Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism

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, its 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 the 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 in 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.

A depiction of Commercial Ave, looking east from 10th Street during its heydays.

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.

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.

Commercial Avenue in Cairo in the 1850's.

Commercial Avenue in Cairo in the 1850s.

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.

At that time, expectations were still running high when Cairo was predicted to surpass St. Louis, Missouri, Louisville, Kentucky; and Cincinnati, Ohio as an urban center. Some even recommended that the city should become the capitol of the United States. Of course, despite these boasts, the city did not prosper to such an extent.

In 1858 the town was incorporated and two years later, its population exceeded 2,000. It quickly became an important steamboat port, as goods and supplies were moved further south to New Orleans. In 1859, the city shipped six million pounds of cotton and wool, 7,000 barrels of molasses, and 15,000 casks of sugar. In 1860, Cairo became the county seat of Alexander County. An elegant courthouse was built in 1865 that continued to stand until the 1960s when it was torn down and replaced with a new one.

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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