Cairo, Illinois - Abandoned

Cairo, Illinois

Cairo, Illinois, located in Alexander County at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers surrounded by levees, was strategically important during the Civil War but today is one of the poorest cities in the United States today after decades of racial turbulence.

Cairo was founded by the Darius Holbrook of Boston who had started Cairo City and Canal Company in 1837,7 but its location along two rivers resulted in Charles Dickens calling the land a “dismal swamp” in 1842.6 Bonds were sold to fund improvements, which included a levee, dry dock and shipyard.7 The bonds failed in 1840, but nevertheless, Cairo incorporated in 1858. Lots were sold five years prior, but sales were fairly slow until the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was completed in 1856, in part due to the Land Grand Act of 1850. Signed into law by President Fillmore, the railroad was given land in exchange for transporting government entities at a reduced rate. Just two years after incorporation, the town boasted 2,000 inhabitants, drawn to the region for its location at the junction of two major rivers.6 The IC connected Cairo to Galena.

Cairo was also, as Mark Twain described in Huckleberry Finn, the “Promised Land.”5 The city was at the southern most tip of what was called “free soil,” and its location along the river made Cairo a centralized location for blacks heading northward out of the south.

During the Civil War, Cairo served as a supply base and training center for the Union army. It’s central location was vital to the distribution of supplies to troops that were fighting in the south, via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. 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.5 7

After the war ended, Cairo prospered with an influx of wealth and population. The black population surged as well, increasing from 50 before the Civil War to 3,000, mainly due to escaped and freed slaves coming to Cairo via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.5 The city also boomed as steamboat traffic increased, serving as a vital steamboat port. It was designated a port of delivery by the United States Congress in 1854. In 1869, construction began on a federal Custom House and Post Office. The structure, designed by Alfred B. Mullet, the supervising architect during the post-war Reconstruction, was completed in 1872.

The city also served as a railroad and ferry hub. By the late 1800’s, as many as 500,000 railroad cars were ferried across the Mississippi and Ohio river in a year’s time.1 By 1886, shipments via the river and railroad were valued $60 million, the highest per capita in the nation.5

The completion of the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge over the Ohio River in 1899, however, led to a sharp decline in the ferry business. A second span at Thebes across the Mississippi River for the railroad further dented the ferry business. The first automobile bridge was finished across the Mississippi in 1929, followed by a companion Ohio River bridge in 1937. The combination of the railroad and automobile bridges caused the ferry industry to collapse.1

Racial tensions date back to the lynching of William James, a black resident. During that time, a little under half of the population was black, which was unusually large for a town of Cairo’s size and for Illinois. For instance, by 1900, Cairo had a population of 13,000 of which 5,000 were black. Five percent of all black residents of the state called Cairo home.2

James was accused of assaulting and murdering Anna Pelly on November 8, 1909, a young white woman.3 4 7 13 14 While he was placed in custody the next day, the citizens of Cairo demanded an immediate trial and conviction but grew angry when the case was delayed by the court. A threat of mob violence quickly bloomed, and Sheriff Davis attempted to move James out of the city via the Illinois Central Railroad. The mob, however, seized another train and caught up to James north of the city, who returned the individual to the city where a noose was installed at an arch that spanned the Commercial Avenue and 8th Street intersection. When the noose was placed around Jame’s neck, he confessed, stating that while he killed Pelly, Alexander had taken the lead.5

The rope broke during the hanging, which led the mob to shoot James to death. Following the shooting, the mob dragged the body to scene of Pelly’s murder, where the violent group cut the head from his body and placed it on a pole. The body of James was then burned.3 5 7

The mob then went to look for Jame’s accomplice, Arthur Alexander. When they were unable to locate him, they broke into the jail. Henry Salzner, a white photographer who was accused of murdering his wife in August, was broke out and then hung and shot at from a telegraph pole near the courthouse.4 The police then located Alexander, who disguised him as a police officer so they could escort him to the county jail safely. During this time, the mob continued their search, threatening the mayor and chief of police with violence.3

Eventually, the Governor of Illinois dispatched 11 companies of the state militia to Cairo to restore order. Soldiers had arrived and restored order by the time the mob found out that Alexander was being held at the jail.3

There was also a coordinated effort to prevent black people from voting in Future City, just north of Cairo.5 In 1913, Cairo voted to allow at-large elections rather than representation from wards, which was designed to prevent black people from being elected. In 1918, Cairo formed a NAACP chapter. But 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.5 It was forced to return to ward elections.

The economic decline for Cairo began in 1899, when the first railroad bridge over the Ohio River was completed. With the dedication of another railroad bridge and two automobile bridges, the ferry business was eliminated. Associated railroad industries that were developed around the ferries soon left, and Cairo was no longer a hub for railroad traffic as traffic could bypass the city. Shipping industries declined as well, only accelerating when diesel tugboats replaced steamboats in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The population of Cairo peaked at 15,000 in 1920 and remained relatively steady until the mid-1960’s when racial violence engulfed the city.

In 1964, Cairo closed the city swimming pool in an effort to prevent integration.5

On July 16, 1967, Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black solder that was home on leave, was found hanged in the city police station.5 While it was officially reported as a suicide, many members of the black community accused the police of murder.17 The FBI chose not to investigate the incident for foul play for fear that it would spark a riot.5 A large portion of the black population began rioting the next day, and later that night, three stores and a warehouse had been burned to the ground. The National Guard unit at Cairo was activated.18 In response, one of the leaders of the riot stated that “Cairo will look like Rome burning down” if the city leaders did not meet the demands of the black population by the 23rd. The leader, who represented approximately 100 black residents of the Pyramid Court housing project, demanded job opportunities, recreation programs and an end to alleged police brutality. Cairo’s Mayor, Lee Stenzel, and other city leaders, met with federal and state officials to develop a plan to end any further rioting.19 20

In response to this, the white community developed a citizens protection group that was deputized by the sheriff. Known as the “White Hats,” the protection group consisted of 600 individuals that donned white hats that showed membership. Reports of bullying incidents increased, and by 1969, several black residents formed the Cairo United Front that brought together the local NAACP chapter, a cooperative association, and some black street gangs, to counter the White Hats. The United Front accused the White Hats of intimidating the black community, and presented a list of seven demands to the city – which included the appointment of a black police chief and black assistant fire chief, and an equal black-to-white ratio in all city jobs.21

A rash of violence soon followed, which was stopped when Governor Richard Ogilvie deployed National Guardsmen to restore peace. The United Front then began a decade-long boycott of white owned businesses, which was nearly every commercial entity in Cairo. On December 6, several businesses were burned. Early that morning, residents of the Pyramid Court housing project opened fire on three fireman and the Chief of Police as they responded to one of the fires. One of the weapons included a high powered rifle. As a result of the incident, 13 people were arrested.22 The Chief of Police resigned in the following month, stating that Cairo lacked the legal and physical means to deal with the guerrilla warfare tactics that were being employed by the black citizens.23

In December 1970, Cairo enacted a city ordnance that banned picketing within 20 feet of a business.24 A violent clash erupted as a result, and the United Front called for another large rally, which turned violent when shots were fired.

The courts soon overturned the ban on pocketing and put pressure on the White Hats to disband. But by this time, most of the businesses in Cairo had given up and were closing rapidly. The Interstate 57 bridge over the Ohio River north of the city allowed motorists to completely bypass the town when it was finished in 1978. In December 1987, the city hospital closed.

In the summer of 2011, seemingly endless rains caused the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to swell to record heights.7 8 In order to save Cairo from catastrophic flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided upon blowing up a hole in the Birds Point levee along the Mississippi, which flooded 200 square miles of farmland and destroying nearly 100 residences with up to 15 feet of water.8 The detonation was fought by the state of Missouri and numerous landowners, who contested that the extreme action was unnecessary and that they were not being compensated adequately. A lawsuit was filed on May 3 in federal court.

In 2009, 75% of the county sheriff deputies were laid off, and five patrol cars were repossessed just days later.7 The remaining patrol cars were mostly idled due to a lack of gasoline, as the department did not have the funding to purchase any. Fort Defiance, which was vital to the Civil War, also fell into disrepair after ownership transferred from the state to the city.

Today, Cairo is home to just 2,800 residents, a decline of 81% from its high in 1920. It is one of the highest percentage losses in the United States. The city is also home to one of the lowest average ACT scores in the nation, one of the highest drop out rates for high schools, and one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates.5

Further Reading


  1. this is my birth place in 1958 June now its like back in the 20s in Mississippi I know some of this I was about. 10 it was bad then but I moved to a smalltown ad out 9 miles from Cairo I’ll it is call mound city I’ll it is the same Thair its so sad it seem that god gave up on the people.

    of Cairo and I have family in mound. city when I seen the movie of. Cairo I cried now I look. back at what has changed. it is a shame. for that to happen it was my home. and its will. all ways will I was. born thair god bless Cairo and mound city. il. and. the people I knowwho call. it home. like me thanks. for letting hurt logo all. Vicki

  2. This is really sad. To think my father was born and raised there. It’s no wonder he had a bad taste in his mouth for white people. He lived there in the heart of the worst. He was born in 1925. I’m blessed my father didn’t raise me to be racist after living in a place that was so racist. Wow, this really broke my heart.

  3. Passed through the city a few years ago. Kinda spooky looking, but we met some very nice people.
    Wife and I were traveling in august, both of us sick with food poisoning, but trying to make it home with still 500 miles to go.
    We had a flat tire right on main street. Both of us too weak and sick to even think of changing it.
    Very nice people, black and white, changed our tire. Got us some water and offered food, but we couldnt eat.
    offered to even put us up for the night.
    We were very blessed by strangers there … who went out of their way to help a couple travelers.

  4. I have a lot of family from Cairo. My grandfather was a sharecropper there and my uncles and aunts were born and raised there but migrated North during the early 60’s I believe. I have recently began putting together a family tree on my Mother’s side of the family. They were Lee and there were a ton of them/us. While I am sad that Cairo has gradually declined, i am intrigued by the amount of history there…good and bad. I doubt there is anything that can be done to bring the city back up. Very gripping and powerful and like I said, very sad.

  5. I lived in Cairo from 1955 to 1963. The age 6 to 13. I have such found memories. I can still smell the Magnolia trees as I rode my bike. There was a women who was known for her pastries. I love what see called a Goory Butter Cake. I am now 63 and retired. I would love to see the citizens of Cairo to find a way to turn it around.

  6. I drove to Cairo the other day not knowing the history of the towN and I actually had hopes for a sale for my Mary Kay business. When I got in the town I wanted to kick my car into sport mode and jam the gas pedal. I was scared and frightened. I got to the house I needed to go to and when I got there the 2 women had 7 kids they were taking care of and they all were living in a condemned trailer and they were all Filthy. I let the ladies do their Mary Kay product demo but I didn’t even hang around for paper work cause I just wanted back on the interstate. After I got back on 57 i was so happy I was laughing and about to cry. Never wanT to go there again

  7. I love my hometown Cairo it might look bad but some people enjoy being there

    I love being there

  8. We were driving around scouting out our next location and we were told to venture to Cario,IL Over the bridge we go…Drove around the town, looks like a location for FEAR the WALKING DEAD could be shot at. Run down buildings, collapsing landmarks such as the GEM theater. What caught our eye was the Southern Medical Center. When we got there, we met up with a film crew shooting “Driving Dead” at the hospital. Course we wanted to take a look around. Pretty spooky inside, this is the next location we will shoot an episode at. Once we gain permission from the city. Walking around in there gives you a sadness feeling, and sometimes a heavy feeling, Researching how many deaths occurred inside. Anyone with this type of information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

  9. Three weeks ago we drove through Cairo – just intended a scenic side trip on our vacation. I’ve never seen anything like it! We thought maybe the town had flooded or a tornado hit or perhaps a fire? On the main street, vacant, dilapidated commercial buildings, in many cases only the foundations remained. We only saw one person outside, a young man walking down the street. Very few cars. Perhaps two businesses appeared open but no visible customers. We saw some homes off of the main road that looked occupied from a distance but it was all so strange we were afraid to explore more. The area is so pretty with the river winding nearby, and some beautiful old architecture… we had to go online and see what the heck happened. We were shocked to find out that the residents, out of hatred, racial tension, ignorance, and frustration, destroyed their own city. Where is the logic in that? Where is the pride? Cairo looks like it has been beautiful in the past and could perhaps be an amazing redevelopment project for a developer with vision and a lot of money.

  10. cairo il is a has been, never to be again-people always say it sholdve been the biggest city in illinios ,what fucking morons,it sits on an island -duhhhhhhhhhh,it can only grow so big. race riots, hangings of blacks ,etc…..killed cairo, once a beautiful citu on the ohio & mississippi rivers . now doomed to the dustbins of history. its sad to walk along the cairo streets , to see the dilapidated buildings & homes. if you listen closely you can hear the sounds of history in the air, the hatred,the racism ,the sadness & the joy of this once proud city.cairo is doomed , cairo is illinois shame, cairo destroyed itself .

  11. This town was destroyed by blacks…..they got what they deserved….it is a testament to what will happen to the country if blacks are allowed to run rampant and make the rules…..look at East St. Louis, Pine Bluff, Detroit….the list goes on and will soon include Chicago…..

    • I think the whites destroyed Cairo by not allowing civil rights as a law. The whites got what they deserved. They ruined their own town. I think it’s called don’t poop where you eat.

    • That is the kind of attitude that led to Cairo’s ultimate downfall in the first place, Bill and Jo.

      Blaming one race or the other is not the lesson we should ultimately take away from this sad story. White or black, both bear a share of the blame: The whites lynched the blacks and the blacks burned down several businesses that were quite frankly just caught in the crossfire of angry men. It was racial tension and complete intolerance between the two that destroyed poor Cairo. I’m sad that I will never see what the place looked like when my great-grandfather lived there.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with you Turcila; the intolerance of both sides caused this city to crumble. I, too, have a great grandfather that lived in Cairo and I wish I could see where he lived and what he experienced.

        And Bill, please do some research before you make ignorant comments. I am from Chicago and I know the history VERY well, so let me school you a little on what’s going on up here.

        Chicago is one of the most (if not the most) segregated city in the US still to this day. Whites are on the Northside, blacks are on the Southside (also the West side). Whites strategically placed blacks on the Southside to live in the ghettos and projects that they built. They didn’t provide adequate housing, schools, grocery stores or access to positive resources of any kind. Without access to a solid education, the black community is unable to obtain a decent paying job. Without a decent paying job, they are not able to provide for themselves or their families. Thus, they result to finding other means to making money (which includes illegal activities). The thirst for survival and the struggle to meet daily needs results in violence. It is a perpetuating cycle where the black community is at a constant disadvantage and lacking opportunities that whites on the Northside have an endless supply of.

        Unless you, sir, would like to come over here and sit down with Mayor Emanuel to come up with a way to break the cycle and give the black community a way to better themselves and their surroundings, your opinion about my great city of Chicago is empty and useless. We need less people like you in this world.

  12. California musician Scott Cooper has released a new CD with a song about Cairo, ILL. The CD “Batik in Blue” opens with the song “K-Row.”
    The song is a fictitious story about a lover who leaves her man after a flood while he stays behind in Cairo. It’s both about the departure of the woman as well as the demise of the City itself.
    Cooper was born and raised in St. Louis but has lived in California since 1986. An old childhood friend who lives in Jackson, MO told Cooper about the city of Cairo and Cooper swiftly wrote a song about it.
    Cooper is a veteran of the San Francisco Bay Area music scene. He has performed with members of the Grateful Dead, Doobie Brothers and many others. His first CD”A Leg Trick” reached #5 on the national jam band radio charts. “Batik in Blue” is available on iTunes, Amazon, CDbaby and other sites. You can also download the song “K-Row” on it’s own.

    link to song:

  13. I was born and raised in Cairo. It was a Beautiful place at one time. I remember the hotdog vendor downtown the aroma, and the stores. So many places to go to. There use to be a Drive-In there. I feel all i have left of Cairo is the memories i have of my Childhood and my friends. Why should we suffer the consequences of others because we were born into this type of situation. I didn’t do this. It makes me want to cry for what has happened to Cairo. Even if they rebuild Cairo, it will never be the same for me!

  14. I recall traveling to Cairo as a child with my momma and grandma around Christmas. We would tour the Magnolia Manor, which is breathtakingly beautiful and open for your even today. The huge old buildings downtown are a silent memoir of a city full of robust stories of struggle and strife, what was, what could have been, and what it could be. I have never felt afraid to drive through the city, except maybe that I might meet up with a sink hole…. And, the people I have encountered have greeted me with a Southern sweetness and respect.

  15. i love exploring new places with history… kinda worried about going but who would recommend going for a visit to see how creepy this place is/isn’t?

  16. blacks ruined Cairo constant picketing boycotting , drove all white businesses out, who wants to hire thieves and vilolents

  17. My parents Gene and Mary Knight grew up in Cairo. I remember going there several times when I was young. My grandparents still lived there, but of course, 30 years changed the city. I remember my parents telling us so many stories about Cairo and how it was a booming city in the 50’s. So sad to see it like it is today.

  18. I will be in St. Louis in Sept. and mentioned to friends that it is said that it is interesting to see Cairo as it’s hard to believe you are in midwestern state. All said not waste time, but didn’t say why. NOW I UNDERSTAND!! One said visit Wheeling WV see how it feels like the midwest, not WV. P.S. Who is this going to?

  19. It’s not a black or white problem. It seems one side wanted equal rights of the city in the past. One part was ultimately feeling not welcome in the end. Now it’s time for the “minority” that wanted certain control to do something with the city. The riots for equality did not seem to have a positive impact.

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