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Cairo, Illinois

Cairo is the southernmost city in the American state of Illinois. Located in Alexander County, of which it is the only seat, the settlement sits at the confluence of the mighty Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. As a result of having a low elevation, compared with any other locality in the state, Cairo is the only Illinois city surrounded by levees. There are several old buildings of interest here, and its Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). As we shall see further down the page, notable people whom have had connections with Cairo include Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870).


Above: Cairo Levee Underpass (Left) and the Public Library (Right)

One might wonder why the author of this website came here (on a Roadtrip in 2017). The thinking behind this was due to a personal interest in seeing a mostly (but not completely) abandoned urban area (for full abandonment, see Pripyat on my Chernobyl page Here).

Above: Welcoming Sign to Cairo, Illinois

 In 1920, Cairo had a population of 15,203, when it was a booming Mississippi River port town. By the time of the 2010 census, the population was 2,831 and by 2014, this figure had dropped further to 2,576.

Above: Fully Zoomable Map, Courtesy of

In downtown Cairo lies a bewildering array of late 1800’s and early 1900’s buildings and its county (Alexander County) is, at the time of writing, the poorest in Illinois and one of the fastest depopulating counties in the whole of America. Much of the downtown area seen at the time of the visit in 2017 had been left abandoned and crumbling. Here, like other abandoned urban areas, weeds grow up through cracks in the ground and vegetation may be seen taking over profusely around the abandoned buildings. Take away the people, and it isn’t long before nature takes over.

A brief history of the rise and fall of Cairo follows. The locality dates back to 1818 when Cairo and the Bank of Cairo, which had no depositors, were chartered. Nobody came to settle here and so a second attempt at establishing a town on the site was made from 1836-1837 by the Cairo City and Canal Company. The company constructed a large levee to protect the city from seasonal flooding of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Despite being successful, the settlement collapsed in 1840. Two years later, the town was visited by Charles Dickens, who had invested (and lost) money investing in it. He was far from enthusiastic about the locality; his descriptions in his American Notes, referring to it, amongst other things, a place where “At the junction of the two rivers lies a breeding place of fever, ague, and death - vaunted in England as a mine of golden hope and speculated in on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people’s ruin.”. As well as non-fiction, Dickens made Cairo the prototype for the nightmare City of Eden in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. The town’s fortunes took an upturn in 1846, when 10,000 acres here were purchased by the trustees of the Cairo City Property Trust. The property trust was formed by a group of investors interested in making Cairo the terminus of the projected Illinois Central Railroad. By 1855, the railroad did indeed arrive and the city began to grow, as trade increased with the new link from the riverside settlement to the city of Chicago. During the American Civil War (April 1861 - May 1865), Cairo was headquarters for the Union commander General Ulysses S. Grant at the time of the western campaigns. The army presence resulted in much of Cairo’s trade to be diverted to Chicago and much of this was lost, never to return once the war was over. Following the Civil War, the town’s economy became characterised by agriculture and timber products.

Further to Dicken’s references to Cairo in both fiction and non-fiction, the same may be said for Mark Twain; the town was the original destination for Huck and the slave Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which the characters planned to paddle up the Ohio River to obtain freedom for Jim. In the story, they erroneously sail past here and end up in the slave state of Arkansas instead. In Twain’s non-fiction work, Life on the Mississippi, he makes reference to Cairo’s location with respect to the river.

Above: The First Presbyterian Church of Cairo

Moving on to Cairo in the mid 1960’s, the alleged police murder of a young black soldier on leave here sparked protests and riots. In reaction to this, and perceived threats from the black community, the white community formed their own civilians’ militia (the ‘White Hats’). From the late 1960’s, through to the early 1970’s there was much racial strife. This added to the city’s existing problems, which by now were characterised by economic desperation with a decline in the shipping and ferrying industries. Jobs were harder to find, local businesses were forced to shut and the city became a scene of abandonment over the following decades. Further damage to Cairo’s economy came in 1978, when the nearby Interstate 57 Bridge opened over the Mississippi, killing off the local restaurant and hotel industries. Cairo's hospital closed in 1986, due to high debt and a reduction in patient numbers.

“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise...”

- Mark Twain In Eruption

This quotation may be true in so many cases, although Cairo’s levees protected the city from the Ohio River during a major flood in 1937. However, the city had to be evacuated during the 2011 Mississippi River Floods. The height of the Ohio River broke the previous 1937 record and the city was on the verge of being submerged under 15 feet of water. The United States Army Corps of Engineers worked to prevent this, by blasting a 2 mile long hole in a levee protecting the floodway, flooding 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland below the city instead. Insofar as the remaining population is concerned, there are many socio-economic challenges and several (not entirely successful) attempts have been made by the local government to improve the situation through racially integrated historic preservation initiatives. Some local industries do remain, producing various goods. Remaining cultural landmarks here include a few state-owned Victorian mansions (built by wealthy merchants and shippers in the 19th and early 20th century), Cairo Custom House & Post Office, the  Gem Theatre, the Cairo Public Library and Fort Defiance Park (see below).


Above: The Old Custom House (left) and the Post Office and Courthouse (Right)

Stopping off, parking on one side-street to photograph abandoned houses, a local lady puled up to see if we had encountered a problem with the vehicle and needed any help. Tourist, Urban Explorer, or however the unlikely English visitors may be described as, a brief conversation followed. She recalled how her family once owned several houses along here. As it turned out, they had been bought up by the authorities who are now guardians of this unfortunate place, where decay overshadows the pride of the local community. There is not decay everywhere; dotted around the city, amongst the abandoned streets may be seen spick-and-span residential properties with neatly cut lawns – oases, vestiges of better days. There is little sign of vagrancy here; things are so bad, even liquor stores went bust. On President Donald Trump, Phillip Matthews, the community organizer may well sum up the sentiment of those who remain here in this mainly abandoned city: "If you can find billions of dollars to build a wall in Mexico, you can't find the money to fix this?"

Fort Defiance State Park

The photos below show the spot where the two rivers, the Mississippi and Ohio, converge at the site of Fort Defiance, a Civil War camp. Just south of the city, a garrison was built here in 1862 by Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885).

Above: View from lookout tower, where the Ohio River (left) joins the Mississippi River (right) [Composite Image]

[Photos: August 2017, Text: October 2017. Note: It was unclear to the author, exactly where the distinction lies between Cairo being defined as a town and as a city]

References and Further Information

1. On Wikipedia Here
2. Cairo Historical Association (which also operates under the name Magnolia Manor) Here
3. On Atlas Obscura Here
4. Tired of Promises, A Struggling Small Town Wants Problems Solved – An article from NPR, which may be found Here
5. Between Two Rivers – An award-winning documentary film about Cairo’s history. More on IMDB Here

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