Revisiting Cairo, Illinois

Once a strategically important city at the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Cairo, Illinois, is in terminal decline after decades of racial turbulence.

Cairo was founded by Darius Holbrook of Boston, Massachusetts, who had started the Cairo City & Canal Company in 1837. Its location alongside the Mississippi and Ohio rivers was called a “dismal swamp” by Charles Dickens in 1842. Bonds were later sold to fund a levee protecting the town from annual river floods and to drain surrounding swamps for developable land.

The city’s economy boomed as it was a vital steamboat port along the rivers. It was designated a port of delivery by the United States Congress in 1854. In 1869, construction began on a federal Custom House and Post Office. Cairo also served as a railroad and ferry hub. By the late 1800s, as many as 500,000 railroad cars were ferried across the Mississippi and Ohio rivers yearly. By 1886, shipments via the river and railroad were valued $60 million, the highest per capita in the United States.

Completing the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge over the Ohio River in 1899 led to a sharp decline in the railroad car ferry business. Another railroad bridge, completed at Thebes across the Mississippi River, further dented the ferry business. The first automobile bridge was finished across the Mississippi in 1929, followed by a companion Ohio River bridge in 1937. The combination of the railroad and automobile bridges caused the ferry industry to collapse. Associated railroad industries that were associated with the ferries began to close.

Beginning in the 1940s and accelerating in the 1950s, tugboats fueled by modern diesel engines began replacing steamboats powered by coal boilers. Refueling docks and maintenance shops dedicated to the steam-powered boats were no longer needed and closed. The population of Cairo peaked at 15,000 in 1920, remaining relatively steady until racial violence engulfed the city during the mid-20th century.

After decades of racial tensions, fire bombings, and lynchings, Cairo began a drastic die-off and has not recovered.


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Looked like Berlin after World War II when I visited. I was told that most of the white business owners left en masse rather than integrate their businesses.

Thanks for your report. I was born in Cairo in 1955 in the house at 1334 Commercial St. I do remember the uprising in the 1960’s. I had six brothers that took part of said. This came from the hanging of their friend (sic) Junebug in the city jail. Again, thankfully for bring Cairo to attention of the Americans. ” A City That will never be forgotten.”

Just drove through Cairo last week and was seeking some kind of historical economic development reason for the city to have become commercially obsolete. I was guessing tax advantages in Indiana, Kentucky, or Missouri had pulled most businesses away. But the changing modes of transportation that you describe here as well as the disappearance of the Union/Confederate border tells most of the story.

Cairo, IL plays a big part in Neil Gaiman’s excellent book, “American Gods.” Hopefully, the Showtime adaptation (in which Gillian Anderson was just cast) will be half as good as the book.

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