Making Wet Places Drier: Mapping the Evolution of Drainage Technology in the U.S.

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When someone thinks of the U.S. Midwest, an expansive swamp is likely not the first thing that comes to mind, but for John Tipton, that is exactly what he encountered in 1821, as he and his survey party attempted to demarcate the northern border of Indiana and Illinois. Per Tipton’s field notes, as the survey party approached the Kankakee River, they met the “most dreadful swamp”, in which they waded in its waist-deep waters for over four hours, nearly drowning themselves and their pack-horses as swarms of mosquitoes darkened the sky (Blackburn 1942). The swamp that Tipton attempted to navigate was the Grand Kankakee, the second largest wetland in the continental United States spreading for nearly 500,000 acres across much of northern Indiana and Illinois.

Corn grows here today.  

Survey map from John Campbell’s “Report Upon the Improvement of the Kankakee River and the Drainage of Marsh Lands in Indiana (1882), with the dark portion representing marsh and wetlands

As a whole, the United States used to be a much wetter place, with more than 220-million acres of wetlands and swamps located across the country. However, swamps and wetlands presented obstacles to settlement and economic use, and seen as vectors of disease. Framed as wastelands that needed to be reclaimed, efforts to drain swamps and wetlands accelerated dramatically in the late 1700s, from the scale of the individual farm to federal policies aimed at making these wet places drier. Over the next 200 years, these efforts reduced the geographical extent of wetlands and swamps in the conterminous United States by more than half. Policies enacted at federal and state levels drove much of this transformation. In particular, the Swamp Lands Act of 1849 allocated more than 60 million acres of wetlands and swamps to state governments, who in turn sold these lands cheaply to individuals and corporations that agreed to drain the swamps and make these wastelands economically productive. The development of novel drainage technologies, such as drain tiles, further spurred a rapid expansion of drainage infrastructure across the Midwest. Midwestern states, such as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio, experienced some of the most intensive drainage efforts, which led to a loss of more than 90% of their pre-European settlement wetlands. In Indiana alone, wetlands and swamps once occupied roughly 30% of the state’s total land area, but today that number has been reduced to less than 1% (McCorvie and Lant 1993).

From “Map of the United States Showing Location of Drained Agricultural Lands: 1950 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census). Red represents land in a drainage enterprise.

My new project, Draining the Swamp (link to interactive story map) explores the interrelated histories of swamp reclamation and the development of drainage technologies in North America’s Corn Belt. Part of this project seeks to understand how the human geography of the North American drainage enterprise, including politicians who lobbied for swamp removal, drain tile manufacturers, and inventors who designed technologies to make wet-places drier, correlates with the physical geography of these historically wet places. To address part of this question, I constructed an Historical GIS of drainage technology patents filed in the U.S. through data mining digitized records held by the U.S. Patent Office, as demonstrated in the interactive map below.

Utilizing ProQuest’s Congressional database, I accessed annual reports from the Patent Office beginning in 1849 – the first year these are digitally available. These records contain indexes for all of the patents issued during a given year, and are sorted alphabetically, by both the “Invention or Discovery,” as well as by the name of the patentee. Although these documents have OCR capabilities, they are old documents and many of the scans are of a poor quality, which makes the OCR function unreliable. Owing to this, I manually searched each report from 1849-1915 and extracted the entries for devices such as ditching plows, tile-laying machines, mole plows, and draining apparatuses. This was a labor-intensive endeavor, but one that became routine as the process progressed, and ensured that no entries were missed as a result of the OCR’s inability to recognize text.  

Annual report of the Commissioner of Patents for the year 1874, showing the entries for Tile-machines

As I searched these reports, I first added all of the entries related to drainage into a spreadsheet, I next crosschecked each of these using the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s patent search function, by entering the patent number into the search box. This database contains the original application for a given patent, which consists of the patent drawings, as well as a description of how the device functioned. I used this information to determine whether or not the technology actually was designed for drainage, an issue especially common with both tile and drain patents that could either be related to decorative tiles or kitchen drains, both of which were not included in my HGIS. After confirming that a drainage technology was indeed designed to make a wet place drier, I entered the patentee’s information into the spreadsheet, including their name, city, and state. The latter of these were used to link the patent to a geographic space – for this project I used counties, which provides a somewhat granular spatial representation of where each patentee lived (I original attempted to do this via zip code, which ended up being a total nightmare). In addition to the patent number, name of the patentee, and invention, I also created a hyperlink to the drawing of each patent in the HGIS so users can quickly see the design of the device, and read more about it if they wish.  

Image showing an example of a drain tile kiln from the Summitville Tile Factory in Indiana – at the time the largest tile factory in the world (The Drainage Journal, Vol. XX 1898)

The resulting HGIS of drainage patents consists of over 1,250 patents issued in the United States between 1849-1915. Organized by county, the HGIS reveals spatial patterns as the North American drainage enterprise developed. One of the most notable spatial patterns relates to the abundance of patents issued within the modern Corn Belt, as seen in the following time-series animation.

Time series animation showing counties in which a drainage patent was filed for a given year.

Furthermore, integrating these patents into an HGIS provides a searchable and sortable database that can reveal other insights about how the envirotechnical system of drainage developed. Examples range from inventors who filed multiple patents like Ulric Blickensderfer whose five patents for ditching machines span 19 years and three different localities (Springfield, PA; Erie, PA, and Chicago, IL), to Torbjorn Linga who, as an assignor, designed numerous technologies for the American Ditching Machine Co. Linking the HGIS to the patent illustrations also provides visual representations of how these drainage devices were designed, some of which are quite fantastical, such as Odilion Hanneborg’s two story “ditching and tile laying machine” shown below.

Patent #536,339 “Ditching and Tile Laying Machine,” filed by Odilon Baltzar Hannibal Hanneborg of Urskoug, Norway. I’ve also been keeping a separate database of drainage patents filed outside of the U.S., the majority of which come from Canada.

The process of mapping drainage patents can be applied to any other type of technology included in annual patent reports. These documents contain a wealth of data regarding the history of technology in the U.S., ranging from ore-crushers and corn-shellers, to insect-destroyers and peach-sorters. Doing so might reveal other spatial insights about the interrelated histories of technological development and the physical environment.

Feature Image: Patent #134,228 “Apparatus for Laying Drain Tile,” filed by Isaac Stripe of New Berlin, Ohio (1872).


Blackburn, Glen A. 1942. The John Tipton Papers. Vol. 1. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau

McCorvie, Mary and Christopher Lant. Autumn 1993. “Drainage District Formation and the Loss of Midwestern Wetlands, 1850-1930.” Agricultural History. Vol 67: Issue 4. 13-39

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John Baeten

Postdoctoral Fellow, Instructor, Director of the Historical Landscapes Lab. at Indiana University
I am an interdisciplinary social scientist, with a background in archaeology, geography, and environmental history. I study the historical process behind the the development, abandonment, and restoration of extractive landscapes. My current research is focused on the interrelated histories of subsurface tiling and swamp drainage in the Cornbelt. I direct the Historical Landscapes Laboratory at Indiana University where undergraduate research assistants are diligently reconstructing Indiana's historical environment from General Land Office field notes. I'm an avid runner, gardener, record collector, and new dad.

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