“Where’s that?” is one common response.
“Why would you go there?” is what they usually ask next.
These were questions I fielded about a dozen times before I finally made my trip to Cairo, Illinois (pronounced care-oh). It’s a small, decayed, Illinois town with a volatile history and a population of 2,800. Why did I field these dozen-or-so questions? Because I only know a dozen-or-so people. And apparently none of them know each other well enough to pass my answers around. So I got the script down pretty okay (for Question #1, anyway):
“It’s a 9.08-square-mile interfluve at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Southernmost tip of Illinois.”
“What’s inter-floov?” they asked.
“An interfluve. It’s the crotch of the confluence,” I said.
“Crotch. That reminds me, you still owe me ten bucks,” they said.
My answer to Question #2 (“Why would you go there”) isn’t as scriptable. The water cooler-rationale included sentiments about liking road trips, the Mississippi River, driving a car for six hours, and other breakroom platitudes. The real reason why I or anyone else would want to go there, to Cairo, is far more complex than what’s said in a “what are you up to this weekend”-conversation. Which is why I’m putting it to writing. (The other reason I’m putting it to writing is that I want these dozen-or-so people to stop making me repeat myself.)
The complexity starts in 1818, the year the US adopted the 13-stripe design of the American flag, the year Brooks Brothers opened its first store, and the year Illinois was admitted into the American Union. It was also the year that John G. Comegys, a St. Louis merchant by way of Baltimore, purchased an 1,800-acre plot of land at Illinois side of the Mississippi and Ohio river confluence. As a partner of Falconer and Comegys and later of John G. Comegys & Co., ol’ Johnny-boy (also a friend of Meriwether Lewis who had stayed at the confluence in 1803 with Clark and the other ‘explorers’) saw the entrepreneurial strategy of owning land at such a would-be important point. As Drew VandeCreek notes in his condensed history of Cairo, Comegys’ real victory for this muddy crotch of land was in his securing “the territorial legislature’s authorization to incorporate the city.” At the same time, Comegys incorporated the Bank of Cairo.
Comegys was also the cat who came up with the idea of calling it Cairo. Why Cairo? Various resources suggest that Comegys had a thing for Egypt, but so did a lot of people at the time. The Mississippi River was then a river of Nile-level magnitude Comegys was enterprising in the early years of the 19th Century. Halfway across the globe, Napoleon’s army had recently completed their Egyptian Campaign (1798 – 1801), a strategic imperialization powered by the France’s interest in undermining Britain’s trade relations with India, among other things. After a few years of struggle the campaign ended in failure, though it also inspired renewed scientific and historical interest in ancient Egypt. The oblique archaeological mysteries of Egypt thus captured the Western imagination and the intrigue got a name: Egyptomania. This affliction has since flared up every 50-or-so years in Western pop culture and was especially rampant in the early 1800s. I suspect that the verdant richness of the Mississippi River Valley inspired Comegys’ own Egyptomaniacal infirmity.
Comegys died in 1820 (not of Egyptomania) before he could realize any of his visions for the city. Despite his success as a businessman, his family defaulted on the land payments and ownership of the land reverted to the federal government. Lots were sold and whatever money was left was put in the Bank of Cairo. For a few years, Cairo sat dead [next to] the water.
Meanwhile, the Erie Canal was trudging away towards completion in 1825. It created a 363-mile-long waterway connection from the Hudson River in Albany, New York, to Buffalo, New York, on Lake Erie. The ports of New York City opened the door for boat traffic into the Midwest. Cities like Rochester and Syracuse in New York State were positioned along the new canal and saw exponential growth, which made American capitalists and developers salivate. Why not also develop America’s other western waterways where the land was cheap and the geology nonexistent?
So we meet Darius Blake Holbrook, a Boston-based investor who John McMurray Lansden, another OG Cairo biographer, describes as “not an adventurer, a dreamer, or a man of schemes merely. Force of character, strong will, ceaseless activity and enterprise, initiative, ability to bring others to see things as he saw them, were only some of his remarkable endowments.” He learned about Cairo through his connection to Illinois Senator Sidney Breese, who met him in 1835 as Holbrook, according to Breese, was attempting to “procure charters for manufacturing purposes.” Breese saw a sharp mind in Holbrook and after some discussion about what started in 1818 in Cairo, Holbrook “proposed the formation of a company” that would build a city in Cairo as well as a railroad connecting to Peru, Illinois—then a major transit hub. It was thus that Holbrook incorporated the Cairo City and Canal Company in 1837. Cairo would become a port city.
Problem was, Cairo had a low elevation with swampy land and some infrastructural work had to be done to whip the interfluve into tip-top shape. This meant a levee system with shipyards, a dry dock, and other amenities, which didn’t come cheap. Holbrook secured funds from John Wright & Company, a London-based banking house that supplied the bonds for construction. Cairo started to grow and its population swelled to 1,000 by the end of the decade. But then in 1840, as Lansden writes, “the great bankers of London had turned against Wright & Company and brought them to bankruptcy,” effectively rending the bonds valueless and again stalling development in Cairo.
Man-of-many caricatures Charles Dickens took a tour of America in the early 1840s and stopped in Cairo in 1842. He describes the visit in his American Notes for General Circulation as “a dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; […] such is this dismal Cairo.” By 1845, Cairo’s population had shrunk to 113.
Steamboats like the one Chuck was on sometimes stopped in, but frequent flooding and a general sense of muddiness overwhelmed the struggling town while other port cities like St. Louis and Memphis grew and overshadowed Cairo’s would-be claim on antebellum river life. The city sat stagnant for the next decade until the Illinois Central Railroad (ICR) opened in 1855, making Cairo a major shipping hub between Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico. The rail ran along one of the levees flanking the city and Cairo again grew.
Cairo was finally incorporated as a city in 1858 (coincidentally, the same year Holbrook died) and nearly 1,800 people called it home. But around this time the Civil War was brewing and Cairo began to shine as a strategic uvula of real estate for the Union Army. The Confederate states of Missouri and Kentucky were immediately across the river to the West and East, and Arkansas and Tennessee were sixty miles downriver.
Cairo’s proximity to the slave-owning states also made it a major hub for the Underground Railroad, with escaped slaves often hiding in ICR brick storage cells under Levee Street (as of spring 2014 these cells are still visible and precariously navigable). When the Civil War began in 1861, Cairo had grown to a population of 2,200, though only 55 were black—because who’d want to stay within spitting distance of the Mason Dixon?
Meanwhile, the US Navy set up base along the Ohio River-side of town and the State of Illinois, along with the US Army, rounded up 2,000 volunteers to build Fort Prentiss at Cairo’s south end. Bearded warhorse Ulysses S. Grant later changed its name to Fort Defiance (as of spring 2014 in its place stands the Fort Defiance State Park, which due to flooding and lack of funds has fallen into disrepair). The New York Times called Grant’s fort “the Gibraltar of the West” and by the end of the war, over 40,000 Confederate prisoners had passed through it. As is usually the case (for the winning side) the war was generous to Cairo’s infrastructure with soldiers reinforcing the city with 15-foot levees to hold back the river waters.
And though the war brought some improvements, the city was nonetheless part of a war frontier. In Anthony Trollope’s North America 1863, he observes that on his visit to Cairo around this time, “Fever and ague universally prevail. Men and women grow up with their lantern faces like specters. The children are prematurely old; and the earth, which is so fruitful, is hideous in its fertility. […] At the period of my visit [Cairo] was falling quickly into ruin. Every street was absolutely impassable from mud.”
But when the war ended, life in Cairo thrived. Escaped and emancipated slaves made their home in the city, with nearly 3,000 African Americans rounding out Cairo’s total population of 6,267 in 1870. River traffic was booming and for a time the US government declared Cairo a Port of Delivery. Much of Cairo’s grand architecture was also realized during this time, including the stolid Custom House and the stately Victorian mansions of Magnolia Manor and Riverlore (all three structures still stand and are in idiosyncratically good shape).
Cairo continued its steady rise over the subsequent decades and by 1900, the city’s population grew to 13,000 (African Americans accounted for 5,000 of this number and also constituted five percent of Illinois’ total African American population at the time; this will become significant shortly). Cairo’s exponential growth during these years—with the population reaching an all-time high in 1902 totaling 15,203—was mostly due to the rail and river industries. The city’s vitality was contingent on the bet that rail and river portage was here to stay. In this way, the construction of the ICR Bridge over the Ohio River, completed in 1889, should have portended badly. Previously, Cairo was a terminus for the ICR and had a booming ferry economy, but the construction of the bridge cut into the city’s prior capability to pass as many as 500,000 rail cars per year across its rivers.
As rail gained speed, Cairo was losing its place as a port. The completion of a second rail bridge over the Mississippi River in 1905 in nearby Thebes, Illinois (more Egyptomania) caused more rail traffic to bypass Cairo. The subsequent decades saw the rise of the automobile and introduced new infrastructural pressures to the region. Ferries weren’t fast enough. The Cairo Mississippi River Bridge was completed in 1937 and the Cairo Ohio River Bridge in 1939, allowing back-and-forth traffic between Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri to bypass the ferries of Cairo and make the city not much more than a place to stop for gas or beer. Between 1940 and 1960, Cairo’s population shrunk from 14,407 to 9,348.
The shrinkage was not only a result of vital industries leaving the region, but also by the other social (specifically, racial) tensions that had been plaguing the city since its Fort Defiance days. These tensions reached the first boiling point in 1909 withthe double lynching (and corpse shooting) of a black man and a white man. The black man, Will James, from nearby Belknap, was accused of the murder of a white girl. According to a New York Times article detailing the event, James was taken by a mob to “the most prominent square in the city and strung up. The rope broke and the man was riddled with bullets. The body was then dragged by the rope for a mile to the scene of the crime and burned in the presence of at least 10,000 rejoicing persons. […] Part of the mob then sought other negroes [sic]. Another part, at 11:15 o’clock, after battering down a steel cell in the county jail, took out Henry Salzner, a white man charged with the murder of his wife last August, and lynched him.”
One Cairo resident, a former editor of the Cairo daily newspaper, responded with a letter to the editor addressed to the New York Times, explaining that though Cairo had a history of providing ‘services’ to its black population, this population was nonetheless “a constant menace to the town. No white woman dare venture outside of the house at night alone for fear of assault. Many outrages of which the world has never heard have been attempted. […] Altogether it is not surprising that a lynching took place in Cairo. The only wonder is that one did not take place long ago.”
This tension built throughout the first half of the 20th Century, so when the automobile bridges went up in the 1930s, the city was already heading towards depression. For some, with lack of available work and low or no wages, leaving Cairo was just as difficult as staying. The Civil Rights Movement brought racism into the public sphere, but the process of equality was especially slow in Cairo, due to deep-rooted hatred, fear, and economic stress. These vices came to a head at the end of the 1960s with the hanging of 19-year-old Robert Hunt, a black soldier home on leave. He was found hanging from the rafters of the Cairo police station on July 15, 1967, and the (predominantly white) police force called it a suicide. The black community called it a murder. Riots broke out in opposition to both the police ambivalence and the business owners who were already explicitly resisting employee integration. In response, the Cairo police force deputized a white citizens force—called the White Hats—to assist the police in enforcing their ‘law’ of segregation through violence.
The violence became so bad that in 1969 Richard Ogilvie, governor of Illinois, deployed a National Guard outfit to keep the tensions at bay. Many of Cairo’s businesses were burnt down and a ban was instated to prevent protests within twenty feet of business entrances, which only incited further boycotting and rioting. According to LegendsofAmerica.com, “the demonstrations and violence continued into the 1970’s, producing more than 150 nights of gunfire; multiple marches, protests and arrests, numerous businesses bombed, and more declaring bankruptcy.”
By 1970, Cairo’s population had shrunk to around 6,000, and as the violence and depression continued to run people out of town, the completion of the Interstate 57 Bridge over the Mississippi River in 1978 put the final nail in Cairo’s coffin. Previously you would have needed to drive through Cairo to get across the rivers to Missouri or Kentucky. The I-57 Bridge, a few miles north of the city, rendered Cairo superfluous as a roadside station. More businesses closed, including the historic Gem Theater movie house, which had been in operation for almost 70 years (today the theater is boarded up and trees are growing through its walls). In 1985, Cairo’s hospital closed. In 1986, Cairo ceased its bus services. And in 1987, Amtrak’s City of New Orleans line, which previously made a stop in Cairo, began bypassing the city altogether. By 1990, the population had shrunk to 4,846.
Between 1980 and 2010, Cairo’s population shrunk by an average of 21.9 percent per decade. In 2010, Cairo had an official population of 2,831, with the ratio of black to white residents weighing at 2.5 to 1. There have been attempts to reinvigorate life in Cairo, including Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s 2010 declaration of the Alexander-Cairo Port District (a tax strategy), but businesses have still struggled to take root, and then the Mississippi River flooding of 2011—which was at its highest levels in nearly a hundred years—inflicted further damage on the city and its few standing structures.
In other words, Cairo hasn’t changed much in 200 years.
Today, Cairo remains the county seat of Alexander County, which had a population of 8,238 in 2010 (down from 9,590 in 2000) and is the poorest county in the State of Illinois. It’s the same county that used to house the maximum-security Tamms Correctional Center, which itself housed the State of Illinois’ execution chamber, until the prison was shuttered in 2003. (I’m sure there’s a comment that can be made here, but I’m not rushing to pin myself to one side of the aisle or the other, so you’ll just need to insert your own smarm.) The recession put the county $500,000 in debt and in 2009 the bank repo’d five of the seven cruisers owned by the sheriff’s department. Though apparently they have more equipment now because this writer got a speeding ticket on his first visit to Cairo. Don’t worry, he paid a fine plus a fee plus ‘court supervision’ (a four-hour class) in order to have the ticket revoked from his record and/or to help Alexander County get the money to get its other squad cars back.
So to get back to my answer for Question #2—Why would you go there?—it’s because I wanted to see it with my own eyes. Because Cairo seems to me like a synecdoche for the American story. Because America’s is a history of enterprise, exploitation, eviction, and evisceration. Because in Cairo you can see the ascent, the pinnacle, and the slow, malignant descent. Because the problems that inhibited the development of Cairo in its early years continue to inhibit it now, and yet life persists there. Because irrationality has mystique. Because there is an infrastructure of emptiness.
“And where is that?” they might ask.
“Look down,” I say.
Benjamin van Loon is a writer. He lives in Chicago with his wife and is currently studying at Northeastern Illinois University to receive a Master of Arts in Communications and Media. He is the co-founder of Anobium magazine, an experimental, multimedia arts resource and literary publishing collective.