A significant amount of U.S. wetlands were drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for agricultural and residential use. In the First Update of the National Wetlands Status Report 1991, Dahl and Johnson of the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that only 103 million acres of the 221 million acres of wetlands remained in the conterminous U.S. A total wetlands area about the combined size of Oregon and Utah were drained or affected in some way.
Much of this drainage activity was bolstered by the Swamp Lands Act of 1849, 1850, and 1860, in which the Federal Government granted nearly 65 million acres of swamp lands to the States for reclamation. The Act first applied to the state of Louisiana in 1849, expanding to Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin in 1850, with Minnesota and Oregon added by 1860. Of these states, Florida contained the lion share of about 20 million acres of wetlands, mostly due to the Everglades, which is the largest wetland area in North America.
The 1823 Map of Florida below shows the Everglades in southern part of the state before any significant development. The Everglades starts from the Kissimmee River near current day Orlando (not shown on map) flowing south into Lake Okeechobee (labeled Lake Macaco on the map) which spreads out into a 60 mile wide by 100 mile long river flowing south out of Okeechobee to Florida Bay at the southern tip of mainland Florida north of the Florida Keys.
A look at the South Florida Satellite Image Map from 1993 below shows significant changes to South Florida one hundred years later. Starting in 1881 the Caloosahatchee River which emptied out into the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Myers was dredged upstream to its headwaters at Lake Hicpochee and a failed attempt was made to further connect to Lake Okeechobee by blasting open a canal. Farmers had some success developing farms around levees up to 2 feet high around Lake Okeechobee but were overcome by storm surge from a couple of hurricanes in the 1920’s, drowning thousands of people. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got involved in 1929 and eventually constructed the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee with a berm averaging about 20 feet high around the approximately 90-mile circumference of the lake. They also finished the canal connecting Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River and an additional canal going east to the St. Lucie River forming the navigable Okeechobee Waterway spanning over 150 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.
Dredged waterways and canals formed the main tributaries for draining wetlands which were connected to smaller open ditches and covered tile drains primarily for agriculture. In the 1993 Florida satellite image map below you can see the over 200,000 acres of sugarcane fields in the brown colored areas just south of Lake Okeechobee. Other agricultural lands from drained wetlands can be seen to the Southeast of Okeechobee and the south end of the Miami Metropolitan Area- mainly citrus and other types of orchards. Much of the residential area of the Miami Metropolitan Area, particularly the western edge, was and continues to be built on drained wetlands.
Pivoting to the Midwest, the map below of Ohio and Indiana from 1819 depicts many of the river systems in which large wetlands were situated. The Great Black Swamp was a large wetland in a small part of northeast Indiana and a significant part of northwest Ohio, draining through the Maumee River into Lake Erie. The Grand Kankakee Marsh in Indiana and Illinois, situated on the map along the Kankakee River just South of Lake Michigan, was once one of the largest wetlands in the United States.
These midwestern wetlands were drained through much of the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Map of Lucas and parts of Wood, Ottawa and Sandusky Counties Ohio 1888 below, which shows the discharge end of the Great Black Swamp into Lake Erie, you can see much of the drainage infrastructure already in place on the map in the form of canals and drainage ditches. According to Wooten and Jones in the USDA 1955 Yearbook of Agriculture, Ohio had 20,000 miles of public ditches designed to drain 11 million acres of land by 1884. The invention of James B. Hill’s Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher in Bowling Green, Ohio in 1902 helped to improve the efficiency of laying drainage tiles and accelerate rate of drainage development.
The Map of St. Joseph Co Indiana below published in 1863 before much of the drainage was done clearly shows the marshes of Grand Kankakee Marsh in much of the area. This part of the Marsh on the map extends from the headwaters of the Kankakee River just southwest of South Bend to Mud Lake.
What you don’t typically see on maps are the underground tile drainage networks that connect to the ditches and canals. According to Wooten and Jones, the state of Indiana had 30,000 miles of tile drains in operation by 1882. Clay ceramic tiles evolved in design from a flat sole with a separate horseshoe shaped section above it to a single tube-shaped section with an egg-shaped or round bore. Some had perforated holes and others received water from the joints between each section which would drain down the bottom of the tile channel while keeping sediment out of the channel to prevent clogging. Cross section illustrations of these different types of tile drains can be seen below in the excerpt from Miles Manley’s 1892 book Land Draining.
Technological innovation prompted the mass production of drainage tiles. George A. Pavelis of the U.S.D.A. indicates 1,140 factories located mainly in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were manufacturing drainage tiles by 1880. One of these factories, the A.A. Gast Brick and Tile Works in Akron, Indiana can be seen on the 1912 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Akron, Fulton County, Indiana below (upper left quadrant) depicting three kilns, drying houses/sheds, and a tile machine.
According to the United States Census of Agriculture, by 1950 over 11 million acres of land in Indiana were in drainage enterprises covering nearly half of the state. Ohio in the map below shows nearly 7 million acres of land in drainage enterprises.
As can be seen below in the 1997 U.S.D.A. map of Prime Farmland Distribution Ohio, most of the prime farmland in Ohio correlates to a large degree to the areas that were drained.
In fact, what is now known as the corn belt of the United States, one of the richest agricultural regions in the world, was developed to a large degree from wetlands drainage in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.
The Agricultural Census of 1950 reported over 103 million acres of drainage enterprises encompassing 40 states expending about 900 million dollars in drainage improvements for about 2 million farms. Initial efforts to reclaim wetlands were due to agriculture, settlement, and health (swamps carried malarial mosquitoes) and conferred great benefits in these areas.
However, as with most things there are trade-offs. The destruction of wetlands has had ecological impacts on many animals such as migratory birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in their Waterfowl Population Status 2023 report indicates a 7% decrease of duck populations from the previous year. In the 2021 paper titled Harmful Marine harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the United States: History, current status and future trends, Donald Anderson points out the impacts of algal blooms. Drainage downstream of fertilized farm fields carrying nitrogen and phosphorus cause harmful algal blooms depleting oxygen and subsequently aquatic life in places like South Florida, Lake Erie, and the Gulf of Mexico. Vast agricultural lands in drained wetlands such as the Grand Kankakee Marsh in Indiana and Illinois actually drain into the Mississippi watershed which empties into the Gulf of Mexico, demonstrating how widespread impacts can be.
The importance of preserving or restoring wetlands and improving water quality has grown in the 21st century and more efforts and funding have been procured in this regard. According to flgov.com, the State of Florida has invested $3.3 billion for Everglades restoration and the protection of water resources since 2019. The U.S.D.A. has programs such as the Farmable Wetlands Program which they describe as “… a voluntary program to restore up to one million acres of farmable wetlands and associated buffers by improving the land’s hydrology and vegetation.” The U.S.D.A. programs data by county showing the Acres Enrolled in the Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve, Farmable Wetlands, or Conservation Reserve Enhancement Programs as Percent of Land in Farms Acreage: 2017 reveals that Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, Washington, and Mississippi are the leading conservation states for these programs as of 2017.
In conclusion, drainage operations in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have had significant impacts on the landscape of the United States in terms of land use, economics, and environment.
- Dahl, T.E., and Johnson, C.E., 1991, Wetlands–Status and trends in the conterminous United States, mid-1970’s to mid-1980’s: Washington, D.C., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 22 p.
- Dahl, Thomas E. , Allord, Gregory J. Technical Aspects of Wetlands History of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States. National Water Summary on Wetland Resources, United States Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 2425
- Pavelis, G.A., ed., 1987,Farm drainage in the United States–History, status, and prospects: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Miscellaneous Pub. No. 1455, 170 p.
- Wooten, H.H., and Jones, L.A., 1955, The history of our drainage enterprises, in The yearbook of agriculture, 1955: Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Agriculture, 84th Congress, 1st Session, House Document no. 32, p. 478-498.
- Anderson, D. M., Fensin, E., Gobler, C. J., Hoeglund, A. E., Hubbard, K. A., Kulis, D. M., Landsberg, J. H., Lefebvre, K. A., Provoost, P., Richlen, M. L., Smith, J. L., Solow, A. R., & Trainer, V. L. (2021). Marine harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the United States: History, current status and future trends. Harmful algae, 102, 101975.