Spurred on by an impromptu excursion to photograph a collapsed bridge 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. Then, I came across Cairo, Illinois. What the hell happened here?
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.
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“Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns” by Ron Powers is an interesting read.
Thanks for the suggestion….I will check this out!
I lived in Cairo from 1942 until 1951. A good portion of my childhood. I was not from a well to do family, nor was my family racist having come from Northern Ohio and Indiana. I loved that town and had a great deal of freedom to enjoy my childhood in St. Mary’s Park, The Cairo Library, etc.. I attended Lincoln Elementary and Elmwood Schools until leaving for Southern California with my family. I see it now and wonder what blacks gained from their over reactions to the events leading up to the riots and the fires? Are they happy with what is left? Wouldn’t it have been better to resolve these problems in a more peaceful way! What did outside influence do, but increase the violence? It appears, from my two trips back to the area over the last 20 years, that they destroyed their own futures and nothing was solved. Those who could (mostly white) left and the rest simply survived in what looks like a war zone out of WWII! How does Cairo differ from parts of Detroit? It doesn’t! How terribly sad that this gem of history has been so totally destroyed.
Very interesting. Your age seems to have given You a realistic perspective of this sad story.
It seems popular to blame racism as the reason Cairo collapsed. As a teenager growing up near there, I can tell you it is much more complex than this. The Cairo riots, which was the impetus of the end, started after Johnson’s “great society” era, when welfare benefits were given legitimacy, and dramatically increased Dan Rather of CBS News came to Cairo during the worst of the riots and interviewed on national TV, a black young girl. He asked her about what she wanted to do when she “grew up”. She replied “I wants to draw”. Rather said, “Oh, so you want to be an artist. That’s fantastic?” She replied “No, I want to draw welfare because I am entitled jus like my momma.” Cairo is a great example of what happens when more people are living and feel entitled to government benefits, than those who work and pay taxes. My grandparents were merchants in Cairo, and every merchant finally gave up and relocated because shoplifting drove everyone out of business. The Black,population started burning all of the major stores and industries at night, and outsiders moved in to “inflame” the situation. It became unmanageable and those who produced, those who paid taxes, those who made a community work, moved out. What was left was a mass of people living on government “benefits” and that was it. I drove into Cairo last year, and it is pathetic. Everything, and I mean everything, is collapsing and in disrepair. However, the government housing is still full of the heirs of their mothers and fathers who just wanted to “draw” when they grew-up.
A young man shoplifts at a store in East St. Louis, wonders down the middle of the street high on crack and points something at the police. The police shoot him. If I was wondering downtime middle of the street after shoplifting and pointed something at the police after the repeatedly told me to “lay down,” I would be shot too. Yet the locals of East St. Louis decry racism and riot, burn stores, and cause much damage. Cairo all over again. In a few years East St. Louis will be a disaster zone, and the liberal left will once again, blame “racism”. At what point does a community, ie.all residents of a community, take accountability for their actions? To say one group, but not another, is a form of racism in and of itself. Each community must police itself and be real. Cairo will never recover so long as the responsibility is not placed square on Cairo itself.
I agree with you Mike 110%! I was born there and grew up there. We left in 1968 because we lived 1 block away from the lumberyard that was burned down. My dad stood in the front yard with a gun to protect us from the arsonists. They threw bricks and broken bottles at the fire fighters trying to put the fire out. We threw what few possessions we had in the car and LEFT the very next day.
It’s very obvious that you did not read this article with the attitude of a so called “non-racist individual”. It is equally obvious that you condoned the violent acts committed by Whites towards Blacks in Cairo.White racist and violence toward Blacks is what lead to Blacks getting fed up with the tactics of white racist. It’s even much more obvious that what you are really wanting to say is that “Blacks should have known their place” and just continue to accept being lynched, descriminated against, and just accept things from racist White people. You made no comment about the historical racist attitudes that existed in Cairo that had existed since the beginning of the existence of the city!
While so many (especially younger people who only know about the situation from what they read in politically correct textbooks) are shut-down by being called a racist, I will not succumb to such simplistic accusations. First, I am not racist, in any manner or method. Second, unless and until all communities, including the black community, take responsibility for their past and actions, and stop solely blaming others for their community actions, no progress will be truly be made. No doubt racism exist in Cairo at the time, and no doubt racism exist now. From all sides, blacks make generalizations (and act) about whites, and whites make generalizations about blacks (and act) out upon such generalizations.
You state that I “obviously” read the article with a predetermined attitude, and that I “condoned” horrible acts due to racism by white people. The only place where that is obvious is in the want of your mind. Until all people achieve results, based upon their own merit, and not skewed achievements based upon past perceptions, equality will not be achieved. Is the black doctor in the emergency room there because he was the best qualified, or because he balances out racial goals? If I have a heart attack, I want the smartest physicians, not ones who are goal based qualified, and I suspect you would too.
Government support programs achieve nothing more than keeping people in their “place”. How many people do you know who live in government housing, who are second or third generation in such housing? In my community, government housing is somewhat based upon legacy, i.e., if one grew-up in a housing project, that are given priority for a government housing apartment. And the cycle continues.
I promise you that if I stole goods from a store, marched down the middle of the street in my community, and pointed something at the police after they told me to lay down, I would be shot dead. And not one of my neighbors would participate in a riot, burn stores, or overturn cars. My community would hold my actions as the cause of my death.
To blame racism, of whites against blacks, as the sole cause of Cairo’s immense decline is simplistic, escapist, and nothing more than a salve to ignore self recognition of one’s own community’s contribution to the problems.
I know, I lived there and experienced the riots and turmoil of Cairo in the 1960’s as a child and young adult. My grandparents were merchants and the bulk of their customers were black Americans. They supported and were friends with most in this community, but when thugs prompted by outside influences started to burn down the town, of course they left. To blame the Cairo that I loved, and knew, today, strictly on racism by white people is not only ignorant, it promotes that similar issues will continue for a long time to come.
White privilege. That’d what I hear in your writing. It’s like breaking a birds Wing and then calling him lazy because he cannot fly. As white people you lie about black history in on this land. Whites do everything they can do to keep us down. It seems to be never ending. Black people carried America on its back, doing the slave period for over two hundred years. A lot of white historians claim that ex slaves should be thankful that European whites brought blacks from Africa to America because they were then introduced to Christianity . I call it the great WHITE lie or fairy tell. White people continue to do what they have done thruout history. They steal . They still your land, your labor, and your sole. If whites wanted to be right, they would stop breaking my wings. Stand back and watch my progress. Black people are broken. Slavery, the Black codes, constant discrimination and teaching of European history over truth have had a tremendous impact on black lives in America. It’s been part of the breaking process. And it’s worked. But as a people our backs are against the wall. And I ain’t, trying to get to your bible heaven. There is a law of the universe which is god. That god is in me. It is not in a book. A college degree will not help you understand it. The poorest people can feel it’s power and it’s love. People of color of the world are standing up together. In peace and of peace. Whites this ain’t your world. The world belongs all of the people.
In this argument, I see one person putting the blame on hateful attitudes and lack of responsibility & standards by ALL people regardless of color. I see another person blaming white people. Who’s the racist?
i drove to Cairo IL to check out if it was as bad as everyone said
i chugged a brewski i had in my cooler then left
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[…] Cahal’s blog entry covering Cairo and its decline. His article can be found by clicking HERE. The former Famous-Barr Department Store building sat on the vaccant lot to the left of the van in […]
Throughout the 1960’s, I spent my summers on my grandparents dairy farm in Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cairo. One summer, at night, we would sit on the front porch of my grandparent’s home and routinely watch as the nighttime Western sky invariably turned bright orange from the many fires in Cairo. Anger, mistrust and hatred killed Cairo, both black and white. I remember a Cairo that was a bustling town– full of stores, businesses, restaurants and neighborhoods. Although black and white hatred lead to Cairo’s demise, the real murderers of this once flourishing city were the instigators who, for personal gain, incited their sheep into a “destroy everything” mentality. At the end of the day, every person is responsible for their actions The actions of those in Cairo, who were routinely shown on NBC nightly news during this time chanting “burn baby burn” during their nightly protests, are the ones who destroyed their home town and their future. Its exactly the same frenzy currently witnessed in places like East St. Louis, Philadelphia, and a few other cities. I don’t know anyone that would want to rebuild a business in the very neighborhood that had destroyed it in the first place. Burn baby burn.
I have lived in the Bond, Madison, and ST. Clair county area of Illinois for a long time. Just yesterday I went on a long drive and got a wild hair to drive well south to Cairo and head to the River to take a few pics. I have never been there and knew nothing of it’s history until tonight after doing some research online. I stayed on the main drag to get to Defiance State park, so I only saw a little bit of the city. I was absolutely blown away by what I seen there! It honestly reminded me of the few parts of East St. Louis that I have seen. And much like East St. Louis it didn’t look very safe there. Very surreal and disturbing to see.
How interesting. Thank you.
Sorry for typos. “Doing” not do No
My husband and I just moved to Missouri from California. We were heavily involved in Civil War re-enacting and re students of Civil War American history. My Civil War great-grandfather was a 2nd lieutenant with the 28th Illinois Infantry. I have many of his writings from those times and so often he mentioned Cairo, Illinois, which was where he was transported after enlisting.
Fort Defiance, built at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, was the staging point for troops going south to fight major Civil War battles. One of my first road trips after our move to Missouri (I am a 68-year-0ld woman retired public schoolteacher) was by myself to the Mississippi River area- Cape Girardeau and Cairo, Illinois specifically. I was so excited to actually see the places I has read about in history books and in my great-grandfather’s letters and memoirs. Going across the bridge into Cairo I was filled anticipation seeing the town and Fort Defiance. I was in for a rude awakening. I saw beautiful old buildings in great states of disrepair with broken windows and graffiti detracting from their beauty. I saw a few people, wandering aimlessly, especially in front of a gas station/liquor store. I drove over broken streets weed-covered yards, by
empty factories and rail yards, out towards Fort Defiance. I thought it would be a normal historic site, with a visitors center, plaques located at strategic points in the area to tell of its history, and yes perhaps a small replica of a fort that once was there. I walked through the mud to the point where the great Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet- nothing there but an ill-kept observation platform with no information anywhere about this historic place. There were only two fishermen, where once transport steamboats once docked to transport the Union Army to the south. This was where my great-grandfather began his journey, fighting under General Grant, in many of the major Civil War battles. I stood there in shock. Why had no one preserved this place for future generations?
This could be an amazing place to teach history, to bring kids in buses to see a movie,to look at old pictures of those times,to actually step on a re-created steamboat dock, maybe with a restored transport docked so people could really get a feel for those times. A great place for historical re-enactments, bringing its history alive. I stood there, almost mourning, for the lack of interest in this place. Why couldn’t it become a National Military Park? We are letting this rich place of history disappear. The town of Cairo is in shambles . As I drove through the area I truly did fear fear my safety, They should move everyone out of this town, put a fence around it, gate it, go in , resurrect those lovely old buildings and streets- and rebuild Fort Defiance, for the sake of future generations. It would take a billion dollars to do it probably. I wish someone with money could re-take this town, for the sake of our rich history and restore it to what it once was. I was saddened by this trip and as I drove over the bridge, back over the amazing Mississippi, back to the great state of Missouri, I thought of my Civil War grandfather as he began his life-changing adventure at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi………
I know exactly how you feel ,and wrote recently about how beautiful Cario was ,I wrote as Ashlyn and like you wish I had experience or know how to get the right people interested in reviving a jewel of the past ,where is the state representives ,where are the historical buffs ,where are the history writers where are the people who care and can stimulate doing something ,,! It makes me sad ,
The history museum there in the old court house is do No what it can, with limited funds, to tell that story. Worth a visit for sure!
This is to anyone who can give me so info on books about Cairo ,maybe some history books that can give more detail of what happened or even some civil, war accounts thx Ashlyn.ashlyn
Move everyone out?! These are people that LIVE there. These are not cattle,alright? How about inviting them in on the rebirth process. Getting them involved. What did you teach anyway? People are more important than building and the people are suffering. Geesh – good thing you no longer teach.
I read about the demise of Cairo since the sixties but no one talks of the poverty. The schools that are being closed down the apartments of the poor that are going to be torned down. The people who live here have no money to escape the ones that had.left. Truly a sad situation when we cannot save a town and its people.Where are the investors of our country.
Just an FYI….their speedtrap is alive and well.
So sad ,I use to drive from Illinois to my hometown of Mckenzie Tn ,it was a beautiful river town and so full of history ,but then all the trouble began and each trip I took I saw it disgrenatating and then became fearful to make the drive alone .Blame is on a community as a whole and hate seemed to take over and it got out of control .i certainly don’t have the answer to this and what is going on with our nation as a whole .i miss the old town I use to drive thru,I really feel that God is looking down on us as the people he made in his image ,no matter color or race or religion ,and is not pleased ! God bless us all and forgive us !
Does anyone on this thread know when the Hustler’s Arch (at 8th and Commerical) came down? Visible on old postcards from the 1910’s. . . .
A local historian in 2008 told me it came down in the late 1920’s. Even the oldest person I could talk to didn’t remember ever seeing the arches in place other than through photographs.
We rented a house on Walnut street in 1950-52 1st and 2nd went to SAFFORD ELEMENTARY-then LINCOLN 1953-54, 3rd and 4th gr, we had moved to Park Av 1953. Have not been back since the 50’s but have many childhood memories of Cairo. Walking to school going home for lunch, playing marbles in the school yard, playing across the railroad track by the levee , making huts . Childhood friends like Marshall Simpson,Victor Graham,David Jewel, Penny Weber, teachers Mrs Riddle, Mrs Bowers,and Mrs Hartley.
It was a great place to grow up. I do remember it did have a reputation as a rough town, when we lived on Walnut street a black house was bombed. In 1954 they integrated Lincoln elementary, that was the only time I actually went to school with blacks , as I moved to Arthur,Ill a big Amish area then in 1959 moved back south to East Point,GA were integration had not taken place yet in the schools.
I now have lived in College Park,Ga , 5 miles from downtown Atlanta for the last 30 yrs. My area in very diverse with blacks,gays and whites, Whites make up only 14 percent of the population. This is by far the best area I have ever lived in
because we actually try hard to know our neighbors and respect them. If I only had to judge the world by this neighborhood.
and not by the media LEFT and RIGHT I would see the USA as a pretty good place to live .If you ever get to College Park, Ga
ask for Bo Causey and I will buy you a drink.
My dad and I used to make a goose hunting trip to Cairo when I was 9-10 yrs old…I’m 49 now….but those were some of the best trips I had ever taken….sitting in a out blind with my dad and a guide near the Ohio river…freezing to death but worth every minute…I wish I could remember. The name of the place we hunted…I’m sure it’s closed down now…but Cairo seemed to really cater to goose hunters and duck hunters….maybe some1 could go there and really bring back the hunting industry…maybe like a Stuttgart ark
I lived in Cairo from 1970 to 1980. Horseshoe Lake at Olive Branch IL has a lot of goose hunters every year but it is close to the Mississippi River. If you were close to the Ohio River, you may have been around Olmsted IL or Mound City IL. Mona L.
My family, Bondurants, had a home in Charleston and several in Cairo, across from the Magnolia Manor, farther down Washington, and on Park. My great grandfather and uncle were doctors in town, and my grandfather built a hospital there. My uncle’s family, the Henckells, had several businesses, including an old-fashioned drug store.
I spent many summers in Cairo during the 50s and 60s, and I stayed with my grandmother at 2601 Washington. I read here that her house was listed at $35k. Incredible. (I live in Chgo where her carriage house alone would cost more than that.)
I knew about the racial problems in the 60s; I remember when they closed the pool. Of course no adults explained the situation to me, not my white relatives nor any of the people that worked for them. I do remember that there were times in the mid 60s when women who worked for my grandmother didn’t take me home on their days off as they had in years past. My social outings with Black children really dried up then, but there were all kinds of reasonable explanations that made sense to me until 68 or 69. I never heard any racist talk from my relatives or their friends when I was in Cairo. Perhaps Jesse Jackson is easier to blame than one of the people you know.
My grandmother was the last Bondurant in town and we moved her to Chgo in 1986. Last time I went through Cairo I was able to eat at the remaining Shemwell’s BBQ.
I want to spend some time in the Cairo library again, and I want to see some of the old houses that were on the bridge (cards) circuit back in the day.
The people I spent time with in Cairo and their descendants that still live there were all wonderful, gracious, loving people. The racism I have read in this thread is horrific, it sounds like crap one would hear 150 years ago in a Slave State. I have NEVER been threatened or frightened by anybody in Cairo, as a child or as an adult.
I have a million great memories of Cairo and I will be glad to see what remains the next time I can visit there.
Cairo was once a nice place to live, not much left of this beautiful city. What saddens me is the state has turned a blind eye to this historic town.
I am visiting the town of Cairo this weekend, any advice?
Eat at the New Diner
Cairo is shutting down no more grocery store aid office gone Delta center gone no jobs in Cairo any more I lived there for 14 years nothing at all left businesses shutting down cops are worthless Cairo has turned in to a town of drunks and drug users not twn to live in . I moved now live in better place.
Cairo is shutting down no more grocery store aid office gone Delta center gone no jobs in Cairo any more I lived there for 14 years nothing at all left businesses shutting down cops are worthless Cairo has turned in to a town of drunks and drug users not twn to live in .
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Why isn’t Oprah and her billion$ here in Future City instead of funding a girls school in South Africa,? Of course she doesn’t want or need strangers telling her how to spend her money, but with no close heirs to squander her legacy she might consider a meeting with Frederick D. Medler
I take it you have a problem with Oprah spending her money to help educate the girls in Africa? Makes sense, probably middle aged, uneducated white, man. You, with all due respect, are part of the problem.
Connie you are part of the problem with your racism and misandry. Your hatred is really depressing. Some investment in Cairo from billionaires to help those who are too poor leave would be welcomed.
Why don’t you ask Oprah? Why don’t you ask any of the white billionaires that invest and donate money elsewhere? Is she supposed to be responsible for Cairo because she’s Black? How has her building a school “in Africa” made her a target?
I visited Cairo early last month, and it’s as everyone’s said here, sad and strange to see it falling away. I wonder if anyone has ever considered turning it into a mix of urban farm land, and restoring what remaining buildings there are into tourism leaning ventures? I know Mr. Medler has created an extensive plan, but wonder if it includes any of what I thought about. I am kind of thinking it might since he mentioned urban sprawl, and the possibilities for urban development that had not sprawled into suburbs and exurbs. . . .As we face the impacts of climate change, cities are going to have to be more resilient in how they deal with rising sea levels, etc. Cario, with its existing levy system, seems like a good place to test the impacts? I am not a farm person at all, but so much vacant land being left doing nothing? I’m sure there are probably soil concerns from the kinds of buildings/materials that may have been on the sites, but couldn’t something be growing there? Couldn’t the levy systems be adapted to irrigation systems? I know. Not without a lot of cash. . . . But there are some very wealthy people who are directing their money and research support toward these issues. It just seems with the “farm to table” being so popular in restaurants in large cities, farms right on the blocks of beautiful old buildings has some real potential. . . . . THere are still a few of them up, but it’s now only a very few. I know urban farming is happening in Chicago and Milwaukee. Probably Detroit, too. And there’s no where near as much vacant land as I saw in Cairo. I toured the Custom Museum, and the collection there is really interesting. The woman who showed me around was not a lifelong Cairo resident, but clearly loved the city. I did feel a little bad driving around taking pictures, but now I wish I had stayed longer and taken more. No one was anything but friendly to me when I wandered around by myself.
I do not see color in people. I just see people. I recently bought a house in Cairo after driving through. I seen that the town was run down and did not care. I wanted to only fix the 1 house I bought and have something nice for my family.
I had no idea of the history of the town. I wanted to know more about it so I did a quick online search. I found the bad history and still wanted to be part of the regrowth of this town. I have the money and was planning on spending some to buy a block or 2 of Cairo.
I was doing nothing more than working in the yard of the house I bought 2 weeks ago. I was approached by 2 black males who told me to leave town by the end of the day because white people were not welcome there. I was shocked and disappointed, I simply went into the house and put the for sale sign back in my yard.
I fully understand that every race has its good and bad people. I also understand that discrimation can go both ways. White people can hate black people and black people can hate white people.
I do not hold the whole town of Cairo responsible for the actions of 2 people but I can not live where I am getting threatened for bettering a community. I hope the actions of the people in Cairo change in the near future. I know the past is not the best it can be. Quit looking at the past for anything more than history. Look at the future and work for it. I for one no longer feel welcome there.
I’m so sorry that you felt threatened by 2 males that happen to have been black scare you into leaving what you thought would have been a great investment for yourself and your family. I also understand your reaction to doing exactly what you were told to do, but I don’t understand what happen to your wanting to add to the potential growth of a failing community. For years people that were born and raised in this city were threatened, beaten and abused by Caucasian people but still stayed put. They took their chances, it was their place to live just like the other people there. When I grew up there it was so prejudice that by the time I graduated we, the kids united our races and did not let what the older Caucasian people keep trying to dictate what we should be doing. This tells me that you really didn’t want to live there you just wanted to see what would happen. For years Caucasian people that still live in Cairo, IL , the surrounding towns in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee have threaten Black people on a constant basis but we still stand. Also, it seems like you didn’t have good intentions when you bought your home. Many of the people there are good people and the likes of only two people of color scared the crap out of you to return the “for sale” sign…..I’m sorry but your heart was not in a good place when you decided to purchase your home. When I purchased a home in an all “white” community in the northern suburbs of Chicago they spray painted my home with “nigger get out”. “Niggers are not welcome here.” I’m still here after 10 years. I bleed red just like you. The internal color of my organs are the same color as yours the only thing different is my outer body, and guess what……my hair is straight, no chemicals….just naturally straight dark brown just like most Caucasians. Sorry you don’t feel welcome but you need to change your heart and mindset of what your intention were when you made this decision.
Your statement shows alot of internal denial and putting the blame on the wrong party.
Clinton I call bull sh*t on your whole post. If you have money as you say you do you wouldn’t go buying property in a place you are not familiar with. Your poor grammer “I seen” indicates you are not highly educated and it wouldn’t take long before your money would be gone. People with money don’t just randomly buy “a block or 2” in an area they have not researched. You are not telling the truth.
Yes, that is complete and total BS. Let’s see the sale documents. Or give us the particulars so we can look up the sale of the property. What rubbish.
This shocked me. I’m the City Clerk and I’ve never heard of something like this happening in Cairo. I’m sorry you felt so threatened. By the way I’m white. I lived here by myself with my son after I was divorced and have never been threatened or scared to live by myself with my young son. I’m remarried and still live in Cairo.
Thanks for your comments! I’m an African-American Male and I reside in Columbus, Ohio….which is one of the fastest growing cities in the US. I have had the pleasure of meeting both Blacks and whites that have relocated to my great City, and they all are great people! They know that there has been Racial problems in Cairo since the beginning of it’s existence. However, Cairo is still home to them, and I plan to visit Cairo soon with 2 of my new friends…one Black and the other is white. Seriously…We do not see color….we all live life well and love each other. We couldn’t dare allow color to Change that at all!
Sorry you had that encounter. These lads probably felt you needed to get a dose of what their parents went through in the 60’s and 70’s. I only met one person in Cairo who seemed a little agitated my my presence but wasn’t a threat. Everybody else waved to me as I passed buy even said good morning or afternoon as I walked down the street on a very hot muggy day. The people at city hall and the library have been very helpful when I stopped in for information.
A man you really want to meet is Preston Ewing. He knows Cairo backward and forward and took hundreds of photos during the turbulent times 45-50 years ago. If any man has seen troubles in Cairo, he’s the one!
My husband and I visited Cairo from California around 2008 on a trip to learn more about his ancestors who lived in Cairo in the 1800’s and 1900’s. We fell in love with this town! I kept saying that if I won the lottery, I’d buy up the town and repair all the wonderful old buildings which were generally a shell with a pile of rubbel on the inside. At that time, I hadn’t read anything about the turmoil that this town was experiencing. We stayed in a Super Eight just as you come into town. In our ignorance, we freely wandered the streets, ate at the diner, and explored the fabulous well-kept library. We toured the cemetery and found the family plot in the area where the woods intruded on the manicured grass. We saw people–young black men, riding on the back of a truck–they appeared very friendly and smiled at us. I wish all who live here peace and prosperity and I hope to visit again.
Janet, the hate you hold in your heart is against a whole race of people. There are good and bad in every race. Look at the world around you and what has gone on this week. Please don’t close your mind and heart off.
This comment is from Janet to Sherman Cahal,Cynthia and Ryana -you have your right to voice your opinion, so do I. Maybe usiing the word hate was to harsh, but Sherman saying what he said was discusting and nasty. If any of you were there at the time of the rioting. rape of a telephone worker i worked with, burning of houses. my husband and i had to stay all night on the Coast Guard ship all night we were being fired on. Boycotting.Thats where i saw Jessee Jackson and i worked at Illinois Bell telephone with charles Cohens wife Clidia. so if you have anything nasty keep it to yourself unless you went thru this..are you from Cairo? it will always be my home town and I will come back any time I want to. I have freedom of speech.
“Freedom of speech” – that’s a crock. You know that only works when a government entity silences your opinion or thought? I keep your comments up because you make yourself so easily discoverable and based on 15 minutes of research, I’ve come to the conclusion that you are nothing more than an old haggard who holds hate towards an entire race of people for nothing more than being black. Your time will come and I’m thankful that with each successive generation of people, racism like you exhibit wanes. Good ridden to trash.
Janet you are too old to think that times have not changed. This is a new decade since you lived there. You no longer live there and don’t want to go back. You speak of rape of a telephone worker well why don’t you talk about the lynching that was done around the time you were a little girl of the black solder. You all did that just because you could. I remember Illinois Bell being in Cairo I remember the shooting and the boycotts. I remember a truck load of white people riding down our street telling us not to come downtown or we were going to be in big trouble and I lived on 27th and Commercial Ave. Ya’ll would spit at us when we were downtown. So lady please know your history and since you grew up there why don’t you tell the full truth about what really happened back then. This is a new day and new age. It’s racist rhetoric like this that keep the fire burning. Stop it, especially if you believe in God. Don’t you know that when you get placed in a nursing home a black person will be the one taking care of you.
Well, well Ms. Janet it’s good to see that you have moved away and moved on. So please stop spreading your hatred for a place you no longer reside. I too, no longer live in the area but there is no valid reason to hate the people there or any other race for that matter. A hobby of mine is investing in real estate, and trust me that entire region is ripe for development (including Cairo). The land is extremely cheap and there is little to no political opposition to development. You see the point most people miss is the generation that created that hatred is mostly dead or will be soon dying out. The new generation is ready for change, but obviously that does not include you.
All Cairo need is a visionary for development, probably someone like Donald Trump (though I’ll never vote for the guy). The region is beautiful with some of the best natural wildlife attributes that nature has to offer. The biggest problem with the region is the lack of entertainment, hotel accommodations and marketing the region for its assets instead of telling stories of its tainted past. Though I agree we should learn from our past, but that past should not define the destiny of the entire region’s future. So keep your hatred to yourself as it is not needed for progress. For me I will continue going back and visiting a place I still call home, Southern Illinois (including Cairo).
Thank you Cynthia for saying that so well. My jaw dropped to the floor when I read it.
Hello Cynthia, I agree that Cairo is a town full of rich history, I recall driving down from Chicago with my dad and uncles as a young man and we would fish both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. I think that your concept along with some of the other visionary opinions expressed in this thread can truly be the catalyst to ignite a Renaissance of sorts. What would be most interesting is to see a museum or public space that can serve as an archival of cultural influence, sadly we must all bear the shame of the past in order to build on the hope of the future. A perfect example is the “Levine Museum of the New South” in Charlotte N.C . The grand space has managed to address the history of the south in a very compelling yet respectful way.
We all have our fond memories of the what was of Cairo . I wish I had the funds ,or the know how to help put it back to the wonderful place it once was! My grown children remember stopping and getting an ice cold soda and snack . Was the Bbq place called Shemwells ,? We could not remember the name ,but recall the sweet ,smoky smell and the yummy sandwich . When I travel to Tenn,I remember that drive thru Cario with fond ,sad memories,
My name is Janet and i was born in Cairo on 4/4/46 my family lived there. I went to safford grade school, cairo junior high and graduated Cairo high school as my brother did. He was two years older that me.. I lives in Cairo until i married a Coast Guard guy in 1967. which his cg boat was stationed in Cairo. It tended the buoys in the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Cairo was where i started working jobs after school,weekends and etc. Bur when the rioting startes in about 1966/67 Rev. Jessee Jackson and caused all of the problems in cairo. His helper was Rev Charles Cohen. It wasn’t always rioting. it was rape.MalitL COCTAILS.burning houses and everything imaginable..Cairo when I was growning up was a population of 12,500 people. I have been back there in 2008 and 2014 and it makes me sick that the government would let this happen to someones home town.when I went back it made me sick at my stomach. I now live in Maryland where my husband retired from the Coast Guard after 20 yrs. I only live 40 minutes from Wash.D.C. where Jessee 1jackson is still there. Still in Govt. Hr has been a trouble maker all his life and the black talk about race with the whites, well he should look back thru his life and see how he hurt the people that loved Cairo,Il. but he caused all of them to vacate. it makes me sick. why cant something be done about this. Jesse Jackson has caused me to hate every black person in my life. In Cairo he killed people, bombed houses boycotted and more. if you are interested to talk to me about any of this cont me. I will not give you any information, but hope you are a white person or otherwise i will not talk to you.
Fucking christ, racist nutbag.
How on earth can you use the ‘F” word with our Lord and Savior’s name? I pray that you will ponder this in your heart and realize Christ died for you on the cross also, because he loved you so much. Your words grieve me.
Kathy he says it not out of disrespect but out of pure frustration. Plus it’s his site. Aka freedom of speech.
Wow, 1966/1967, you blame Rev Jesse Jackson and Charles Koen for the hatred and boycotts in Cairo, IL. Lady are you for real. The problem did not stem from those two people. Al Moss, the then mayor of Cairo and his KKK constituents were the reasons for the boycotts. You and your family hated black people way before them because you all did not want to go to school with black people. Hell you all poured concrete in the public swimming pool so no blacks could swim in it. The one hotel downtown near Shemwell’s BBQ closed its doors because black people wanted to use their hotel when visiting. That was the only hotel that refused to this day to let a black person sleep there. So you hate every black person in this world well I guess you have really struggled these last 8 years because there was a black….no let me change that a bi-racial president running the free world. The only thing is his outer skin color is that of a black person……Janet how were you able to make it knowing a black man ran this country. You grew up during the time you and your family tried to suppress the black people of Cairo, IL. You did not want to unite the people Al Moss, the Gutterman’s and a whole bunch more caused the demise of Cairo not Jesse Jackson and Charles Koen……lady you are old now and still don’t know your history. You were one of the racist that lived there and soon you too will leave this world still full of hate for a mankind that did nothing to you. So sad. God bless you Janet.
I remember visiting Cairo with my Sea Scout Ship 22 from Decatur, IL as guests of Sea Scout Ship 1 in Cairo. In summer of 1959 or 60. The Ship in Cairo managed the public pool so the scouts could earn money. The Ship also had control of the old courthouse in Cairo and fixed it up to look like the inside of a ship with a galley, a bunk room, rec room and the courtroom was like coming aboard an old river boat. The Ship was also working on restoring an old riverboat. In addition, the Ship took possession of an old Navy 44′ picket boat from the Navy at Great Lakes, put a metal crows nest in it and assisted the Coast Guard there.
I often wondered whatever happened to all of that and how did that Ship get funded and was it legal. The Skipper of that Ship 1 was wheeling and dealing with everyone in the city government to get things he needed and there seemed no end of that. The kids in the Ship had a good time that I could see. The town was bustling back then, but we were warned of potential racial problems and be careful around town. We did have a good time with them, but I still wonder what happened to all of that. Next time I will stop and take a look around.
So is there anything left today??
For what it’s worth, I could see this historic community becoming an artists’ enclave or colony, like Taos, NM, Palm Desert/Palm Springs, CA, etc. Frankly, being a writer of historical works, the spirit and soul of such a location are unmatched. Though I live in the L.A. area, I could see retiring there to escape the rat race.
My grandfather, Edwin G. Hoffmann, was once in charge of the Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division, and I was always drawn to the IL river town of Galena – where he designed the floodgates. Cairo reminds me of that town. It most certainly has the potential. God Bless visionaries like Mr. Medler.
Was Nicky Mattingly a relative? Must have been — been listening for years about stories about Nicky that my mom tells — she’s Beverly Reid and they went to high school together. Would love to hear how he is and your family so I could tell mom.
my email: AxleyCL@outlook.com. My grandparents, George and Virginia Reid lived on 7th street. Cheryl
Found your article after driving though Cairo today. It is still just as desolate as you wrote about. Thanks for sharing!
I am very interested in cairo..would love to take a trip to visit please let me know the most affordable place to stay..
I have a very nice lovely Guest House known as Wall Manor approximately five miles north of Cairo in the small town of Mound City. I encourage you to go online at wallmanor.com and check it out. It would be an exceptional place for you to stay while visiting the area. I am also quite knowledgeable about Cairo and the surrounding area and can share with you a wealth of information. I can also introduce you to very nice retired couple in Cairo who have recently restored one of the finest homes in town, featuring some of the most beautiful gardens you will find anywhere.
My father was born in Cairo in 1906 to John H. Ford and Sarah P. Danner. He was named Theodore P. Ford. If anyone knows any Fords’ from that area please contact me.
My family moved to Cairo, when I was 4 years old, due to no work in Tennessee. My father worked for Halliday Sand Company, and later Rose Brothers Trucking. My mother worked a Cox’s Laundry. I attended Safford Elementary School, which was located behind the Hospital. I went to Cairo Jr. High School, and Cairo High School (although my parents were like many people, they didn’t think an education was important). I quit school and got married. My first child was born at St. Mary’s Hospital. My husband and I rented an apartment at 719 21st Street. It was owned by Martha Mattingly. We later moved to Detroit, and my husband worked for Ford Motor Company. It wasn’t Cairo! Cairo was home. After going back to Cairo for a while, we ended up back in Tennessee. Now I am a social work, hair dresser, and have a 2 year degree in psychology. I said all of this to say that I have traveled most of the trails you have described. I love Cairo! It will always be home. I come up there 2 or 3 times a year. I visit magnolia manor, the library, and even the park, AND go up and down every other street in town. I even drive the levee (although it wasn’t easy on my car). I have a few friends there, that never left. I am now widowed, and would love to move back there, as would my younger sister. I’m not scared there. I lived in future city while I was growing up. I’m not afraid of blacks. In fact, my sister and I stopped at the old school in future city last years, and talked to some of the guys there, about how Cairo had decayed. It makes me so sad. I could tell you some stories. Thank you for your stories. They brought back so many memories. I only wish I had the finances to help with you dream. I know it would work.
If you or anyone else is interested there is a truly magnificent grand old home located at 2601 Washington Avenue in the historic garden district of Cairo that is currently for sale for what I understand is around $35,000.00. Three stories, beautiful preserved interiors, art glass windows, a garden room fine Roman brickwork for the exterior and a relatively new excellent Spanish tile roof. Nearby is a two-car carriage house with a small apartment space above. Needs some work but is a real bargain and would make an excellent home for an older individual or couple to retire to. It is also only a half block or so from Magnolia Manor and Riverlore House and situated in that part of Cairo which always looks ever-so-lovely. Consider going to Google Maps and checking it out.
In my opinion if someone has a comfortable retirement set aside, has an artistic temperament, loves beautiful things and is not prone to getting there hands dirty Cairo has some truly incredible bargains with regards to lovely old homes. Two of my friends purchased an abandoned old mansion over at 422 9th. Street and have fully restored it, including creating some of the most exquisite gardens to be found almost anywhere. Set within a very rundown area it shows what a little imagination, creativity and a modest retirement account can accomplish anywhere – and Cairo is no exception. Again, go to Google Maps Street View and check it out.
If we can get just a few more persons to invest in Cairo by purchasing and restoring some of these homes this community could become a real drawing card once again for those out there looking for something a little different from what goes for the normal these days.
Do you have the For Sale information on the house located at : 2601 Washington Ave, Cairo, IL
I’d like to talk to the owner or real estate person. My name is Cynthia Rahimi I live in Texas.
My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
My grandmother, Iona Bondurant, lived at 2601 Washington St. and her brother, Flint Bondurant, lived in the house just N of her, just N of the garage (carriage house). I spent summers in Cairo in the 50s and 60s. The Cairo library was my daycare. There were a lot of Bondurants in Cairo and just over the river in MO. My great-grandfather built the Bondurant hospital there long, long ago. It was a wonderful town, although the racial problems in the 60s were significant. I know people that still live there – I sure hope it recovers somewhat. Breaks my heart to see the empty lots and abandoned buildings.
It’s interesting that you stayed at 719 21st. Street – The house was owned by my mother’s parents since the early 1900’s. My grandmother told us many stories about the boarders she took in over the years. Martha was my aunt, so actually it was her parents, George and Ellen Mattingly, who owned the house. George owned a furniture store along Commercial Avenue. He eventually lost it due to hard economic times. It’s funny that you mentioned driving the levee road – my mom taught us (four kids) to drive along the levee road. I guess she thought we’d drive slow and straight to keep from rolling down the levee!! To pass along the “tradition” I taught my two daughters to drive along the Cairo levee road.
I remember hearing the trains rev-ving up and switching cars at the railroad area down 21st street. And the smell of the magnolia blossoms at the park down Holbrook Ave.
My distant relatives, Gregertsen Brothers, had a giant lumber factory in Cairo during the 1920s. I do not know what happened to them or the yard they owed. I fear the worst reading all the comments. Can anyone enlighten me?
I suggest you phone the Cairo library and ask to speak with Ms. Monica Smith. She is very acknowledgeable about Cairo history and might have information on your family’s lumber business. The phone number is: 618.734.1840.
Generally speaking, I do know that back in the nineteen twenties there were somewhere around two dozen lumber companies still in this area. Most of them were short-lived due to the fact that lumber practices back then were pretty brutal. They would come into an area and pretty much clear-cut the old-growth forests, leaving waste and ruin behind – a typical American practice, as you probably know – with no thought or planning for the longterm. In this area there were many large tracts of towering ancient cypress that for the most part have now vanished. Species and related ec0systems of that caliber take centuries to grow and properly establish themselves. Once they are gone they are pretty much gone forever and business planning in our capitalist society as you know does not take into account future generations like they do in Germany, for example, where they have had good land-use practices for hundreds of years (think of the great Black Forest, for example). Consequently, once the vast tracts of trees were wiped out the number of lumber companies promptly collapsed or moved on to conquer other virgin areas, leaving many jobless persons to look for other means of a livelihood.
I am surprised that you would bring up Taliesin and Frank Lloyd Wright. Between 1971 and 1973 I studied at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture as an apprentice. At that time Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, his widow, headed both the school and the architectural firm Wright founded, known then as Taliesin Associated Architects. It was a most special time in my life and contributed immensely to the individual that I am today. The special memories I have of Olgivanna and the staff are extremely dear to me, particularly the private conversations I often had with her and the advice she would share with me. Sadly, everyone from back then, with exception of one staff member who now resides in a nursing home, are dead.
Although Taliesin East in Wisconsin and the vast natural landscape that surrounds the estate remains almost exactly the same today as back then the same cannot be said for Taliesin West. Sadly, I have never been able to bring myself to return to Arizona since I last visited the school in 1977. When I resided there the estate was over twenty miles outside of Scottsdale, Arizona and isolated in a vast expanse of untouched desert landscape. Today the place is tightly “hemmed In” by sprawling suburbs of tract houses, strip malls and multi-lane highways. I prefer to remember it as it was with the original imposing entrance gate, original entry drive and approach, the bumpy rural roads and that wonderful sense of desert isolation.
Although Frank Lloyd Wright died in the spring of 1959 I did have the chance to meet him as a small boy two years before his death. My mother, younger sister and I were visiting Chicago and staying with my older cousin, Wonda, who was married to a CBS executive at that time. Wonda was the same age as my mother and her former school mate in high school. Anyway, Wonda took us to an exhibition at the Chicago Art Museum featuring Wright’s work. My mother was introduced to Mr. Wright who just happened to be there on that day and while talking to him my cousin informed Wright of my love of drawing pictures of buildings and arranging things. She asked him if he could give me any advice at that time. Although I have no memory of the encounter my mother later said that Wright put his hand on my little head and said “Stick with nature, my boy. You can never go wrong.” I suppose you can say in an amusing sort of way that he “anointed” me. I later told Mrs. Wright of that encounter during my interview in the blue loggia room at Taliesin East when I applied to the school right out of high school. To this day I think it influenced her decision to accept me into the Taliesin Fellowship.
I live in a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired home and have always felt his work “spoke” to me. The is something about it when I see a photo or read a book about him and his designs that is somehow so appealing, so understandable. How lucky you are to have studied there and met Olgivanna.
In response to your recent post on this site let me share with you and othesomething of what I envision for the city of Cairo. This might be a little long so please bear with me.
First of all, after moving to this area back in September of 2008 it was no time before I found myself out and about traversing through the lovely rural and forested landscapes that exist here. Of particular attraction to me have been the river bottom forests and wetland areas. From a distance they might not seem interesting to most but when you are walking through them – sometimes up to your knees in water (I recommend tall rubber boots) – the prolific multitude of life forms you come upon are awe-inspiring. Soon I purchased an old, battered bicycle I repaired and shortly thereafter found myself meandering down the levee road from my home here in Mound City towards Cairo. Once again, the multitude of life forms, the wildflowers and the occasional sight of deer, wild turkey and many other life forms crossing my path was impressive, including the numerous hawks that could be observed circling overhead or the great herons wading here and there in standing water. Now and then I would stop at certain locations to just sit and take in the breathtaking views of the serene Ohio River and its much cleaner waters when compared to the great Muddy MIssissippi just a few miles further south. It is occasions like this you want to lounge back in the grass, sip a glass or two of fine wine, take in the fresh, clean air and listen to the sounds of the many birds that surround you. There are also numerous old pathways here and there where old railroad tracks used to traverse – these are also fascinating trails to explore in getting a deeper “feel” and understanding of this place.
Soon enough my weekly journeys found me at the end of the levee where it comes into the city of Cairo. The bike ride is fairly easy since the distance traveled is only about five miles with the compacted gravel roadway atop the levee very user friendly for motor vehicles, bicycles or pedestrians. Once near the city limits you have to leave the levee and descend down to the nearby highway that takes you into town. This is no difficulty in the slightest and once you pass through the bridge tunnel beneath the overhead railroad tracks it is an easy sojourn what with the paved streets and sidewalks.
What is particularly impressive about Cairo – that is, after you have gotten over all of the negatives and start focusing on the positives details here and there – is the fact that the basic “foot print” of the community has not changed in over one hundred and fifty years. Meaning that the town layout of streets is essentially unchanged since the latter half of the nineteenth century. Only about one mile at length from top to bottom and barely a half mile wide at its widest point Cairo is extremely pedestrian and bicycle friendly. The town has the potential of being a good urban planners dream come true because here you have a community that has never been scared by suburban sprawl and all of the negatives that come with it, reflecting very good planning in its street layout and how the original assemblage of used was organized. But what makes Cairo so truly unique in the whole of this country, and north America for that matter, has to do with the fact that just south of town you have the confluence of the two greatest rivers of this northern continent. Although the small park that exists at the southernmost tip of Illinois showcasing this great merging is rather shabby, overgrown and rundown when you walk out onto the point of the riverbank to observe this union of these two mythical bodies of water the view is truly spectacular and humbling. It is also sad and sobering when one thinks how incredibly under-appreciated or forgotten this inspiring location is within the minds and hearts of the American people.
Within a year I was spending quite a few days here and there riding my bike down to Cairo, parking over at the beautiful town library and then spending several hours just walking around and about the town exploring anything and everything, taking notes and photographs. My eye for beautiful architecture, fine detailing, history and just a general love of nature found me becoming quite familiar and intimate with the community – both its beautifully preserved areas and those that have fallen into ruin. The romantic in me really began to blossom inward outward as I often found myself just sitting here or there observing and contemplating this very sullen old town so rich in history and lore. Even meandering along the riverbanks, backwoods areas and farm fields that seem to surround and engulf this timeless old river town. Better yet, walking along the old, abandoned downtown riverbank and visualizing the great riverboats of the past coming and going, and imagining a certain young riverboat captain, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) heading across that very same paver brick street towards one of his favorite drinking establishments for an evening of drinking, carousing and gambling.
By the autumn of the following year I found myself almost automatically focusing more and more on Cairo in my spare time, thinking about the city’s many assets, utilizing my background and experience in architecture and urban planning trying to develop a vision of a better future for this region. Something was growing in me and telling me what the town wanted. Strangely enough, I found myself bound and determined to come up with my own plan for its redevelopment. It might never come to reality or even be taken seriously by others but there was a vision slowly developing in my head. Cairo, somehow its SOUL, seemed to be speaking to me, trying to tell me something. At first, this whole endeavor seemed to me as only a mental “exercise”. Now it was becoming a passion that I was still trying to come to terms with.
By the spring of 2010 I had completed a fifty-plus page written draft of my vision for Cairo. In addition are numerous very large drawings and renderings showing how I would call for the redevelopment of the downtown riverbank area, the main commercial corridor, the surrounding residential areas and nearby small industrial area, including the confluence of the great rivers. The plan is quite detailed and extensive and covers virtually everything. To put it mildly, I am thinking BIG. It would take up way too much space to go into detail here so if you or anyone else is truly interested you need only contact me in person for more details. I would be more than happy to invite you over to my studio here in nearby Mound City and share with you my plans. One problem: My one laptop is not working at present so I cannot download my written text as I stupidly never backed it up with another separate file. However, the Cairo Library does have a copy there on file in the care of Monica Smith, the head librarian.
As I see it, Cairo’s real salvation is its location and its surviving natural and manmade assets (which can be both built and rebuilt upon). Taken altogether they amount to an awesome composition like you will find almost no where else. Why we have never bothered to look deeper into this is a mystery even to me. What I am calling for is a focus on making the city a real destination of both national and international tourism. No little tidbit development here or there via a few government grants or tax breaks will bring this community back from the brink of extinction. What I envision can be found no where else along any of our nation’s great inland waterways. Centrally located within the very heart of the country, enveloped in beautiful natural landscapes and rare ecosystems and surrounded by many great urban centers within easy access through various modes of transportation what could be imagined and developed here has come to even impress me. There could be nothing like it in all of America. Unlike the gaudiness of a Las Vegas this could be a place where not only individuals and families would like to visit to truly get away but also want to live in or retire to. My problem is simple: I cannot seem to get others around here to believe in my vision. I remain an “outsider” to all of the old-timers who for the most part have lost faith in any real genuine future for this area. No thought is given for their descendants other then to pack up and move on to someplace else.
For the past couple of years my files and large drawings for Cairo remain stored away. It is still my dream to more fully develop this vision but I am satisfied that the basic plan is both valid and firm and can be built upon in any number of ways. It is this basic underlying vision which I believe sets my plan apart from any of the other piece-meal studies I have seen from the past – mostly by college students in architecture schools preparing class projects. Of course, it would be nice if I could find some source of private funding to fully complete this vision in all of its many details. I particularly hope to someday be able to work with others more apt with computer drafting and 3D development imagery. My hand-drawn renderings are lovely and quite detailed but in order to truly market this vision to a wider audience I cannot proceed alone. My very limited funds and the necessities of my other work and responsibilities greatly limit at this point my ability to proceed further. Once this vision is prepared to my technical satisfaction I believe it can then be presented to the general public via the internet and other media outlets. And it as this point that I believe funding – particularly private funding – would become a much given. Those of us keen to these kind of projects realize that in order to get noticed you have to market them impressively and with great visual appeal. Legislators and business persons rarely have the vision to see beyond the tip of their nose.
So, if you know of someone or someones whom might be willing to work with me and/or fund my work in some capacity please let me know. You can reach me at: 618.771.0240 or email@example.com.
Not too long, and beautifully written. I applaud your vision and effort. 2 years ago I visited both Taliesin West & East ( Frank Lloyd Wright) and witnessed the struggles to maintain his homes and structures. With such a well known name and plenty of funding one would think that this is enough, yet they claim to still struggle. To bring the funds to Cairo would extremely difficult. It would be a blessing to find the funding to turn Cairo around. There are probably many areas in the country as deserving, but none that I have seen as I have not had an opportunity to travel much. Cairo also tugged at my heart strings and I wish you well with your endeavor.
Back in September of 2008 I moved to the small town of Mound City, just six miles north of Cairo. I came here from St. Louis to decompress after spending nearly thirty years rehabbing historic residential buildings in that city and then suffering a major financial setback due to the 2008 economic recession. I needed to get away and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Starting over in my late fifties was not going to be an easy task but I had had enough of big city life and the many problems associated with it. The artist within me needed to get away to someplace quiet where I could reflect and examine my options – and see the star at night. Close friends and former clients in the city suggested I come here and take up temporary residence in the elegant home they had originally purchased to eventually retire to.
Since then I have enlisted the help of a longtime, close friend in the city to purchase the house, long known as Wall Manor, and are proceeding to turn it into a fine guest house and reception center. We have also purchased two nearby historic old church buildings which we have saved from demolition including an historic Victorian railroad depot building that now serves as my private office and studio space. Another small house that we purchased is now being readied as a rental property after undergoing quite an impressive quality renovation. Soon I hope to purchase several properties in Cairo and begin working on them.
The reason I bring this up is because as much as I am working to make this place a little better for my being here I also spend a great deal of time over in Cairo. There are others like me who are working to rehab beautiful old homes there as well. Even an older gay couple I know from St. Louis is preparing to purchase an elegant mansion in Cairo to serve as their retirement home. There is a great deal going on in Cairo behind the scenes and somewhat off of the main routes – you just have to know where to look. I, for one, shop regularly in Cairo at the local Dollar General and the one hardware store over on Commercial Avenue. There is also a small greenhouse nursery adjacent to the Delta Center where I purchase plants for my gardens every spring. In addition, two nice small neighborhood restaurants are regular meeting places for fellow “rehabbers” and myself in Cairo. The one liquor store in town that I regularly patronize may not be a classy establishment but it does stock my preferred wines and other beverages, and always greets me with a hearty smile. And, of course, there is the elegant Cairo Library where I am always checking out books for my personal enjoyment and enrichment on a regular basis as well as spending time conversing with Monica Smith, the head librarian, and a truly remarkable person in here own right.
From my more intimate perspective in living here I cannot say enough good things about the people here – most especially in Cairo. There is very little crime to speak of, racism is essentially non-existent. Despite what some outsiders may think or believe, Cairo is a very safe and comfortable community to visit and spend time in, despite the poverty and our many trials and hardships. The people here are good and hardworking. You just have to open your minds to the world around you and leave your preconceptions behind.
This is the positive discussion this city needs. Since you live there and we don’t. What is the answer? Industry, more roving souls, government intervention, GoFundMe?
Hi Frederick, I would love to learn more about your work in Cairo. I am also interested in rehabbing an old Victorian there. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mark
We drove through Cairo yesterday, Feb. 9, from Kentucky, at about 11 A.M. Had been through 3 1/2 years ago and did not notice much difference. My wife had not been there for about 20 years and was amazed at the desolation having observed, via the architecture, the past near-opulence. We saw two rather prosperous looking white adults entering a small diner on the east side of the main street, the only two people we saw on our slow, but non-stop venture. In retrospect, I wish we had stopped for lunch and conversation about Cairo…….for perhaps some firsthand history/opinion. (I have seen pictures of the St. Louis Baseball Cardinals at spring training in Cairo in about 1943. Paraphrasing ol’ Dizzy Dean, “Who’d a thunk it!”)
I went through Cairo on a cross-country bicycle trip two years ago. I stopped in their Dollar General store to get a few supplies. Standing at the checkout counter talking to the young woman operating the register was a town police officer. He was speaking in a loud voice trying to impress the woman. Every other word was m*****f****r this and m*****f****r that. I was stunned. He may have been dressed in a police uniform but he was nothing more than a foulmouthed thug. After I left the store I stopped in a small park to eat a sandwich. Within ten minutes a car stopped at the curb and the driver rolled down his window. He identified himself as a local pastor and informed me that as a white man it wasn’t safe for me to be sitting in the park. When I told him I was on a bicycle trip he became very concerned and strongly advised not to let the sun set on me in Cairo. By this time the general decay of the place was starting to give me the creeps anyway. So I finished my meal and rode over the Mississippi River bridge into Missouri before making camp for the night in a farmer’s field. In the six months I spent cycling across America. Cairo was the most surreal experience of all. It was like being in a third-world country.
I’ve had similar experiences each time I’ve been there (3 so far)! I’d love to hear more of your cross country experience (as another cyclist, it’s been my goal to complete one).
Not a third world country…a black run city is what it is, every one is alike, all have the same qualities.
Please do not travel thru these hell holes without a firearm for protecting yourself, they attack in groups.
No amount of athleticism can beat off multiple attackers, be prepared or become a silent statistic.
There is no place here for comments like that. You should be ashamed.
This is too racist to support any arguments you may have.
Your type of thinking is what went wrong in Cairo, bigotry leads to increased hostilities. Poverty and lack of opportunity lead to hopelessness and it can weigh heavy and some people succumb to the hollowness of their environment. It’s like finding out you have a terminal illness; The brave will develop a will to live and most give up the ghost. People cannot exist in an environment that breeds hostility and hopelessness, the hostile people pull up stake and the hopeless people are left to ruin.
I was born in Cairo in 1961 but lived in Charleston, Mo. As a child, I remember going to Cairo to eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant and going to shemwills BBQ. I have memories of being in the hospital there when I was older and getting ice cream at a local A & W or some place like that. We use to go there during my high school years to a bar called King Tuts. Lots of memories of a house that would be decorated during the holidays -Magnloia House I believe it was called. I could go on and on with memories of Cairo and the river. Recently, my mom and I were on a Sunday drive and I drove through the town. I was so sadden by the sites I saw. So much ruin. Nothing was the same. When the levee was blown to protect the town several years ago, I had cousins that lost their home and my family has farmland that was covered with silt. What a shame. It’s so sad to see a town that once was booming become what is is today.
My grandparents (George and Ellen Mattingly) lived in Cairo since the early 1900s. They had a furniture store downtown and lost it during the depression years. My parents would take us through Cairo when we passed nearby as we moved around the country. We stayed with our grandparents for a week or so then drove on. That was in the early 1960s and I have good memories of that time. All of my relatives are gone now so I have not visited Cairo since 2013.
The Cairo Library is a beautiful building with a lot of historical records. Anyone looking for family and local history should visit the library for records that you may not find anywhere else. The second floor of the library is a masterpiece of early 1900’s woodwork and stained glass windows, and a grand piano (I think it’s still there). The library is right on the main street through town.
There are plenty of beautiful homes along the cobble-stone streets near the library. They are very well kept and one of them is open for touring (the last time I was there).
I believe what another person wrote about changing transportation methods having a lot to do with Cairo’s decline. The steam boat days gave way to the railroads and the state highway system. Barge traffic was somewhat affected by increasing truck traffic. The completion of the Interstate Highway system, bypassing Cairo, didn’t help matters either.
I never observed the racial incidents first hand but I heard plenty of stories. You can go to the Courthouse building and see bullet holes in the face of the building. The swimming pool is completely gone. The story I heard is that when the pool was going to be integrated in the mid-1960s, the city (?) decided to close it and fill it in with sand and dirt.
One of the most shocking things to see (besides downtown) is the empty, run down shell of the hospital. I bet there’s not a single window left in the whole building.
It’s still worth a visit and I’ll return someday.
I just read about your grandfather winning a tie clasp as the winner of a guessing game at a party of Miss Edith Langan. The article, from the Cairo paper, is titled Entertains Foot Ball Boys. He must have been on the high school football team. My grandmother, Iona Bondurant, was also at the party. 🙂
Drove through Cairo last weekend while touring historical sites in the confluence area. The sad descriptions contained in the story and comments are if anything, understated. The empty blocks, the shells of buildings, decay and desolation were reminiscent of the pictures of Hiroshima after the bomb. During my time driving through the various parts of town I only saw two people, both huddled against the light rain near a public housing high rise next to the levee. Hard to believe that a town with such a storied historic past has fallen to such an extreme. Suppose that there is a lesson to be learned here, but I suspect it involves more than dysfunctional relations between the races 40-50 years ago. As a side note, the Historic levee mural project is emblematic of the overall condition- two mediocre murals, a third half finished and the project looks to have been abandoned years ago. River was rising when I was there, heard on news yesterday that floodwall gates were being closed.
Cairo would be an ideal location for filming a show or movie. The money the movie Gone Girl generated for the Cape area was incredible. Ok so who can help contact film makers? I believe tourism is the hope for Cairo.
Our family history states that my Great grandfather of same name , an English born Civil engineer was involved with the railway line construction from St Louis Mis to Cairo Illinois. Have sent a number of E mails to St Louis but have never received a reply. Was wondering if anyone in CAIRO has information on that railway link or can supply an E address for someone involved in historical events or railway history of your area. My relative built canals in UK ,fortifications in SFO presidio area & came to Australia to live & built fortifications here & railway line in South Aust. If I can get some firm info, I would like to visit the area & ride that line . John.
Haveing driven through cairo il whislt in vacation a couple of weeks ago. And i would not like to do the towns people an injustice but it doesn’t appear to be the type of town you just visit.
I don’t know if these two links (http://www.abandonedrails.com/Percy_to_Cairo; http://gmohs.org/)
will help any but I’m thinking your ancestor may have been involved with the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio rail line from St. Louis through Cairo.
I was born in Cairo in 1961. My family is from the area, and some still live near there today. Believe it or not, it used to be a great place to live. But, your pictures and comments tell the story. Blacks rioted in the 60’s due to a reported suicide in the jail. They brought in the Black Panthers who threatened to destroy the city and arm all the blacks, which they did. Coincidentally, we moved from this area to Ferguson, Missouri in 1967. Now, the same thing is happening there.
Rioting and burning down your town is not the answer. Cairo and Detroit are perfect examples of what happens when this mentality is given credence. When will people understand that wrong is always wrong, and it never leads to more “rights”?
Cairo, and other cities like it that deteriorate will continue until all folks, be it black or white, both take responsibility for what they do and how they act. Many whites left and may blacks left because they had the resources to do so, and knew that the town was finished as having any economy. Sadly, and again the responsibility thing, the only people who didn’t or couldn’t move were and are those who live with their hands out for government assistance.
How many people have we all met who just left places with the clothes on their back, and the ambition to succeed, and made something of and for themselves?
I am not a racist person, but blacks especially need to accept that things are sometimes their fault. It’s not always someone else s fault. As Martin Luther King said and is truer today than ever “Judge a man by the content of his character, not the color of his skin”. Yet, blacks think that gang life, drug dealing, raping, murder, robbery, home invasions, and strong arm robbery are somehow career choices, and when they are arrested and thrown in prison for their ACTIONS, they scream bloody murder that they were incarcerated for the COLOR OF THEIR SKIN! Until that mindset changes, there will be many many more towns and cities that they will destroy and brought down by those who refuse to learn. Just look at Detoilet. Blacks got the positions in government, and instead of taking care of business, decided it was best to steal and embezzled millions upon millions of taxpayer money for themselves and their friends. The desolate crime ridden city is the result of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
In the case of Cairo, it was the fault of both whites and blacks.
[…] The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful. It was noted that the town of Cairo, Illinois, looked like it had survived a nuclear blast. Barely. It was mostly abandoned. Turns out that Stephanie is not the only person to notice that. The story has been told before. […]
I was born in Cairo in 1957 and lived there until 1969. I was witness to the tension between black and white people in Cairo. My parents owned and operated a tavern and we lived in an apartment over the business. The Black Panthers showed up with guns and marched the streets, businesses were boycotted, there was bombing and burning and shooting. My dad employed blacks and always got along with everybody but was warned to get out because the business would be bombed too. We moved from there in 1969 when i was 12. Those were some pretty traumatic years. We were still segregated til i was in the 5th grade. I’d like to go back one day but from what i read and see pictures of, it kind of scares me.
I just drove through Cairo today too take my daughter to a college in Springfield, MO. as she is transferring this fall. What a depressing and run down town. Being from Wisconsin I have never seen a town that was abandoned like Cairo IL.
I drove through two weeks ago. Recorded video on my camera. Sad, fascinating place. Saw 2 people. I would have loved to turn off the main highway to see what they call Millionaires Row. Frankly, I was too afraid.
My wife and I stumbled onto Cairo last week while traveling from Kentucky to Missouri. We stopped near the levy by the town DOT building to let our dogs take a walk. This place is like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. I thought for sure the town had flooded., what with all the destruction and vacant lots. My wife was very reluctant to get out of the vehicle (and this was in broad daylight). I can’t imagine why anyone would consider moving there.
I had two Great-Aunts who lived there. Ethel Holley and Bird Holley. One of them was married to a gentlemen named John Gardner. They would have passed away in the late 50’s to early 60’s. Any information would be interesting. I have lots of pictures of there home too. Thank you.
Please dont do it .r i went two years ago o buy a home on historic home site price was great im a single mom i packed ll my kids thought it would be great we arrived around 2 in morning when day light hit i wanted to walk around house wild packs of pit bulls ran the streets they had a chain gang come down the street to pick ip trash i had no cell phone service so i decided to look for pay phone there is one by liquor store in whole town i found a dinner open went n and thought omg what happen here people in town would not even talk about it i see the house is up for sale again please its a sad place there are no jobs at all it scared me snd i was coming from fl but live in phily too i had people ull up asking to help me move in and not to be friendly i sat on porch of house and cryed i hould of saw town first and the oictures dont lie great place for walking dead show to flim
I guess they don’t even have punctuation in Cairo. That would explain why your entire comment is one gigantic, nonsensical sentence.
^^^You took the words right out of my mouth!
Dyslexia is real…
Please dont do it .ladt wrter i went two years sho to buy a home on historic home site price was great im a single mom i packed ll my kids thought it would be great we arrived around 2 in morningwhen day light hit i wanted to walk around house wild packs of pit bulls ran the streets they had a chain gange come down the street to pick ip trash i had no cell phone service so i decided to look for pay phone there is one by liquor store in whole town i found a dinner open went n and thought omg what happen here people in town would not even talk about it i see the house is up for sale again please its a sad place there are no jobs at all it scared me snd i was coming from flbut live in phily too i had people ull up asking to help memove in and not to be friendly i sat on porch of house and cryed i hould of saw town first and the oictures dont lie great place for walking dead show to flim
I would like to know the condition of Cairo, Illinois in 2015. Me and my husband are considering buying a house there. Please help. All comments welcome. Thank you.
Hi Lori, my husband and I are also looking a places to live in southern IL after we retire in a couple of years from the Chicago suburbs. Cairo is intriguing. I wonder if any builders out there would find Cairo an optimal place to build a 55+ community. Of course you need a decent medical center fairly close by, but I don’t know what is currently there. There are a few Facebook pages for Cairo. Here’s one of them: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Friends-of-CairoIllinois/369203038338?sk=timeline
I was born in Cairo in 1931, on 20th and commercial Ave, in a two story Bldg. My brother and I were both born in this Bldg. James in 1918 and I in 1931, 13 years apart, This Bldg. still stands today with a small Business located in the front of the Bldg. faces commercial Ave. I have written a book that is located in the Safford Public Library, located at 1609 Washington Avenue. The name of this book is I Know Miracles Happen By Robert Hipps. In this book you can read all about my years in Cairo from Birth to High School Graduation in 1951, when I left Cairo to join the USAF. My brother after coming back from WW2 lived and worked for the US Post Office in Cairo until he retired. He passed away in 1995. I have many memories of my days in Cairo all good. It breaks my heart to see Cairo in this condition . Read my book and see Cairo the way I remember Cairo. !2/17/ 2014
My husband, daughter and I just traveled through Cairo the day after Thanksgiving. It is such a beautiful place and so sad to see the history just left. I couldn’t snap enough pictures of everything. It must have been grand in its day. The architect of the buildings that are vacant are still gorgeous.
I’m not expert but from what I’ve read, advancements in transportation initially led to the decline in population as Cairo was no longer a transportation hub. Railroad, steamboat, and ferry traffic deteriorated significantly which destroyed the commercial hopes of the city. Race tensions/conflicts accelerated the population decline.
Hello I am interested in filming there, I am seeking a large secluded farm house a truck stop type diner, and old gas station and a lot of rural open farmland and ghostly highway single lane back road type stuff.
Anyone live there and know of these type of locations, also does Tyrone Coleman still mayor the city there?
Chaz, if you are still looking, you should try the Greenwell Farm.
It is about 1 mile North of the Cairo airport.
That puts it 1/4 mile East of Route 3 and 1/2 mile West of Route 51.
They have been a large farming family for decades and an area Booster.
There are numerous lonely back roads all over the place and they can probably help you out once you describe your ‘wants’.
Cairo actually is a very large City extending numerous miles North, Northwest, and Northeast from where the ‘apparent City limits’ are.
Tyrone probably can help you within the ‘apparent city’, but the Greenwells would be mush more familiar with the Rural Area and its nuances.
I grew up there until moving East in 1971, at 19, so can only give you specifics back then with others needing to help you as to. More current.
I myself am from Cairo .I moved from there in 1990.My nephew John Bosecker is the chief of police there.Back in the 60’s my dad Lloyd Bosecker was the deputy sheriff and was shot during that racial riot.I go down often and I sure miss Cairo.If I can help you in anyway please contact me.Nancy Fraley@gmail.com.
My Family dates back to mid 1800’s in Cairo. I am writing a Family History but hit a few bumps. I spent many summers in my Great Grandparents house on Sycamore Street…all my Mother’s Family…Stackert and Bullard are buried in Mounds..Cemetery there. Would appreciate anyone with memories, knowledge of Cairo history to contact me. email@example.com
Born in Cairo and graduated high school there in 1954. It was a great place to grow up in at that time. I left and became an aerospace engineer in the LA area but still have good memories of Cairo and visit there every few years.
August 23,2014. Just drove thru Cairo. I wished there was a hotel in Cairo so I could walk around and look at beautiful houses that once was. So so sad!
Sharon, you wouldn’t want to be there after dark, unless you wanted robbed, raped or murdered.
My family moved us from South Carolina to Cairo so my Mom could be close to her family. My first year of school was there. The new hospital opened that year . We lived within two blocks of it. It was a beautiful site at the time. It was welcomed by everyone. During the spring floods there would be huge sink holes all in the down town and else where there. Main street was a busy beautiful place. I remember the cigar store with the wooden Indian out front. We moved back to South Carolina at the end of the school year. I would take my mother back to Cairo to visit my Aunt. I liked getting out and exploring the town. While out roaming , alone I went by the hospital only to find it a shell with most of the windows broken out. When I returned to my Aunts and told them about my adventure, she told me I was lucky that I wasn’t shot by the blacks of the area. I haven’t been back since the nineties but am planning a trip back this month August 2014.
[…] is quite dismal, yet strangely inviting to explore how it resolves, sorts itself out. Sadly, this eerie town stands as a monument to the death of a community by the hands of its […]
My husband and I rolled through Cairo around 2 am on dark night after making a wrong turn. We were so stunned as we drove through the decrepit, overgrown, deserted town that we were nearly speechless. Everything was overgrown, crumbling, peeling and dark. We didn’t see a single person , or another vehicle. One of the most bizarre things we saw was a rundown house with paper lanterns lit by RED lights in the front windows. Another really eerie thing we saw was a child’s bicycle left in an overgrown yard. It was the most surreal place I’ve ever been. I’d like to go back someday, in broad daylight, so I can see if there’s anything lurking in all the creepy shadows!
Me and my wife stumbled into Cairo il , Wow we thought we drove onto a movie set, It was 2:00 am so that added to the experience, We looked up Cairo when we got home, Found a ton of info about the town, The one thing that stood out for me was the second story window with the Curtin blowing in the wind , And I found a picture of it, I will never forget my trip to Cairo…!!!!!!!
Hey guys, Cairo is on her way back up and I am looking forward to all these nay saying web posts to be bad history in a time of prosperity. We have opened at least a dozen new businesses including a Subway sandwich shop and a rice seed factory of massive scale which doubles the number of large scale industry here. American commercial lines moved there entire repair facility here and we also opened a new casino! All the abandoned buildings have been bulldozed, intersections are being upgraded to become ADA compliant, the pumping stations have been restored and the US army corps of engineers just spent a few million dollars reinforcing our levee and seawall system to make it impervious! And our infrastructure is being maintained to support an unlimited amount of industry and residents. We are on the way back to the top! Come start a factory here, we have every little thing you need! This town was built to support industry and she still does a fine job of it. We have three sources of water supply, two sources of electrical power, massive natural gas supply pipeline, rail access directly to CN or via Shawnee Terminal railway our local short line. We also have access to the two rivers the interstate highway and US highway 51 as well as an airport capable of landing large cargo or passenger jets! You name a need for your buisness and we will already have it!
Please contact me. My family is from Cairo…back to 1876 or before. firstname.lastname@example.org
In the spirit of full disclosure, I ought to reveal that Bird’s Point, where the levee was blown, was named for my direct ancestor Col. Abraham Bird who was in residence in that vicinity before the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12. He later relocated to northeast Missouri, where I lived as a boy. I currently reside in Nashville.
Can you please contact mez? My family dates back to Cairo from 1876 or before. I am trying to wrote our Family Ancestry..When I was young I lived on Sycamore Street with my Great Grandpatents. I never witnessed the racial strife…is never knew from my Family there were any other people other than “us”….whether we were black or white…My game is Sandra OBrien and my Family…all including my Mother are buried at Mounds..name is Stackert…and Bullard. email@example.com
First, it’s “care-o”, not kay-ro like the syrup, or kie-roh as in egypt. I’ve been passing through Cairo for forty years, watching its deterioration, admiring those few pieces of architecture that hadn’t completely fallen down. Racism? I don’t think that’s a satisfactory answer for what happened to so completely gut an important city in a strategically important geographic location. I remember seeing deployable flood walls in railroad embankments in Cairo and thinking – is there enough here left to save? No wonder Missouri farmers were outraged that the Corps of Engineers flooded them to save others, including Cairo.
Some places just die on the vine. Sometimes, the beginning rot is so visible that others can taste it and smell it and it drives off investment, kills hope, stifles renewal. If you move upriver, you can visit Shawneetown, a much smaller but very prosperous river town that was ruined and eventually abandoned – the whole town moved inland a mile or two, but today you can see hulking shells of spectacular mansions, the earliest bank in Illinois and the home of a pioneering settler. Some places make it, some don’t. Some take longer to die than others. Ask Detroit.
[…] foto below of Stephen L. Colby (St. Louis, MO-built, 1967, 144′ x 40′) on 1/4/2013 in Cairo, IL. Yesterday, the boat sank into 14 feet of water farther north on the […]
Great article with history and facts. I watched Cairo burn every night from the safety of my childhood bedroom across the river. A terrible scary site at night with burnt evidence of future decay staring at everyone during the light of day. My family had farmland on both sides of the rivers and we knew the issues well. Sadly, Charleston, Mo. is following in the sad footsteps of decay but at a slower pace. I left my family legacy upon the encouragement of my family to seek a successful life elsewhere as this is no place for a young person with ambition. While I have become successful, I will never return to my roots because I simply can’t stand the majority of ignorant black and white people that languish in blaming each other for a city/ areas demise. Cairo would make a great disaster setting as a movie site. Financially, this could be a boom because it is authentic and very little would need to be created. Financially, Cairo should have been allowed to flood because all kinds of economic aid would have been directed to the historical town. Alas, here she sits, and life is passing her by with no hope of renewal.
There is always hope Farmer Girl, but it takes a change in thinking. It takes the coming together of those left behind to work together under a common vision. It takes someone who’s passion it is and who’s destiny it is to transform a society crying out for change. It takes the collaborative effort of those who have the resources of talent, treasure and time. It can be done. It will be done. Cairo is God’s banquet waiting for the guests to arrive so they may feast on His presence and we are all invited.
its like every other place with racial tension in the past. i live near east st louis and its like the wild wild west. all blacks that live their and so crime ridden yet they do it to themselves. i dont understand how they can live like that. Cairo is a beautiful place that met the demise of irresponsible people. the black population does nothing about it and never did anything for what they were fighting to get from the city so when it was given to them they were still unsatisfied and just let the stuff deteriorate. the only major black population area that actually keeps up with maintenance and such is atlanta. besides that where there are places of racial tension-cairo being rednecks and blacks-no offense- just keeps the cycle going. its an industry of infallibility and it just follows the cycle. people need to quit being lazy and invest into the future. the only way to make money is to spend money.
You are so right.
You pinpoint the black population but it’s quite evident that the white population isn’t doing much either, or else the town wouldn’t be so ran down and abandoned.
YES, Cairo is a ghost town. About a year ago, I stopped at the only gas station in town. I talked to the owner, he was running the cash register. He said that his little store was the only gas station and the only grocery store in the town. I have seldom seen such desolation, How do these people live? Why do they stay? there is no opportunity and no future in that town, because there are no businesses, no jobs and nothing to do.
These picutres show exactly what I saw, nice summary.
There was only one police car on main street and it looked like it hadn’t moved recently
how can a business thrive when it is constantly robbed and vandalized. Then you are forced to hire people who feel it’s their right to steal from you. Blacks are as much to blame as Whites but they will never accept even a small portion of the responsibility.
The Blacks in Cairo resorted to criminal extortion and arson to get what they wanted and the Whites left. Who can blame them?
When your family and your business are threatened you leave, plain and simple. A small town north of Cairo is called Anna.
The residents say it stands for – Ain’t No N*****s Allowed.
Wow, Anna stands for Aint No N*****s Allowed lol! That is so ignorant.
Whites didn’t just leave because of black people, they left because there was no more money in Cairo. With all the money from transportation disappearing, whites had the will and means to move. Many blacks have moved as well, just not as many. The crime has more to do with poverty and lack of education and opportunity, than blacks per se.
Oh please! Whites played a much bigger role in what happened to Cairo. After the civil rights movement, many white business owners preferred to move than to employ or service the black community. HATE and ignorance killed Cairo. But you are right about Anna, it is one of the most racist towns I have ever been in.
Having read Mark Twain’s evocative story of his time as riverboat pilot, Cairo Illinois was a destination for this english tourist. We had followed theTenessee river to Paducha and were very impressed at the history of that Town and the obvious pride of the local populance. We spent a day there before setting out to follow the Ohio, as best we could, to travel to Cairo, the place so vividly described by Twain as a thriving metropols. What a disapointment! How sad to see the poverty of the town compared to Paducha.
I too was stunned, and amazed asmy family and I drove through the town. What a shame, what a shame.
What amazes me is that reports from as close as 2011 say that the public housing projects have several different criminal gangs within its complex. Why? What can possibly be left in Cairo to want to claim as gang turf. I worked for a company for years throughout that southern area…Illinois, Kentucky…Missouri…and even back in the mid 80's to the mid 90's Cairo was a rocking place. Our crew from the "north" would go to Cairo to drink a few beers on a Saturday and Sunday as most of Kentucky was dry back then…and the local…rednecks…for lack of a better word would constantly cause some serious trouble for us. And even then we had to watch which sections of town we would wander into after dark, as the black population did not seem much friendlier. I always liked Cairo however, and I loved the old style architecture. I could wander the area for days just looking at the old styles. Sad to see what it finally has become now though. Maybe this summer I will take a motorcycle trip down there to take one last look before Cairo takes its last final GASP before expiring.
I was raise just 30 min. north of Cairo off of route 37. As a child we would drive to Cairo every Friday evening to buy groceries and on Saturdays that is where we shopped for clothes. My uncle lived in Cairo and at times felt like it was my second home. During the 1960's when all of the race riots were going on, you could hear the gun shots from the housing development just blocks away. Cairo is like stepping back into Southern history. I can remember those days as a child walking down commercial street and getting hamburgers off of the Burger wagon which sat at one of the street corners off of commercial. What the town is now is all because people didn't realize what they had and out of maddness and ingorance they burned it up. Cairo was once called little Chicago. There is a book out now by the title of "Sins of the South". If you were raised in the Southern Most part of Illinois it is a must read. Cairo….if all the maddness had not happen I wonder what it would be like today?
i was born in cairo in 1960, i guess i should be thankful my parents choose not to raise their family there. but i'm still proud to say i was born there. in this historical city. its a shame though that racism and pure stubborness has destroyed this city. and i'm sure some of my own ancestory has helped in bringing this once once thriving city to it's knees.
We lived just north of Cairo, in the Anna/Jonesboro area a few years ago. We accidentally found Cairo while out driving in the area one day. Our reaction was very similar to yours. I thought we had driven onto a movie set of a deserted town. There were a couple of banks, which seemed odd, only 1 or 2 restaurants in the entire town, one was just a walk-up to the window type, locally owned. There were no typical fast-food establishments, and just one small gas station. It was eerie and we were just stunned as we drove around the town. It was unlike anything we've seen before or since.
I taught at the Cairo Junior High for one year in the early 1990's and felt terrible for the youth of that town as there was NOTHING there for them to recreate. There are fabulous people living there among the ruins and there still are beautiful old homes. Life has been sucked out of this once flourishing town. I hope that someday, someone or a group of people can redo Cairo. It is very sad to view any part of this town. With Illinois bankrupt status today I do not see any $ coming from the state. So, until a miracle or a sugar daddy comes up with a plan and money I don't expect good things to happen anytime soon… so sad.
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Nice photos and background on this town, thanks.