Stories of the South - Topashaw Creek Canal

I've been fascinated with Topashaw canal since I was a kid.  I loved the family stories that it was dredged out by steam shovel in the early 20th century - there was family living in the area when it was done.  I went up to Mom and Dad's the first weekend in April and took some pictures while the snakes weren't quite active yet and had a blast wading through the canal for a couple of hours.  I finally buckled down and did some research on the creek to see what I could find.  After combing the internet and reading court cases, early 1900's engineering journals, and more recent conservation articles I finally know more about this creek than I ever thought possible.  I hope you enjoy!  

On 4/9/2016 I took off to my parent’s house with the full intention of working my horses, but the day was gorgeous, warm, and sunny and I made a spur of the moment decision after I got there.  I decided to head up to the family place in Chickasaw County outside Woodland with Daddy.  This is the place we cut hay off of and you can see some of those pictures HERE.  Our family has owned this land since the Depression when my great-grandparents bought it after their marriage in 1932.  Dad thinks they purchased the land in 1935 but the paperwork was accidentally lost.  The back landline is Topashaw canal and family lore says it was widened in the early 1900s by steam shovel.  I went online to see if I could find anything and do you know how hard it is to find information on a canal dredged in rural Mississippi that may or may not have been dredged in the early 1900’s?  Shocking I know since I pick such easily accessible topics.  I persevered though and found some interesting information.  

When my family came into Mississippi and more specifically Chickasaw County they were one of many, many families during a time period of rapid settlement and agricultural development after the removal of the Native Americans in the 1830s.  The Chickasaw signed over their land in The Treaty of Pontotoc Creek in 1832 and the Choctaw signed the treaty of Dancing Rabbit in 1830.  We get the name Topashaw from the Choctaw tribe.  It is thought to be a variant of a Choctaw word Taposa, a name for a tribe that once lived on the Yazoo River.  With the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations removed to Oklahoma there was an aggressive rush to develop the land for farming, but more often than not development took place without thought for proper soil conservation.  There’s a reason a lot of that land is back in pine timber.  It was an area rich with virgin timber, rich fertile bottom-lands for farming, and an abundance of native game.  One of many issues with the area though was the landscape itself.  This portion of Chickasaw County is full of rolling hills.  When they started cultivating those hills into cropland the erosion that occurred soon buried the fertile bottom-land with sand and debris as the valleys had little natural drainage.  The increased erosion restricted water flow resulting in soggy, swampy land that wasn’t good for anything.  This lead to legislative action to try and find a solution to the problem.  The result was the first drainage law being enacted in Mississippi in 1886 forming the Chiwappa Swamp Land District.  Further legislation followed creating several Swamp Land Districts and Drainage Districts.  The districts were formed unsurprisingly, following cotton prices.  Higher prices meant more land was wanted so new land had to be drained and created to supply demand.  Beginning in 1919 with the good prices for cotton 95 districts were created incorporating about 1 million acres.  

Creating these districts produced a new abundance of problems.  There was little coordination between districts as districts could be governed by a separate board of commissioners or by a county board of commissioners.  This led to several districts planning and completing drainage work along the same stream without planning the projects with cooperation between the different districts.  This caused irregular water runoff and drainage defeating the purpose of what they were trying to do.  For example, a district upstream would send more water and sediment than a downstream area could handle which would soon fill and make it to where the stream could not drain at all.  Topashaw Canal is a prime example of this uncoordinated effort.  The Topashaw Swamp Lands district was formed in 1913 with the Topashaw Drainage District being formed in 1915.  The widening or “channelization” of Topashaw Creek extended for about one mile from it’s mouth starting at the Yalobush River.  Work was completed in 1913 for the most part but work did continue through the 1920’s.  When the upper portion was widened it ultimately caused flooding further down the creek.  By 1940 the lower 3.5 miles was subject to flooding and the lower 1000 feet of the channel was filled due to the excess sediment.   

So who did the work?  In the Engineering and Contracting Volume 38 July - December 1912 it is stated that R.H. & G.A. McWilliams of Memphis, TN and Chicago, IL were awarded the contract for clearing right of way and excavating about 13 miles of canal for the Topashaw Swamp Land District Calhoun County Mississippi.  Bidding for the contract was opened July 3, 1912 and in publications from late July 1912 the announcement had been made that R.H. & G.A. McWiliams had been awarded the contract.  Bids were taken by D.P. Hodge in Slate Springs, MS Calhoun County.  He is listed in one of the period articles I could find as a “clerk.”  In another he’s listed as one of the commissioners of the Swamp Land District.  The work called for 529,426 cubic yards of earth to be excavated with the contract price being $0.07 per cubic yard.  This resulted in a cost of $37,059.82 in 1912.  In today’s dollar that would be around $891,427.18.  To me a fairly expensive project for a rural part of the state.  A bond was taken out, also overseen by D.P. Hodge in Slate Springs, to pay for the project in the amount of $42,500 - today that would amount to $1,022,283.84.  

Memphis Newspaper from 1916

Closeup of the advertisement for R.H. and G.A. McWilliams

The dredging company R.H. and G.A. McWilliams was owned by two brothers from Chicago who had been involved in drainage contracting since the 1890s.  They officially became partners in 1910.  Prior to them forming their company they had each worked for contracting companies specializing in dredging.  G.A. McWilliams was well established enough in 1910 that he owned 5 Marion dipper dredges and he had bid successfully for work contracts in Arkansas and Louisiana.  They formed their partnership after bidding against each other for a contract that at the time neither had the equipment needed to complete the project on time.  They solved the problem by going in business together.  The brothers were extremely successful and reported annual operations of 8 million in 1918.  They operated 42 dredges, draglines, and other dryland excavators working between the Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico.  

An Advertisement for the Marion Steam Shovel Company the preferred company for R.H. & G.A. McWilliams

A dipper dredge at work - maybe something smaller than this was used to dig the canal


One other interesting thing I found was a legal case concerning the project, a case that was argued before the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1916.  I am not a lawyer, so if you want to read about the case I will provide a link below in my resources list.  But the general jist that I could understand was this:  In the case Wofford vs. Williams on February 21, 1916 it was put forward that landowners in the swamp land district were not notified of the district being formed and were appealing their increased taxes.  I assume the tax increase was due to the bond that was taken out to pay for it.  The landowners wanted the taxes deemed null and void because no notices were served to the landowners and there had been no petition on file that described the land and there was nothing published in the local papers about anything.  There’s a lot of back and forth and a lot of legal mumbo jumbo that I get lost in but I think that’s the basic idea.  The ruling?  Sufficient notice had been given and please pay your taxes now.  Notices had run in two local papers in Calhoun County, the Calhoun Monitor and the Dixie Herald.  Certified notices had been mailed to the landowners and a notice had been posted on the front door of the courthouse.  The nail in the coffin though was the judge reminded the complainants they had attended a board meeting where the sale of bonds for the newly dug canal had been discussed.  The complainants were charged around $1300 for their trouble, plus interest.  Even in 1917 there was no justice for the little man.  

It’s been a good 100 years since this canal was dug and I imagine it looks much the same as it did back then - farms on both sides of its shale slopes, kudzu in the summer, game trails in the winter.  It gives up little treasures from time to time of petrified wood and freshwater mussels.  To me it’s a part of home, a part of history, and family memories.  It’s a little strip of water and rock but oh so much more to me.  Maybe I’ll risk the cottonmouths this summer to take pictures of the sides overrun with kudzu.  But I’ve been saying that since college and that’s over 10 years ago now.  Don’t hold your breath.    

I have some other pictures I took with a Holga lens I got for Christmas and a Lensbaby pinhole lens that created some really interesting soft pictures but I really think this entry is long enough. I hope you enjoyed this, let me know what you think in the comments below. Please see my resources list below if you would like to go look at some of the sources I read in writing this. Thanks as always for reading.



  1. What a fascinating story, and another good example about the impact of systems. It is hard to believe folks upstream were not cognizant of the effect they were having on folks downstream, but it was, and likely still is, common.

    The pictures are beautiful, especially like the one with the little mini waterfalls created where the rivulets trickle down t he slope of rock layers.

    1. There was more out there than I had hoped to find but it took some digging.
      I was pretty happy with the pictures and need to get the courage to climb down the creek and this summer. It is nothing but kudzu on both sides in places and so pretty. I've taken pictures from the top before but never down in the creekbed. I'm terrified of snakes and there's cottonmouths that live in the kudzu that are HUGE!

    2. Sounds like a good reason not to get in the creek to me. :) Unless, of course, you are wearing snake-bite proof waders.

      I imagine the research on this was definitely a lot of work!

  2. this is fascinating! if only for the fact that in kansas, most places are too high and dry to have any problems like this. swamps are almost nonexistent!! not to mention the lovely story behind it. what a great thing for you to document!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts