Cairo Illinois has an extraordinarily long and tortured history beginning with the towns' founding in 1838. Cairo sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers surrounded by lush farm land in Southern Illinois. Many people assumed that because of Cairo's position at the juncture of two of the most important rivers in the US, that Cairo would one day grow to be a great city. The population of Cairo peaked sometime around the census of 1920 at 15,203. The current population (2012 est.) is just 2,660 which is an 82.5% decline. Several books have been written and a documentary movie made about the unique history of Cairo. I'm going to try to write the briefest possible summery of what I know and have put some links for further reading at the bottom of the page if you're interested.
Because of it's strategic location, Cairo grew to importance during the civil war. Fort Defiance was built during the war slightly South of the city at the actual point where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers join together. There is a state park on the site now. You can walk around and see the two rivers at the park but there is almost nothing left of the fort. After the civil war Cairo prospered because of it's location on the rivers and because of rail connections that served the city. Ferries crossing the rivers departed from Cairo and the city became one of the busiest steamboat ports on the Mississippi. As a port city Cairo developed a thriving service and vice industry. The city served as a shipment point for illegal alcohol bound for dry areas of southern states. Prostitution and gambling were not uncommon and by the turn of the century Cairo had a firmly established reputation for being a lawless and possibly dangerous place.
Cairo is built on a very narrow, low and flood prone strip of land between the two rivers. Levees were built around the city early in it's history to prevent flooding thus making Cairo an island more or less and preventing free outward expansion and development. The levees at least initially also prevented proper drainage. Throughout the 1800s visitors to the city remarked on the muddy swampy conditions and the city was hit by several outbreaks of disease and plagued by mosquitos. Cairo's geographical advantages were slowly taken away by the end of the steamboat era and by the construction of bridges over the two rivers that effectively bypassed the town.
Since the civil war Cairo has had a large population of African Americans. They first arrived as freed slaves taking up residence in what was in many ways a Southern city in a Northern state. Since the civil war Cairo's history has been punctuated by violent outbreaks of racial strife. As the city was sinking into economic decline in the 1960s racial animosity tore Cairo apart. The town effectively divided into two race based warring camps from the mid 60s to mid 70s. There were riots that required the intervention of the national guard, murders, shootings, buildings were torched and thousands of residents left. Cairo has never recovered. In fact it seems to be sinking further and further into despair. Cairo's reputation in the surrounding area has not recovered either. I've spoken to several people who've suggested that letting the town be destroyed by floods (as in the flood of 2011) would be doing the world a favor. The 2012 estimated population of Cairo is 2,660 about 68% black and the rest white. The city suffers from poverty, high rates of unemployment and well above average crime rates.
I've visited Cairo twice. Once in 1990 and again in 2013. Between those two visits many blocks of buildings were demolished. Cairo's once packed and thriving downtown streets have been reduced to scattered standing structures on otherwise empty blocks. Many of the remaining buildings are abandoned and almost none are open for business. Residential areas haven't done much better with sections of town here and there reverting to grassland. Cairo is not an entirely comfortable place to visit. It has lost over 80% of it's population but it is definitely not a ghost town. There are no people in the pictures I took when I was there but that's because I generally don't like taking pictures of people. There seemed to be plenty of people around. There are open businesses on Sycamore and Washington Ave. heading North away from downtown but not many. It's definitely worth a visit though. Cairo is like no other city I know of and it sadly looks like it most of it wont be around much longer. Nearby Mound City and Thebes are much smaller but also interesting towns. Dixon Springs State Park is about an hour drive away and is an interesting place with a great campground.
All content on these pages Copyright Mark Hedlund 2012-2017. All rights reserved. Use in school projects and sharing with links on social media is always okay. Please send me an email to request permission for any other use. Non-exclusive publication rights and commercial use for most photos is $30 per image.