm wagon and took our whole family to see them turn Castor River down the Diversion Channel.
Today, I let my mind wander back to the time before Little River and remember the way it was back then. Our little four room house was sitting on a knoll about forty yards from the bank of Cato Slough, which was the first natural outlet for the flood waters of Castor River, and I remember having waded water up to my knees in our front yard, as Castor River came rolling out of the Ozark hills and spread out over the flat land.
These floods could occur at any time of the year; however, they were more prevalent during the winter and early spring, so we didn't dare start planting our crops before the first of June, and even then there were times that all of the crops that survived the floodwater were small patches on knolls or high ridges in the field.
Here we are, nearly one hundred years later, and I wonder if, we the people of Southeast Missouri realize that the engineering skill of the Little River Drainage District, in draining "Swamp East Missouri" was responsible for the greatest transformation of landscape to ever occur in the United States. Are we aware of the fact that the seven-county area south of the Diversion Channel was once the largest segment of Wet Land in the State of Missouri, whereas today, thanks to Little River, this area is the richest farming area in the state, producing one-third of Missouri's agricultural wealth.
Photo is taken from the History of the Little River Drainage District of Southeast Missouri.
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Paul Corbin is a 100-year-old historian, humorist, and amateur archaeologist from Advance, Mo. He grew up in the Greenbrier area west of Advance, where he attended Stepp School on the banks of Cato Slough and the Castor River, important waterways throughout his life. In an age when many area residents did not go to high school, the young Corbin made the decision to walk the five miles to Zalma, graduating in 1933. Throughout his life, he was an enterprising businessman, selling Watkins products from house to house throughout a large area - and later opening a variety store in Advance. He and his wife Geneva traveled throughout the United States, even following the route that the Lewis and Clark expedition traveled. His knowledge of Native American culture is extensive, and he has donated a sizeable collection of his artifacts to the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center and the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History in Marble Hill. Throughout the years, he has submitted articles to TBY, the North Stoddard Countian, the Ozark Mountaineer, and several other Missouri publications. He has also written two books - "Reflections in Missouri Mud," and "Fragments of my Feeble Mind." The first one is out of print.
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