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.
On the oldest maps, the historic meeting place of “Father Mississippi” and “La Belle Ohio” was marked “Ancient Fort.”
The first municipal charter for Cairo and the Bank of Cairo was issued in 1818, but without any settlers and depositors, the effort failed. Another effort was made by Darius Holbrook, who founded the Cairo City & Canal Company in 1837. 7 Bonds were sold to fund a levee, dry dock, and shipyard for the company, although the business had failed by 1840. Its location was dismissed as nothing more than a “dismal swamp” by Charles Dickens in 1842. 6
Nevertheless, Cairo City & Canal began selling lots for a new city in 1853. 6 The city was designated a port of delivery by an Act of Congress in 1854, which boosted its fledging river ports. In 1856, the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was completed from Galena. 6 26 A new city charter was composed in 1857, and by 1860, the town boasted 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 Cairo a hub for African Americans heading north out of the Confederate south.
Cairo became a strategic point for campaigns in the South during the Civil War. Its location along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers was seen as vital to the distribution of supplies to troops. on September 6, 1861, Union Admiral Andrew Hull Foote made the town the naval station for the Mississippi River Squadron. As the city had no land available for base facilities, the navy yard repair shop machinery was installed aboard wharf boats, steamers, rafts, and tugs. In January 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant occupied the city and had Fort Defiance constructed to protect the confluence of the rivers. It was also where Grant launched offensive movements into Kentucky and other southern states. 5 7
The military occupation of Cairo caused much of the city’s trade to be diverted by railroad to Chicago permanently. The city failed to regain its importance after the war as more railroads converged on Chicago, attracting stockyards, meat processing plants, and heavy industries. Cairo did regain some industries; however, it focused on agriculture, lumber, and sawmills. Additionally, the city developed as a regional commercial center.
Growth and Stagnation
The strategic importance of Cairo’s geographic location at the apex of two significant rivers sparked prosperity. The growth in steamboat traffic and its commercial businesses continued after the war. Construction began on the United States Custom House and Post Office in 1869 and finished in 1872. It was a combination custom house, post office, and United States Court, with the post office becoming the third busiest in the nation.
It also became a hub for railroad shipping, with several railroad lines branching from the city. As many as 500,000 railroad cars were ferried across the rivers yearly to Missouri and Kentucky by the late 1800s. 1 By 1886, shipments via the river and railroad were valued at $60 million, the highest per capita in the nation. 5
Wealth flowed into the town, and merchants and shippers built numerous mansions along Washington Avenue, including the Italianate Magnolia Manor and the Second Empire Riverlore Mansion. The elaborate Cairo Public Library was added in 1883 and featured Queen Anne architecture, stained glass windows, and ornate woodwork.
Cairo had begun to stagnate by the dawn of the Great Depression. The completion of two railroad bridges over the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in 1899 and 1905, respectively, eliminated the use of railroad car ferries. The completion of two automobile bridges over the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in 1929 and 1937, respectively, caused the ferry business to collapse completely. 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.
The African Americans population of Cairo surged after the Civil War because of escaped and freed slaves that migrated via the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. 5 The African Americans population in the municipality increased from 50 persons before the Civil War to nearly 3,000 by the close of the 19th century. By 1900, 38% of the city’s population was of African-American heritage versus just 5% for the entire state. 2
Cairo’s turbulent history of race relations was characterized by the spectacle of the lynching of William James on November 11, 1909. 3 4 7 13 14 James, who was black, 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 group 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 crowd 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, who was disguised as a fellow officer, so they could safely escort him to the county jail. 3
The Governor of Illinois dispatched eleven companies of the state militia to Cairo to restore order. 3
In 1913, the citizens of Cairo voted to allow at-large elections rather than ward representations, aptly designed to prevent African Americans 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
Between the 1930s and 1960s, the population of Cairo remained relatively steady, but it could not ignore the loss of jobs in the ferry, railroad, and shipping industries. People began moving to other, more prosperous cities for work.
Racial tensions rose again in the late 1960s as African Americans sought greater integration into Cairo’s local economy and society. Most city and civil service jobs were dominated by whites, and black residents were routinely harassed and targeted by the police.
Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old African American 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.
A large portion of the black population in Cairo began rioting on July 17, and during the night, three stores and a warehouse were burned to the ground. 5 Windows were broken out in numerous other buildings. The local National Guard unit was activated, 18 and Mayor Lee Stenzel and other city leaders met with federal and state officials to develop a plan to end further rioting. 19 20
In response to the rioting, the 600 all-white citizens in Cairo formed a citizen’s protection group that was then deputized by the county sheriff. Known as the “White Hats,” because many of its members began wearing white construction hats to show their membership, they began patrolling the streets to maintain order. Reports of bullying against black individuals increased, and in 1969, several black residents formed the Cairo United Front, which combined the local NAACP chapter, a cooperative association, and street gangs. The Cairo United Front demanded the appointment of a black police chief, a black assistant fire chief, and an equal black-to-white ratio composition in all city jobs. Then it began a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses in Cairo, which made up nearly every commercial entity. 21
A rash of violence followed. 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 Cairo Chief of Police resigned in January 1970, noting that the city lacked the legal and physical means to deal with guerrilla warfare tactics. 23
The African American community then began picketing white-owned businesses, which led to the passing of an ordnance in December that prohibited the picketing within 20 feet of a commercial entity. 24 This led to a new wave of violence led by the Cairo United Front. The ban on picketing was soon overturned in state and federal courts.
Ultimately, the construction of Interstate 57 through southern Illinois and Missouri allowed motorists to bypass Cairo altogether, crippling the remaining hospitality industry in the city and causing the remaining businesses to close up. In December 1986, the city hospital was abandoned.
In 2009, three-fourths of the county’s sheriff deputies, based in Cairo, was 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 2020, the city of Cairo is home to 2,800 residents, a decline of 89% from its all-time peak of 15,000 in 1920.
Cairo Elks Lodge No. 651
Cairo Elks Lodge No. 651 was organized in January 1901 and met in various locations, including the c. 1912 Cairo Board of Trade Building on 8th Street and then the former Kimmel/Jackson/Rodgers/Lincoln Theatre on 9th Street.
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.
The Kimmel Theatre is an abandoned theater on 8th Street that opened in 1912. It briefly became the Grand Central Theatre in 1914, the Jackson Theatre in 1932, the Rodgers Theatre in 1936, and the Lincoln Theatre in the 1950s before closing in the late 1960s. After the Lincoln Theatre closed, the building was re-purposed for the Cairo Elks Lodge No. 651, which was previously located in the adjacent Board of Trades Building.
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 in 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.
- A Civil Rights Era Ghost Town by Visual News
- Bass, Kyle. “Cairo, Illinois.” Illinois History: A Magazine for Young People Apr. 2001: 48-49.Illinois Periodicals Online. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. Article.
- “1909: Will James, “the Froggie”, lynched in Cairo.” Executed Today. N.p., 11 Nov. 2009. Web. 7 Feb.2012. Article.
- Lansden, John McMurray. “Miscellaneous Papers.” A History of the City of Cairo, Illinois. Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1910. 277-278. Print.
- Niederkorn, William S. “One Lynching in Cairo, Ill.; Then, Another.” New York Times 12 Nov. 2009: n.pag. The Times Traveler. Web. 7 Feb. 2012. Article.
- “First Half Century.” The Cairo Project. Southern Illinois University Carbondale School ofJournalism, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2012.
- Barry, Dan. “Where Two Rivers Converge and Two Histories Divide.” New York Times 20 May 2007, New York ed.: A16. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.
- Albin, Dave. “The Endless Sufferings of Cairo, Illinois.” Mises Daily. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 12 May 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.
- “Levee blast eases threat to Illinois town.” Quad City Times [Davenport] 3 May 2011. Web. 10 Feb. 2012. Article.
- “Wholesale Drug Firm Opens; Staff to Expand.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 21 Aug. 1966, p. 19.
- “Legal Notice.” Herald and Review [Decatur], 28 Oct. 1935, p. 7.
- Tax Court of the United States. Goodwyn Crockery Company, Petitioner, v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Respondent. Vol. 37, Oct. 1961, pp. 356–359.
- Smith, George Washington, editor. “Leon Emory Denison.” History of Southern Illinois, vol. 2, Lewis Publishing Company, 1912, p. 768.
- “Local and Personal.” Carbondale Free Press, 14 Jul. 1910, p. 3.
- “New Industry Due at Cairo.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 23 Jan. 1957, p. 1.
- “About St. Patrick Church.” St. Patrick Church.
- United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Cairo Historic District. By Robert Wagner, Feb. 1977.
- Renshaw, Elizabeth. “Cairo hospital’s new managers find a fiscal nightmare.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 6 Apr. 1986, pp. A1-A2.
- Haller, Beth. “Plans taking shape for new hospital in Cairo.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 11 Oct. 1988, p. 3.
- Haller, Beth. “Cairo hospital purchase close to finalization.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 8 Sept. 1988, p. 3N.
- DeWitte, Dave. “Cairo’s expectant moms may trek to Memorial.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 14 May 1984, p. 1.
- Renshaw, Elizabeth. “Post-mortem of a hospital.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 30 Nov. 1986, pp. A1-A2.
- Hale, Caleb. “Superfund Project.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 18 Apr. 2007, p. 1B-8B.
- “Hospitals object.” Dixon Evening Telegraph, 28 Jun. 1973, p. 2.
- Holler, Sandra. “Cairo’s St. Mary’s Hospital looks ahead.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 30 Mar. 1970, p. 7.
- de Fiebre, Henry. “Once almost closed, hospital gets new life, name.” Southern Illinoisan [Carbondale], 14 Mar. 1974, p. 3.