Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism

Underground Railroad Tunnels- Cairo

The old Illinois Central Railroad storage bins near the Ohio River were used as hiding places for slaves traveling the Underground Railroad through Cairo.

Prior to the Civil War, the city also became an important transfer station on the Underground Railroad. After the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad, fugitives were shipped north on the river before being transferred to railroad lines headed toward Chicago.   More than a century and a half later, In June 1998, Cairo city workers discovered what appeared to be storage bins under the sidewalk along the 600 block of Levee Street.

The Illinois Central Railroad originally ran down the street and the structures date back to the late 1850s. Physical evidence suggests that the rooms and an adjoining tunnel ran for five or six blocks along the street and were utilized to hide and move fugitive slaves.

In 1858, the grandest hotel in the city was built at the southwest corner of 2nd and Ohio Streets. The St. Charles Hotel opened in January 1859. During the Civil War, it would, at different times, become the headquarters of General Ulysses S. Grant and General John A. McLernand, and filled to full capacity. Later, in 1880, the business was purchased by the Halliday Brothers, who vastly improved it and renamed it the Halliday Hotel. For decades it would be known as the best hotel in the city. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 1942.

Halliday Hotel Cairo

Halliday Hotel Cairo

By 1861, when the Civil War began, Cairo’s population had increased to 2,200, of which, only 55 people were African-American. The port quickly became a strategically important supply base and training center for the Union army. For several months, both General Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral Andrew Foote had headquarters in the town. Several federal regiments were also stationed there during these turbulent years.

The Confederacy also realized its strategic importance. Knowing this, Illinois Governor Richard Yates immediately shipped 2,700 men with 15 pieces of field artillery, plus several six-pounders, and one twelve-pound cannon to Cairo from Springfield. More troops were stationed nearby and by June 1861, 12,000 Union soldiers were in and around Cairo. Another 38,000 men were stationed within a 24-hour ride.

In order to further strengthen Cairo as a military camp and as a naval base, Yates sent yet more artillery to the city in the fall of 1861, which included 7,000 new guns, 6,000 rifled muskets, and 500 rifles, and 14 artillery batteries of artillery. The soldiers then built 15 foot high levees around the city, making it a formidable installation.

Camp Defiance

Camp Defiance

At the very tip of the peninsula, south of Cairo, Camp Defiance was established near the river bank, and Camp Smith was located just a short distance to the north. Camp Defiance was first called Fort Prentiss, after the Union officer Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss, who had served honorably in the Mexican-American War.

Initially, the post consisted of a flat-topped mound upon which were placed three 24-pound cannons and an 8-inch mortar. The site also included a command house and a ship’s mast for the colors. The name was later changed to Camp Defiance when General Ulysses S. Grant arrived.

Lines of sentries were posted along the levees, and all boats along the river were stopped and searched. Camp Defiance became an important supply depot for General Grant’s Western Army and a naval base, as the Union and Confederacy battled for control of the lower Mississippi River. The Union shipped supplies from Chicago to the far tip of Illinois via the Illinois Central Railroad, fueling Grant’s push deep into the Confederacy and altering the course of the Civil War.

The city itself became an enormous military camp with a huge parade ground and clusters of barracks on all sides. The fortified city quickly gained the attention of the entire country, drawing many reporters to observe the military build-up and spurring The New York Times to refer to Cairo as “the Gibraltar of the West.”

But, the troops who were stationed in Cairo did not like the location. The low flat land was extremely muddy and the town was prone to flooding, despite the levees. The climate was humid, disease-carrying mosquitoes and rats were everywhere, and to make matters worse, unscrupulous business operators were known to cheat and even rob many of the troops. One soldier described Cairo this way: “I have witnessed hog pens that are palaces compared with our situation here.” Anthony Trollope, a renowned English novelist visited the city in 1862 and wrote: “the inhabitants seemed to revel in dirt… the sheds of soldiers… bad, comfortless, damp and cold.”

During the Civil War, a number of businesses were established for the soldiers and citizens including stables, a hospital, and a wheelwright shop.

Generals Grant and McClernand, Cairo, 1861

Generals Ulysses S. Grant and John A. McLernand standing on the steps in the center, of Cairo’s post office in 1861.

Along the west side of the Ohio River, a number of saloons and brothels sprang up that served the military personnel until they were closed down by General John A. McLernand in October 1861. Just to the west, on Commercial Avenue, sat the firms of Koehler’s Gunshop, a drug store, the city’s post office, the popular Athenaeum Theater, a blacksmith and a harness shop. A block south of this site was the huge parade grounds.

Though the fortified city never saw any attacks during the Civil War, it trained and shipped thousands of soldiers who would fight in numerous battles. Cairo’s real “war” would not begin for another century.

When the Civil War was over, Camp Defiance and most of the military buildings were dismantled. Many years later, the site of Camp Defiance would become Fort Defiance Park, an Illinois State Park. However, today, the park is owned by the city of Cairo. Unfortunately, it is abandoned, overgrown, and completely run down. At the time this story was written (2010), the road into the park is impassable due to flood damage.

The Civil War dramatically changed the city’s social, cultural and demographic landscape with the arrival of thousands of runaway slaves, which the government referred to as “contrabands.” Additionally, in 1862, the Union Army deposited large numbers of African-Americans in Cairo until government officials could decide their fate. These many black men, women, and children lived in a “Contraband Camp” established by the Army. The camp was later abandoned when the African-Americans found little work and having no money to buy farms, many returned to the South and became sharecroppers.

4 thoughts on “Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism”

  1. Grew up in Mound City, 7 miles up Ohio from Cairo. Delivered Cairo Evening Citizen 1964-1967. In 1967, moved to Wickliffe, KY, first KY town 6 miles after crossing Ohio River Bridge, Cairo, IL; graduated High School 1970 Ballard County, KY. Watched Christmas and July 4th parades, first cinema experience at Gem Theatre, first patient in new children’s wing of hospital in 1958, major shopping in Cairo, employed in branches of Federal Government with local offices in Cairo in early 1970’s.
    Not disputing presence of racism, but did not feel it as intensely as this record asserts. Perhaps I was insulated by the Baptist churches which emphasized equality and brotherhood. Candidly, however, the practice of their teaching was not as apparent: I never knew of any black members.
    I can assert the start of integration of schools was apparent at Mound City no later than 1964 with High School fully integrated by 1966. From Wickliffe, KY, I attended Ballard County High School, fully integrated no later than 1967. If Cairo was not fully integrated until 1967, it was significantly behind surrounding school districts.
    Racism is the only available practice of the result of prejudice. Prejudice feeds on fear, fear feeds on ignorance and ignorance feeds on pride. Neither black nor white population are without pride, ignorance, fear and racism. Brotherhood can grow but it first requires we acknowledge our own accountability for pride, ignorance, fear, prejudice and racism.
    But other cities and towns suffered racism and survived. I propose racism was not the only cause of Cairo’s decline.
    The geography of Cairo is also a problem and any analysis of the decline of Cairo’s economy should not avoid consideration of that problematic geology.
    The longest river in the world (geographically) is the Missouri-Mississippi River. And the Ohio River is the second longest River in North America. Preventing floods requires continuous vigilance and frequent maintenance.
    Cairo suffers from another phenomena: sinkholes. Powerful currents from the two mighty rivers curl, flow, and churn up the river bottoms changing the channels and creating “sand-bars”, temporary islands, every year.
    My first childhood sweetheart was enjoying a late summer picnic lunch with her family on a sandbar when she was wading in shallow waters and the sand beneath her collapsed. She fell into the current and was drowned. With a school class size of less than twenty, the mortuary and funeral hall a block from my home, her death remains one of my significant life events.
    That same natural force also cuts under the river banks. Mark Twain even described the capricious and treacherous nature of the river currents. It is also a major cause of sink-holes. The water table rises and falls annually with the river floods. That continuous change in the water table dissolves and erodes the underground geology. It is not uncommon for sinkholes to appear suddenly causing structures to collapse and infra-structures to fail, sometimes causing death. A fair description of the geology of Cairo, IL is a large sandbar subject to Nature’s annual and capricious whims. Not a favorable feature for establishing a long term prospect.
    The extensive navigability of rivers in central North America is one of the most significant factors in the rate of growth of the wealth of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the dependence on navigable rivers has declined, those cities which required the economies of river traffic to survive have declined. Cairo, IL is one of many examples. The economy of Cairo, IL relied almost exclusively on river traffic until rail traffic arrived in the mid 19th century. And then, starting in the mid 20th century, the interstate highway system bypassed Cairo diverting highway traffic.
    Cairo has a history worth remembering, but it has nothing attract an industry to sustain an economy.
    Racism made Cairo a place that offended fair minded people. But after river traffic declined, after rail and highway traffic were diverted, and lacking anything to attract an enduring industry, Cairo has lost any economic stimulus or prospect.

  2. This city was plagued with racism from it’s beginning. Current and prior residents remain closed minded!

  3. I keep reading about how “racism” killed this town. It sounds more like the town was fading economically to begin with.

    1. It has nothing to do with racism. The town only thrived because of the riverboats. It’s location was perfect when riverboats were the main mode of bulk transportation. Now with trucks/interstate highways and trains it is a less than desirable location.

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