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Cairo, Illinois - Page 3

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Customs House in Cairo, IllinoisIn the meantime, Cairo continued to grow due to the high river traffic. In fact, there was so much river traffic that the Federal Government designated Cairo as a Port of Delivery and began to make plans to build a United States Customs House. The building was designed by Alfred Mullett, who also designed the San Francisco Mint, the US Treasury Building, and old State Department building in Washington, D.C.

 

Opened in 1872, the building also held a U.S. Post Office on the first floor, which became third in importance in the nation at that time because of its mail connections to and from the emerging West. The second floor housed various government agencies, and a Federal courtroom was on the third floor. Called the “Old Custom House” today, it continues to stand as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located at 1400 Washington Avenue.

 

Also completed in 1872, was Magnolia Manor, which was built by Cairo businessman, Charles A. Galigher, beginning in 1869. Galigher was a prosperous early miller who owned Chas Galigher & Co., Cairo City Mills, and an extensive ice factory before the Civil War began in 1861. He was also a personal friend of General Ulysses S. Grant and supplied the Union Army with flour and hardtack during the war.

 

The Victorian house is an ornate example of the prosperity of the era during which it was constructed. The fourteen-room house was built using locally fired red brick with substantial wood trip and stone. Ornamental cast iron decorates the verandas and the ornate exterior cornice and eaves brackets are of wood millwork.

 

After the house was completed, it was widely admired for its architecture and its setting. The walls were of double brick, with a ten-inch air space between to keep out the dampness. A high, white fence enclosed the original grounds and many magnolia trees were planted.

 

Magnolia Manor, Cairo, IllinoisThe mansion became an outstanding social center during the 1870's and reached the peak of its fame on April 16, 1880, when ex-President and Mrs. Grant were guests there for two days following their world tour. In the years following this visit, the Galighers and later owners continued to welcome guests in the big mansion among the magnolias.

 

The house was acquired by the Cairo Historical Association in 1952 and is now operated as a museum located at 2700 Washington Avenue. The mansion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December, 1969.

 

Another large nineteenth-century home called Riverlore, built by Captain William P Halliday, is located across the street from Magnolia Manor. Featuring a Greek theatre, complete with pillars. This mansion; also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is now owned by the City of Cairo and is open for tours.

 

In fact, this entire residential neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as it is filled with imposing mansions along the magnolia-shaded streets that stand testament to Cairo's heydays as a Mississippi River port.

 

Cairo's economy continued to develop in other ways – primarily manufacturing. Many businesses, attracted by Cairo's convenient geographic location, abundant natural resources, and sufficient labor pool, established small-scale industries, some of which included barrel factories, breweries, grain mills, lumber mills, a cottonseed-oil manufacturer, pottery plants, brickyards, tool manufacturers, and a Singer Sewing Machine plant.

 

 

 

During this time of growth, most of the African-Americans, worked as unskilled laborers, but, were not afraid to speak out. They were known to have participated more effectively in union organizations, strikes, and demonstrations than did the white workers. Black women, who were overwhelmingly employed in household service, also struggled for workplace justice by contesting their white employer’s exploitative demands. Initially, the black population supported the Republican Party until they perceived that white Republicans resisted black demands for equal education, government jobs, and more black legislators. The white citizens retaliated by using the law, customs, and sometimes, violence, to reassert their white supremacy.

 

Port at Cairo, Illinois in 1907 In 1890, Cairo's population had reached some 6,300 people and not only was a popular river town, but, also boasted seven railroad lines branching in to and from Cairo. Unfortunately, by this time, the city was also experiencing increased racial polarization, tension, and violence, which inhibited black activism until the Great Depression.

In the meantime, Cairo was still growing. Though steamboat traffic was dropping, more efficient barges were being utilized and the overall traffic dramatically increased on the Ohio River. In 1900 alone, the Ohio River transported more than 14 million tons of goods and people, a number that would not be surpassed until 1925.

 

Though the vast majority of the cargo traveling along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was not being delivered to Cairo; but, rather, headed for other large cities, the town was thriving as it exported considerable products from its lumber mills, furniture factories, and other businesses.

The Thebes Bridge opened in May, 1905Though Cairo wouldn’t reach its peak population until 1907, at over 15,000 residents, the turn of the century was forecasting the signs of decline. One of its biggest businesses in the city was the many ferries that crossed the both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, which transported hundreds of thousands of railroad cars each year. Until 1889, there was no railroad bridge crossing either the Ohio or the Mississippi River at or near Cairo. That changed; however in 1905, when a railroad bridge was completed across the Mississippi River at Thebes, a small town northwest of Cairo. This dealt a heavy blow to Cairo's status as a railroad hub. Traffic soon shifted to the new bridge at Thebes, decreasing the traffic through Cairo and completely eliminating the ferry operations.


Before long, the railroads began to bypass the city and severe problems were created by water seepage on the low-lying land of the city. The problem was so severe that one of Cairo's mayors claimed it was the most serious obstacle preventing prosperity for the town. Many citizens began to consider their community as an economic failure and even newspaper editorialists commented on how businessmen preferred to rent homes as opposed to buying them: "They preferred to rent because they regard their stay in Cairo as temporary."

 

The first decade of Cairo's 20th century history was also marred by an extremely violent episode which occurred on November 11, 1909. On that date, Cairo was the scene of one of the most gruesome lynchings in American history when a black man named Will James, who was accused of murdering a shop girl, and a white man, who was charged with murdering his wife, were lynched by a mob, which numbered in the thousands.

 

Will “Froggy” James, an African-American man, was charged with the rape and murder of white 22 year-old Annie Pelley, who worked as a shop clerk in Cairo.

 

A report soon circulated that James had confessed to the crime, also implicating an accomplice by the name of Alexander. However, though the people asked for an immediate trial, the case was put off by the court. Anticipating trouble, the local Sheriff kept James hidden in the woods for two days in the hope of saving him from the vengeance of the townspeople. However, the angry citizens tracked James down in the woods near Belknap, Illinois, some 29 miles northeast of Cairo. The infuriated mob forcibly took James from the Sheriff’s custody and returned him to Cairo. He was then taken to the most prominent square at 8th and Commercial Street to be hanged before thousands of cheering spectators. Just before the rope was placed around James’ neck, he reportedly said, “I killed her, but Alexander took the lead.”

 

 

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