Cairo, Illinois is located in Alexander County at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers surrounded by levees. Cairo 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.

The city 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 1800s, 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 and Decline

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, theatning 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 1940s and 1950s. The population of Cairo peaked at 15,000 in 1920 and remained relatively steady until the mid-1960s 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 schoolers, and one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates.5


  • Name: Cairo, Illinois
  • Years of Significance: 1837, 1865, 1899, 1967


  1. Bass, Kyle. “Cairo, Illinois.” Illinois History: A Magazine for Young People Apr. 2001: 48-49.Illinois Periodicals Online. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. Article.
  2.  “1909: Will James, “the Froggie”, lynched in Cairo.” Executed Today. N.p., 11 Nov. 2009. Web. 7 Feb.2012. Article.
  3. Lansden, John McMurray. “Miscellaneous Papers.” A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois. Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1910. 277-278. Print.
  4. Niederkorn, William S. “One Lynching in Cairo, Ill.; Then, Another.” New York Times 12 Nov. 2009: n.pag. The Times Traveler. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. Article.
  5. “First Half Century.” The Cairo Project. Southern Illinois University Carbondale School ofJournalism, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. Article.
  6. Barry, Dan. “Where Two Rivers Converge and Two Histories Divide.” New York Times 20 May 2007, New York ed.: A16. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.
  7. Albin, Dave. “The Endless Sufferings of Cairo, Illinois.” Mises Daily. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 12 May 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.
  8. “Levee blast eases threat to Illinois town.” Quad City Times [Davenport] 3 May 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.