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. ***
What 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,
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
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
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
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.