1913 to 1921

The Work Begins

New Chief Engineer: William Arthur “Billy” O’Brien

At the start of construction in 1913, the Chief Engineer of The Little River Drainage District was William Arthur “Billy” O’Brien who was hired following Kochtitizky’s resignation in 1910. O’Brien would have a lasting impact on the character of the office of chief engineer for the District.

Chief Engineer O’Brien in 1915 at contractor’s camp

The final plan was to build two separate drainage systems. The “Northern District” would consist of a channel that would divert the flows of the Castor River, Whitewater Creek, Crooked Creek, Ramsey Creek, and Sals Creek east into the Mississippi River just below Cape Girardeau. The “Southern District” would include 85 ditches and 250 miles of levees that would catch and drain all of the water south of the diversion channel levee and also carry away water that drains into the District from the higher elevations.


Northern District

The “Plan for Drainage” called for construction of the Headwater Diversion Channel System, extending from the northwest corner of the district, in Bollinger County, eastward along the foothills in Bollinger and Cape Girardeau counties, and into Scott County where it ends at the Mississippi River. Approximately 750,000 acres of upland runoff are transported through this channel.  

Construction of the Headwater Division Channel and some of the ditches began work in 1913 and the original construction was done by electric and steam draglines.  

Levee base stripping machine at Headwater Diversion Channel Levee

Adjacent to the south side of the Headwater Diversion Channel is a levee which is maintained judiciously to prevent these diverted waters from flowing southward. This channel and levee are invaluable features to the district and also provide unlimited benefits and flood protection to a large portion of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. 


Southern District

Surveyor’s camp


In the Southern District, four survey crews had to lay out all 85 ditches through the difficult conditions of tangled swamps and overflowed lands. Each crew consisted of an assistant engineer, level man, rodman, head chain man, rear chain man, stake maker, two ax men, a cook, and a teamster. The crews lived in tents as they moved slowly through the swamp. O’Brien communicated with them by telegraph, yet managed to keep a close eye on the conduct in the camps. O’Brien employed a young Earl Schultz in 1913 as a rodman on a survey crew. Like Kochtitzky, Schultz was a self-taught and trained engineer, who worked his way up to become Chief Engineer of the District in 1932 and he held the position until he retired in 1974.


South District construction was done by floating draglines and families lived on house boats.

The original construction of the Headwater Diversion System, Ramsey Creek Diversion Channel and Levee, and Ditch Nos. 1 to 85 were completed in 1920. Ditch No. 1 is the longest ditch in the District. It starts south of the Diversion Channel in Cape Girardeau and extends in a southwesterly direction to the Missouri-Arkansas State Line, a distance of 97.80 miles. 

Ramsey Creek Diversion Channel and draglines


Plans for the West Extension were submitted to the Butler County Circuit Court and approved in March 1918.


In 1921, work began on the Sals Creek Diversion Channel and Levee, the Castor River, and on the large West Extension in Bollinger and Stoddard counties. The West Extension work involved construction of Ditch Nos. 101 through 113 (12 ditches) totaling 57.56 miles in length and 7.67 miles of levees. 

Construction of the Block Hole Control Works