Spurred on by an impromptu excursion to photograph the Eggner’s Ferry Bridge that partially collapsed on January 26 in western Kentucky, I decided to visit a part of the state that I had not yet fully explored. From Owensboro to Paducah, from the isolated Land Between the Lakes to dense streetscapes, I toured the back roads in hopes of finding something new to write about and to photograph.
Why not visit the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers? It was only an hour drive from Paducah. After crossing into Illinois from Kentucky, I came to Cairo. Located in Alexander County, Cairo is the southernmost city in Illinois and is situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Surrounded by levees, the land that Cairo would later rise from was not thought highly of in the mid 1800s, with Charles Dickens calling the land a “dismal swamp.” Despite this, bonds were sold to complete improvements at the site, which included a levee, dry dock and shipyard. A railroad was later completed to the town.
Cairo was at the southernmost tip of what was called “free soil,” and its location along the river made the city a centralized hub for blacks heading northward out of the south. During the Civil War, the city served as a supply base and training center for the Union Army, and was vital to the distribution of supplies to troops that were fighting in the south. Camp Defiance was constructed by the Union at the start of the Civil War, and was where Ulysses Grant launched offensive movements into Kentucky and towards other southern states.
Cairo boomed and its population greatly increased. Not surprisingly, its black population grew as well, to 3,000 after the Civil War had ended. But despite its steamboat, railroad and ferry industries that fueled its growth – a May 1931 article of National Geographic called Cairo the crossroads of the continent, there was much discontent brought on by segregation.
What the hell happened to Cairo, I asked myself as I wandered through Commercial Street which was home to only a handful of businesses. This was Cairo’s main street in their business district, yet there was not a single person around. Bricks from an abandoned building had spilled out into the street, and a streetscaping project that netted new faux historic light posts and clean sidewalks were now broken and in disarray. And in the center of town were sinkholes, evidence of the shifty soil that lay underneath the town, that caused a one block long section of the roadway to collapse. Outside of a few barricades, there was no evidence of work to repair the roadway.
Civil rights was the reason Cairo declined. Or the lack of it, at the least.
In 1900, Cairo had a population of 13,000, of which 5,000 were black. Tensions were high when William James was lynched, and dismembered in 1909, with his head being placed on a stake in a throwback to the brutal Elizabethan era, when bodies were frequently hung and quartered, with heads placed on stakes to instill fear and to serve as a reminder as to who was in charge. James was accused of murder, which he later confessed to. Despite being led to jail and awaiting trial, and a sheriff who attempted to move him out of the city via the railroad, a mob comprised of Cairo’s white citizens caught James north of the city and returned him to the city where he was hung, shot at, and torn apart.
The violent mob then moved on to kill James’s accomplice, but when they were unable to find him, they broke Henry Salzner out of jail. Salzner, a white photographer accused of murder, was hung from a telegraph pole near the courthouse. The governor of Illinois had to dispatch 11 companies of the state militia to Cairo to restore order.
Another incident in 1967 that involved a reported suicide of a black individual in the city jail led to a riot, and several stores and a warehouse were torched. One of the leaders of the riot plainly stated that Cairo will look like “Rome burning down” if city leaders did not meet the demands of the black population. In response, the white community developed a citizens protection group that was deputized by the sheriff dubbed the “White Hats.” Consisting of 600 people that wore white hats to signify membership, the White Hats were notorious for their bullying antics. In reply, the Cairo United Front was formed by several black residents that grew to include the local NAACP chapter, a cooperative association and several black street gangs. A rash of violence followed, and several businesses were burned. Police and fire officials that responded to one of the fires were shot at by a high powered rifle.
A more efficient tactic was developed that included a boycott of white owned businesses. In December 1970, Cairo enacted a city ordnance that prohibited picketing within 20 feet of a business, which was soon overturned by the courts.
Besides violence, there was a coordinated effort to prevent black people from voting or being represented in local government. It was not until 1980 that a black person was elected to Cairo’s city government, and it was only after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city was violating voting rights laws.
But by the 1970s, businesses were giving up on Cairo due to the seemingly endless strings of fires, violence and rioting. In 1978, the Interstate 57 bridge over the Mississippi River north of the city allowed motorists to completely bypass the town, which removed any reason for anyone to stop into the city.
Cairo is today nothing more than a shell with just 2,800 residents, a decline of 81% from its high in 1920 – the highest percentage of any principal city in the United States. The city hospital closed in 1987, and in 2009, 75% of the county deputies were laid off and five patrol cars were repossessed just days later. The remaining patrol cars were idled due to a lack of a gasoline, as the department did not have the funding to purchase any. Fort Defiance, once vital to the city during the Civil War, fell into disrepair. In education, Cairo lacks – it has one of the lowest average ACT scores in the nation, one of the highest drop out rates for high school students, and one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates.
This was one of the most depressing cities that I have visited. Not even Detroit, with its 61% population loss from its high 60 years ago, is this desolate. There was just a lack of people, and a lack of activity. Most buildings were either in a state of disrepair or was outright abandoned. Save for Washington Avenue that featured several elegant mansions and a few museums that were operated by the state of Illinois, Cairo was dead.
The state and federal government, however, found that Cairo was worth saving in the summer of 2011, when endless rain storms caused the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to swell to record heights. In order to save the city from catastrophic flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew a hole in the Birds Point levee along the Mississippi north of the city, which flooded 200 square miles of prime farmland and destroying nearly 100 residences with up to 15 feet of water. But Cairo had been earlier evacuated as waters threatened to undermine the levees – and a point was made in the local press:
What reason was there in saving a city that was already in much so much ruin?
The once bustling city had become a black mark on Illinois, and its economic outlook was next to non-existant. It’s civil rights record had been forever tarnished and what resources it did have were squandered.
It will be interesting to see what happens to Cairo in the near future. Just in the past few years, significant portions of its downtown fell to the wrecking ball, and more buildings are slated to be demolished. What identity and connection it had to its past is rapidly disappearing.