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Cairo, Illinois - Death by Racism

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Birdseye view of Cairo, Illinois.Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at the southernmost tip of Illinois is the town of Cairo, pronounced “Care-O.” By far, one of the strangest and saddest cities I’ve ever visited, I am immediately intrigued by the empty streets and abandoned and crumbling buildings.

We pass under an arch depicting “Historic Downtown Cairo” to take a peek at this city that has been standing on the river for more than 150 years. Though the town has a population of some 3,000 people and is the county seat of Alexander County, it’s Main Street, called Commercial Avenue, is empty of people and lined with buildings in various stages of decay. Doors stand wide open on commercial buildings that display rubble filled interiors, windows are broken or boarded up, Kudzu crawls up brick walls, streets signs are faded and rusty – the streets and sidewalks are cracked and choked with weeds.  On a side street, the once lovely Gem Theatre stands silent next to the Chamber of Commerce. In other parts of the city, the large brick hospital is overgrown with vegetation, churches are boarded up, and restored mansions sit next to abandoned and crumbling large homes. ***


Cairo, Illinois Street SignsWhat has happened here? I’m sure, with Commercial Avenue’s proximity to the Ohio River, the town has been devastated by a flood; but, I don’t know and find no one to ask. Finally, after wandering about the deserted buildings for a time, an elderly gentleman parks his truck and walks out along river. I stop and ask him. He tells a brief story of how the town was destroyed by its own residents, and points out a building that once served as a fine dining and dancing establishment that he and his wife enjoyed decades ago. Cairo died because of racism.

The peninsula where Cairo now stands was first visited by Father Louis Hennepin, a French
explorer and missionary priest in March, 1660. It was noted again by other traveling priests over the next few years, but, it would not be settled until 1702, when French pioneer, Charles Juchereau de St. Denys and a party of about 30 men built a fort and tannery a few miles north from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The party of men was extremely successful collecting thousands of skins for shipment back to France. However, the next year the fort was attacked by Cherokee Indians who killed most of the men and seized the furs, effectively ending the life of the fort and tannery.


Nearly a century and a half later, Lewis and Clark left Fort Massac, Illinois and arrived in the vicinity of what would later become Cairo in November, 1803. Here, they worked jointly on their first scientific research and description; to study the geography at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. On November 16, they began the diplomatic phase of their journey when they visited the Wilson City area of Mississippi County, Missouri, and met with Delaware and Shawnee Indian chiefs. They ended their surveys at Cairo on November 19th, and proceeded up the Mississippi River, now working against the current.


The first attempt at settlement occurred in 1818 when John G. Comegys of Baltimore, obtained a charter to incorporate the city and the Bank of Cairo from the Territorial Legislature. He bought 1,800 acres on the peninsula and named it “Cairo,” because it was presumed to resemble that of Cairo, Egypt.


Working along with Comegys, was Shadrach Bond, who was the first governor of Illinois. These men and other speculators invested and tried to develop Cairo into one of the nation's great cities.

The land of the peninsula was to be made into lots and sold, a portion of the money put into improvements, and the rest of it was to constitute the capital of the bank. The peninsula was surveyed and a city laid off. However, when Comegys died in 1820, his plan died with him. But, he left behind a contribution in his choice of the name Cairo, and as a result, “Egypt” became the popular nickname for southern Illinois.


A second and successful attempt at settlement began in 1837 when the Illinois State Legislature incorporated the Cairo City and Canal Company, with Darius B. Holbrook, a shrewd businessman from Boston, as president. Holbrook soon hired several hundred workmen who constructed levees, a dry dock, a shipyard, sawmills, an iron works, a large two-story frame hotel, a warehouse, and several residential cottages. A store was kept in a boat.





Did You Know......?

Cairo, Illinois once boasted a population of over 15,000 people.


The city’s future looked promising as work on the Central Illinois Railroad brought a great many people to the vicinity of Cairo. In the meantime, a number of farms were established and area villages in the county were flourishing.


The settlement was widely advertised in England, where the bonds of the Cairo City and Canal Company found eager purchasers through the London firm of John Wright & Company. However, when the London firm failed in November, 1840, the fledgling town of Cairo immediately declined, dropping in population from 1,000 to less than 200 within two years. Those who remained operated shops and taverns for steamboat travelers. The census of 1845 showed 113 people in 24 families.


For more than a decade, the “town” languished, but, in 1853, the company began to sell lots in anticipation of the railroad arriving in the area. When the Illinois Central Railroad was completed in 1856, which connected Cairo to Galena, Illinois in the northwest corner of the state, the town really began to grow.


Commercial Avenue in Cairo, Illinois in the 1850's.

Commercial Avenue in Cairo in the 1850's.


Commercial Avenue, Cairo, Illinois

Commercial Avenue during Cairo's heydays.


Commercial Avenue in Cairo, Illinois today

Commercial Avenue in Cairo, Kathy Weiser, September, 2012.

This image available for photo prints & commercial downloads HERE.


Continued Next Page



***  This article was originally written in 2010, making some statements no longer accurate. An update on Cairo can be found from our 2012 visit at the end of the article

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