Certificate from the Cairo City Property
in 1859. This historic document has an
ornate border around it. This item is hand signed by the Company’s Trustees John H. Wright and Charles Davis and is
over 154 years old.
Cairo is the southernmost city in the U.S. state of Illinois, and is the county seat of Alexander County.
Cairo is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The rivers converge at Fort Defiance State Park, a Civil War fort that was commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant. Cairo has the lowest elevation of any location within Illinois and is the only city in the state surrounded by levees.
Several blocks in the town comprise the Cairo Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The Old Customs House is also on the NRHP. The city is part of the Cape Girardeau−Jackson, MO-IL Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population at the 2010 census was 2,831, a significant decline from its peak population of 15,203 in 1920.
The entire city was evacuated in early May 2011, after the Ohio River rose above the 1937 flood levels, out of fear of a 15-foot wall of water inundating the city. The United States Army Corps of Engineers breached levees in the Mississippi flood zone below Cairo in Missouri in order to save the areas above the breach along both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Cairo was founded by the Cairo City & Canal Company in 1837, and incorporated as a city in 1858. For fifteen years, the town grew slowly, but the sale of lots (commencing in 1853) and the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad attracted settlers and merchants. By 1860, the population exceeded 2,000.
During the American Civil War, Cairo was a strategically important supply base and training center for the Union army. For several months, both General Grant and Admiral Foote had headquarters in the town.
The strategic importance of Cairo's geographic location had sparked prosperity in Cairo during the Civil War. Several banks were created in the town during the war years, and growth in banking as well as steamboat traffic continued after the war. Even prior to the war, Cairo was beginning to emerge as an important steamboat port, with so much river traffic that the city had been designated as a port of delivery by act of Congress in 1854.
Construction began in 1869 on the United States Custom House and Post Office, which was designed by Alfred B. Mullet, the Supervising Architect during Reconstruction. The custom house was completed in 1872. The completed building served as a custom house, post office, and United States Court. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois met at the building until 1905. From 1905 to 1942, the building housed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois. The building also housed the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Illinois from 1905 to 1912. The post office in the building was the third busiest in the United States at the height of Cairo's prosperity. One of only seven of Mullet's Victorian structures remaining in the nation, the building has been converted into a museum. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After the Civil War, the city became a hub for railroad shipping in the region, which added to its economy. By 1900 several railroad lines branched from Cairo. In addition to shipping and railroads, a major industry in Cairo was the operation of ferries. Into the late 19th century, nearly 250,000 railroad cars could be ferried across the river in as little as six months. Vehicles were also ferried, as there were no automobile bridges in the area in the early 20th century. The ferry industry created numerous jobs in Cairo to handle large amounts of cargo and numerous passengers through the city.
Wealthy merchants and shippers built numerous fine mansions in the 19th and early 20th century, including the Italianate Magnolia Manor, completed in 1872, and the Second Empire Riverlore Mansion, built by Capt. William P. Halliday in 1865. Across the street from the customs house, the Cairo Public Library was constructed in 1883 of Queen Anne-style architecture, finished with stained glass windows and ornate woodwork. The library was dedicated on July 19, 1884 as the A. B. Safford Memorial Library. Anna E. Safford paid for the construction of the Library and donated it to the city. These and other significant buildings are also listed on the National Register.
For protection from seasonal flooding, Cairo is completely enclosed by a series of levees and flood walls, due to its low elevation between the rivers. Several buildings, including the old custom house, were originally designed to be built to a higher street level, to be at the same height as the top of the levees. That plan was scrapped as the cost of fill to raise the streets and surrounding land to that height proved to be impractical. In 1914 a large flood gate was constructed by Stupp Brothers of St. Louis, Missouri. The flood gate is known as the "Big Subway Gate," and it was designed to seal the northern levee in Cairo by closing over U.S. Highway 51. The gate weighs 80 tons, is 60 feet wide, 24 feet high and five feet thick. With the addition of the gate, Cairo could become an island, completely sealed off from approaching flood waters.
Following the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the levee system around Cairo was strengthened. As part of this project, the Corps of Engineers established the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. The Ohio River flood of 1937 brought a record water level to Cairo that crested at 59.5 feet. To protect Cairo, Corps of Engineers closed the flood gate and blew a breach in the Bird's Point levee for the first time to relieve pressure on the Cairo flood wall. Following the flood, the concrete flood wall was raised to its current height. It is designed to protect the town from flood waters up to 64 feet.
In 1942 the federal government constructed a new U.S. Post Office and Court House in Cairo. Still growing, the city had a population approaching 15,000. The new federal court house, located at 1500 Washington, was designed by the architects Louis A. Simon and George Howe. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Illinois moved into the new court house in 1942, from the old U.S. Custom House and Post Office. After the U.S. district court structure in Illinois was reorganized in 1978, the court house was used for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. The building remains in use by the federal courts and as the active post office for Cairo. The court house was built and is operated by the U.S. General Services Administration.
An estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered for the lynching of Will James on November 11, 1909. Cairo's turbulent history is often traced back to the lynching of black resident William James. In 1900, Cairo had a population of nearly 13,000. Of that total, approximately 5,000 residents were black. In 1900, this was an unusually high black population for a town of Cairo's size. Five percent of all black residents of the state of Illinois resided in Cairo. As a result of the large black population in a town with a traditionally southern white heritage, race relations were already strained by 1900. On the night of November 11, 1909 two men were lynched. The first man lynched was a black man named William James, who was allegedly responsible for the murder of Anna Pelly, a young white woman killed three days earlier. The second man lynched was a white man named Henry Salzner, who had allegedly murdered his wife in the previous August.
James was accused of killing Pelly by choking her to death in an alley with pieces of a flour sack on the dark and rainy evening of November 8, 1909. Pelly's body was discovered the next morning, and the evidence suggested that James and a possible accomplice had committed the crime. James was placed in police custody on Tuesday, where he remained until Wednesday evening. As word of the crime and evidence spread, the citizens of Cairo demanded an immediate trial for James, but the case was delayed by the court. With racial tension already at breaking point in Cairo, the townspeople grew quickly infuriated by the delay in a speedy trial. The threat of mob violence quickly developed as a result of the delay. On November 10, Will James was turned over to Sheriff Frank Davis, who quickly took James out of the city on an Illinois Central train to avoid any potential mob violence. An angry mob had formed in Cairo and seized another train and raced to catch up with James north of town. Sheriff Davis' attempt to save James from the mob proved futile as the mob was able to intercept James and the sheriff. The mob returned James to Cairo and led him to the intersection of Commercial Avenue and Eighth Street. The mob of approximately 10,000 attempted to hang James from large steel arches that spanned the intersection. When the noose was placed around the neck of James, he confessed "I killed her, but Alexander took the lead". Although he survived the hanging when the rope broke, the mob then shot James several times, killing him. Following the shooting, the mob dragged the body back to the scene of Anna Pelly's murder. His head was cut from his body and placed on a pole that was stuck into the ground, and then the body of James was burned. Following the killing of Will James, the infuriated townspeople went out in search of the accomplice, Arthur Alexander. When the mob was unable to locate Alexander, they instead entered the court house and broke through the cell where Henry Salzner was being held. Salzner was hanged from a telegraph pole near the courthouse, and the crowd shot his body many times following the hanging. After hanging Salzner, the mob continued searching for Alexander long into the night. Police and sheriff deputies located Alexander before the mob, and they were able to get him escorted to the county jail by disguising him as a police officer. The mob pressed on still searching for Alexander, and the mayor and chief of police had to be guarded in their homes as the mob threatened them as well. The Governor of Illinois dispatched 11 companies of militia to Cairo in order to restore order. By the time the mob discovered Alexander was at the jail the following morning, soldiers had already arrived and were able to restore order before any further violence took place.
The slow economic decline in Cairo can be traced back to the early 20th century. In 1889 the Illinois Central Railroad bridge was completed over the Ohio River, which brought about a decline in ferry business. The economic impact was not severe, however, as the railroad traffic still was directed through Cairo, and automobile traffic would also increase in the early 20th century. In 1905 a second bridge was constructed across the Mississippi River at Thebes, Illinois. The effects of the second bridge were felt much more, as rail traffic through Cairo was now reduced and ferry operations for the railroad were no longer necessary. As the steamboat industry was replaced with barges, there was no longer a significant reason for river traffic to stop in Cairo. In 1929, the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge was completed, linking Missouri with Illinois to the south of Cairo. In 1937 the Cairo Ohio River Bridge was completed. With the two bridges completed, there was no longer a need for any kind of ferry industry at Cairo. Additionally, both bridges cross the rivers to the south of town, which allowed motorists to cross the southern tip of Illinois between Missouri and Kentucky by completely bypassing the city of Cairo.
With river traffic and rail traffic drastically reduced, much of Cairo's employment prospects were gone with it. Between the 1930s and 1960s, the population in Cairo remained fairly steady; however, many of the employment opportunities were no longer available as the shipping, railroad, and ferry industries left the city. Population decline was already beginning; however, it was not the rapid decline that Cairo would later experience. In a city that had such a strong history of racial violence, racial tension was strained once again by the late 1960s as the United States was in the middle of the civil rights struggle. This tension further damaged the already declining economy of the city. On July 16, 1967, Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black soldier home on leave, was found hanged in the Cairo police station. Police reported that Hunt had hanged himself with his t-shirt, but many members of the black community of Cairo accused the police of murder.
The death of Robert Hunt sparked aggressive protests in Cairo's black community, and on July 17, 1967, a large portion of the black population in Cairo began rioting. The black rioting that erupted in 1967 was not confined to Cairo; it was part of a larger pattern of more than 40 racially motivated riots that occurred across major cities in the United States in the summer of 1967. During the night of rioting on July 17, three stores and a warehouse in Cairo were burned to the ground, and windows were broken out of numerous other buildings. The national guard unit at Cairo was activated to respond to the violence. On July 20, 1967, one of the leaders of the violence in Cairo warned white city officials, "Cairo will look like Rome burning down" if city leaders did not meet the demands of the black groups in Cairo by Sunday, July 23, 1967. The spokesman represented approximately one hundred black residents of the Pyramid Court housing project, and the group demanded new job opportunities, organized recreation programs, and an end to alleged police brutality. Cairo Mayor Lee Stenzel and other city leaders met with federal and state representatives to ensure that a plan was developed to satisfy the demands by the deadline in an effort to head off any additional rioting.
In response to the rioting of July 1967, the white community in Cairo formed a citizens protection group that was deputized by the sheriff. The protection group became known as the "White Hats", because many of its 600 members began wearing white construction hats to show their membership while patrolling the streets to maintain order. In the following two years, accusations of White Hat bullying incidents in the black community began to increase. In early 1969, a few activists of the civil rights struggle formed the Cairo United Front civil rights organization by bringing together the local NAACP, a cooperative association, and a couple of black street gangs. The Cairo United Front was formed to organize the efforts of the black population in Cairo to counter the White Hats. The United Front began its work by formally accusing the White Hats of intimidating the black community, and presented a list of seven demands to the City of Cairo. The seven demands included appointment of a black police chief, appointment of a black assistant fire chief, and an equal black-white ratio in all city jobs.
Racial violence in Cairo reached a peak during summer 1969 as the Cairo United Front began leading protests and demonstrations to end segregation and draw attention to its seven demands. The protests led to a rash of violence that was stopped only when Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie deployed National Guardsmen to restore the peace. In summer 1969, the Cairo United Front also began a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses, which encompassed virtually all the businesses in the town. In December 1969, violence escalated again as several more businesses were burned on Saturday, December 6. Early that morning, residents of the Pyramid Courts housing project opened fire on three firemen and the Chief of Police while they were responding to one of the intense fires. During the shootout, the Chief of Police and one of the firemen were shot by a high powered rifle. 13 people were eventually arrested during the conflict. The Cairo Chief of Police resigned the next month stating that Cairo lacked both the legal and physical means to deal with the "guerrilla warfare tactics" that had left the town in a state of turmoil for over two years. The picketing continued throughout 1970, and in December, a new city ordinance was enacted that banned picketing within 20 feet of a business. Another large violent clash erupted as a result of the new city ordinance. Following the violence, the United Front called for another large rally and resumed picketing at white-owned businesses despite the new ordinance. The picketing turned violent after police heard shots fired and then moved on the crowd.
In 1978, Cairo received yet another blow to its economy when the Interstate 57 bridge across the Mississippi River was opened. With the interstate now bypassing the city, the remaining hotel and restaurant industry in Cairo were crippled. Cairo's hospital also closed in December 1986, due to high debt and dwindling patients.
With the decline in river trade, as has been the case in many other cities on the Mississippi, Cairo has experienced a marked decline in its economy and population. Its highest population was 15,203 in 1920; in 2010 it had 2,831 residents. The community and region are working to stop abandonment of the city, restore its architectural landmarks, and develop heritage tourism focusing on its history and relationship to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, to bring new opportunities to the community.
The city faces many significant socio-economic challenges for the remaining population, including poverty, crime, issues in education, employment and rebuilding its tax base. A community clinic offers medical and dental care, and also several mental health services. Local media include WKRO radio, 1490 AM and the Cairo Citizen weekly newspaper.
Cairo at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers
Cairo is located at the confluence of the Mississippi with the Ohio River, near Mounds, Illinois. The elevation above sea level is 315 feet (96 m). The lowest point in the state of Illinois is located on the Mississippi River in Cairo.
According to the 2010 census, the city has a total area of 9.08 square miles (23.5 km2), of which 6.97 square miles (18.1 km2) (or 76.76%) is land and 2.12 square miles (5.5 km2) (or 23.35%) is water.
The city of Cairo has a humid subtropical climate (Köppen Cfa) and has many characteristics of a city in the Upland South. Summers are hot and humid, with a daily average in July of 78.9 °F (26.1 °C) and temperatures reaching 90 °F (32 °C) on 40 days annually. Winters are generally cool with mild periods. Though extended periods of cold can occur, Cairo's winter is typically mild by Illinois standards, as the January daily average is 34.0 °F (1.1 °C). Precipitation is present and spread relatively evenly throughout the year. On average, Cairo's low elevation and proximity to the Mississippi River and the Ohio River prevent strong winter lows and plunging temperatures, however during the summer months those similar features hold in heat and humidity, creating muggy conditions.
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