Located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers surrounded by levees, Cairo, Illinois was strategically important during the Civil War but today is one of the poorest cities in the nation after decades of racial turbulence.
Darius Holbrook, of Boston, founded the Cairo City & Canal Company at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in 1837. 7 Its location was dismissed as nothing more than a “dismal swamp” by Charles Dickens in 1842. 6
Bonds were sold to fund a levee, dry dock, and shipyard for the company, although the business had failed by 1840. 7 Nevertheless, Cairo City & Canal began selling lots for a new city in 1853, although sales were slow until the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was completed from Galena in 1856. Cairo formally incorporated in 1858 and by 1860, the town had 2,000 residents. 6
Mark Twain characterized Cairo as the “promised land” in his book, Huckleberry Finn. 5 Its location at the southernmost tip of the “free soil,” and its location along the river, made the Cairo a hub for African-Americans who were heading north out of the Confederate south.
The Union constructed Camp Defiance in Cairo during the American Civil War to serve as a supply base and training center, and its location along the rivers was vital to the distribution of supplies to troops. It was also where brigadier general Ulysses S. Grant launched offensive movements into Kentucky and other southern states. 5 7
Growth and Stagnation
Cairo prospered with an influx of wealth and population after the Civil War concluded. The African-American population surged thanks to escaped and freed slaves coming to Cairo via the rivers, increasing in population from 50 prior to the Civil War to nearly 3,000. 5
The city’s economy also boomed as it served as a steamboat port along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Because of its location, it was designated a port of delivery by Congress in 1854 and a federal Custom House and Post Office opened 1871. By the late 1800s, as many as 500,000 railroad cars were ferried across the rivers yearly to Missouri and Kentucky. 1 By 1886, shipments via the river and railroad were valued $60 million, the highest per capita in the United States. 5
The completion of two railroad bridges over the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in 1899 and 1905, respectively, eliminated the use of railroad car ferries. With the completion of two automobile bridges over the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, in 1929 and 1937, respectively, caused the ferry business to collapse. 1
Beginning in the 1940s, tugboats, fueled by modern diesel engines, began replacing steamboats that were powered by coal boilers. Refueling docks and maintenance shops dedicated to steamboats in Cairo were no longer needed and associated businesses shuttered.
Cairo’s population peaked at 15,000 in 1920 and remained steady until racial violence engulfed the city during the mid-20th century.
By 1900, 38% of Cairo’s population were of African-American heritage versus just 5% for the entire state. 2 Racial tensions were well known early in Cairo’s history but it became inflamed on November 8, 1909, when Williams James, a black resident, was lynched. 3 4 7 13 14 James had been accused of assaulting and murdering Anna Pelly, who was white.
When James was placed in police custody on November 9, several citizens demanded an immediate trial and conviction. A mob quickly formed and Sheriff Davis attempted to move James out of the city via the railroad. The mob seized another train and caught up to James north of the city who was then brought back to Cairo. A noose was installed at a decorative arch that spanned the Commercial Avenue and 8th Street intersection. When the noose was placed around James’ neck, he allegedly confessed but claimed that another individual had taken the lead in the assault and murder. 5
The rope broke during the hanging, which led the mob to shoot James to death. The mob then dragged the corpse to the scene of Pelly’s murder where James’ head was cut from the body and placed on a pole. The remainder of the body was then burned. 3 5 7
The mob then went to look for Arthur Alexander, James’ accomplice. Unable to find him, the mob broke into the jail and broke out Henry Salzner, a white photographer who was accused of murdering his wife, who was subsequently hung and shot at from a telegraph pole near the courthouse. 4 Police later located Alexander and was disguised as a fellow officer so they could safely escort him to the county jail. 3
The Governor of Illinois dispatched 11 companies of the state militia to Cairo to restore order. By the time the soldiers arrived, the mob had found out that Alexander was being held at the jail. 3
In 1913, the citizens of Cairo voted to allow at-large elections rather than ward representations, aptly designed to prevent black people from being elected. 5 It was not until 1980 that a black person was elected to Cairo’s city government, which came only after the United States Supreme Court forced the city to return to ward representations after it found its at-large elections to be discriminatory. 5
The city closed the city-operated swimming pool in 1964 in an effort to prevent integration. 5
Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black soldier that was home on leave, was found hanging in the city police station on July 16, 1967. 5 While it was reported as a suicide, many in the black community accused the police of murder. 17 The FBI chose not to investigate the incident for foul play leading to riots that consumed the city. Three stores and a warehouse were torched 5 and the local National Guard unit was activated. 18 Cairo’s Mayor, Lee Stenzel, and other city leaders met with federal and state officials to develop a plan to end any further rioting. 19 20
Nearly 600 all-white citizens developed a citizen protection group that was then deputized by the county sheriff. Known as the White Hats, the individuals wore white hats to show membership. Reports of bullying against black individuals increased and in 1969, several black residents formed the Cairo United Front that brought together the local NAACP chapter, a cooperative association, and street gangs to counter the “White Hats.” The Cairo United Front requested the appointment of a black police chief, a black assistant fire chief, and an equal black-to-white ratio composition in all city jobs and then proceeded to begin a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses in Cairo, which made up nearly every commercial entity. 21
A rash of violence followed and was stopped only when Governor Ogilvie deployed the National Guard to restore order.
On the morning of December 6, several black residents of the Pyramid Court housing project shot three firemen and the Chief of Police as they responded to fires intentionally set at several businesses, leading to the arrest of 13 people. 22 The Chief of Police resigned in January 1970 and noted that the city lacked the legal and physical means to deal with the guerrilla warfare tactics. 23 The city enacted an ordinance in December that prohibited picketing within 20 feet of a business, leading to a new wave of violence led by the Cairo United Front. 24 The ban on picketing was soon overturned in state and federal courts.
The population of Cairo began to nosedive in the 1950s and accelerated when Interstate 57 was completed through southern Illinois and Missouri, allowing motorists to bypass Cairo completely. With no reason to stop in the city, the remaining downtown businesses and roadside establishments began to close in rapid succession. In December 1987, the city hospital was abandoned.
In 2009, three-fourths of the county’s sheriff deputies, based in Cairo, were laid off and five patrol cars were repossessed by the lender over non-payment. 7 The remaining patrol cars were idled due to a lack of gasoline as the department lacked funds for fuel.
As of 2010, the city of Cairo is home to 2,800 residents, a decline of 81% from its all-time peak of 15,000 in 1920. 5
Cairo Masonic Lodge No. 237
The Cairo Masonic Lodge No. 237 A.F. & A.M. was chartered on October 7, 1857. The cornerstone for its present-day facility at Washington Avenue and 8th Street was laid on January 7, 1924.
Delta City Fire Company No. 6
The Delta City Fire Company No. 6, at 1711 Commercial Avenue, was constructed prior to 1875. 16 Originally a private corporation, the fire company became Fire Station No. 1 when a city fire department was organized in the 1880s.
The Gem Theatre is an abandoned theater on 8th Street that opened in 1910 and closed in 1978.
St. Patrick Catholic Church
The St. Patrick Parish was established in 1838 and its original building was the first church in Cairo. 15 After outgrowing through two smaller structures, a larger Romanesque-style church building was constructed of Bedford limestone at the corner of Washington Avenue and 9th Street in 1894. The two-story structure featured the main sanctuary upstairs with a smaller chapel and parish hall downstairs. The sanctum includes 16 stained glass windows depicting the birth of Christ, the crucifixion, and various saints, along with four original oil paintings of the archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel, and St. Peter and St. Paul.
Southern Medical Center
The first hospital at Cairo was established after the Civil War. 21 In October 1953, 21 the new St. Mary’s Hospital, with 130 beds, opened at Cross and Cedar Streets 24 and was operated by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. 25
The hospital began to experience severe financial hardships by the early 1970s because of the extraordinarily high percentage of residents who relied on public aid for living and medical expenses, and because of a lack of patients due to the sharp decline of Cairo’s population. 17 21 24 At some points, 80% to 90% of patients relied on federal or state assistance, which only reimbursed 85% of a hospital’s treatment costs. A typical hospital has far fewer patients on public aid and can absorb the loss by relying on private pay or insured patients. 17
In June 1973, St. Mary’s announced plans to close by August 31. 23 After an emergency intervention by state health agencies and the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale School of Medicine, the Pulaski-Alexander Development Corporation (PADCO) acquired St. Mary’s and reopened it as the PADCO Community Hospital in March 1974. 25
Later known as the Southern Medical Center, it was able to secure a $650,000 Farmers Home Administration loan to reorganize its debts and expand services, but as the facility continued racking up debts, it began covering operating expenses by taking employees’ state and federal income tax withholdings and Medicare reimbursements. 17 21 In a vain effort to further cut costs, the hospital threatened to close its higher-cost maternity and obstetrics ward in May 1984. 20 The ward reopened after receiving a $63,000 advance on its state Medicaid reimbursement but it ultimately closed in September 1985.
Lourdes Health Management of Paducah, Kentucky took over operations of the ailing Southern Medical Center on March 1, 1986. 17 Soon after, the company found dozens of unpaid bills in the administration office, and employees were deluged by phone calls and mail from unpaid creditors. In September 1986, Governor James Thompson unveiled a bailout plan that would have infused operating cash into the hospital and promised $500,000 in capital improvements, 21 but the facility went bankrupt before the plan could be implemented 17 and was forced to close on November 30, 1986. 21 The emergency room, subsidized by the state, remained operational until August 8, 1988. 18
On August 22, Daystar Care Center, a local nursing home, announced plans to reopen the shuttered hospital, 19 which would include the re-establishment of emergency services on the first floor, a 20- to a 25-bed hospital on the second floor, and a special-care unit on the third floor. 18 The hospital building itself was acquired by realtor Rick Hunter for $194,000 in September who had the goal of leasing it to Daystar. 18 19 Hunter estimated that the building needed a new boiler system at the cost of $111,000, roof repairs at the cost of $18,000, additional central air conditioning units at the cost of $40,000, and the repair of pipe coverings over asbestos at the cost of $200. 18
After medical records and containers of unidentified chemicals were found inside, the EPA mandated cleanup of the facility which took place between April and September 2007 at the cost of $1.2 million. 22
Weber Dry Goods Building
Leon Emory Denison and Roy Gholson formed the Denison-Gholson Dry Goods in 1904 which grew into a sizeable retail institution in Cairo. 12 The firm purchased the stock of the Weber Dry Goods Company in July 1910, 13 and in 1911, the combined organization constructed a six-story building at the northwest Commercial Avenue and 5th Street to host its operations. The business later became known as Weber Dry Goods. 10
In February 1956, Cal Turner, who operated the J.L. Turner & Son wholesale dry goods business in Scottsville, Kentucky, acquired the Weber Dry Goods Company. 11 Turner utilized Cairo as a secondary distribution center for his operations because of its central location and because of a lack of competition in the Cairo region. In June, Turner began operating retail dollar general stores selling dry and durable goods with no items priced at more than $1—which grew to become Dollar General. 11 Soon after, it was decided to consolidate operations in Scottsville so that Turner could have immediate supervision of all operations and save on operating expenses, and the Cairo building was re-used as general-purpose office space.
For a brief period in 1957, the building was used by Skyway Luggage Company of Seattle, Washington to manufacture molded plastic luggage. 14 In August 1966, Delta Wholesale Drug began operations from the Weber Building. 9
After decades of neglect and abandonment, a portion of the Weber Building collapsed in 2013. It was subsequently demolished.