Cairo, Illinois - Page 3
In 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
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
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.
The 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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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