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Cairo, Illinois: When Bad Things Happen to Little Cities…

In its heyday, Cairo was a bustling river town and was home to captains of industry, shipping magnates, wealthy business people and other “people of note.” It’s even mentioned in James A Michener’s epic miniseries, “Centennial.” IT earned a spot in Michener’s book because in the late 1800s, Cairo was the gateway to the west.

The first time I saw downtown Cairo, I stopped my car in the middle of the deserted street and stared in disbelief. The entire business district, which comprised several blocks of brick streets in beautiful condition, was empty - silent, still and devoid of all movement. Had it not been for a piece of trash blowing down the middle of the street, the scene before me would have been wholly motionless.

The stillness, the quiet, the absence of any sign of life was fascinating, yet also left me wondering if the next sound I heard would be the theme from The Twilight Zone with a voice-over by Rod Serling.

In the mid-1960s, racial unrest and riots were a sad part of the American landscape, but in Cairo, things went especially badly. African-Americans, weary of Jim Crow laws and disparate treatment, threatened to boycott businesses that employed only whites. White business owners responded by closing their stores. Large numbers of families left the area and never returned. Industry left. Businesses closed. Wealthy people took their capital and moved away.

Today, downtown Cairo is a ghost town - an incredible time capsule - frozen in the 1960s. The city that once boasted of 14,000 citizens now has about 3000 people living within its borders.

Outside of downtown, things aren’t much better. The burnt out hull of old buildings remain, the architectural victims of bored miscreants.  There’s no money in the state or local budget to raze the remnants of these destroyed homes. Folks often say California is on the cusp of bankruptcy. Illinois can’t be far behind, and Cairo is the poster-child for an American city that went from princely to pauper.

In the early 1900s, Cairo was the site of a 40-acre Sears Mill, where Sears kit homes were milled and shipped out to all 48 states. It was a vibrant business, in an important southern town. Cairo’s location at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers made it a natural for shipping and distribution. At the turn of the last century, Cairo (pronounced “Care-Roe”) could boast of having four major rail lines, enabling it to become a centralized shipping point for lumber harvested from the South and sent to the North.

In Spring 2010, I returned to Cairo and visited the town again. More burned out buildings, more desolation, more depressing sites.  What’s happening to our once-great land that we now have cities that are in collapse, and states that are in bankruptcy?

I’ve nothing pithy to add to this sad story. Pictures tell the story far better than I could.

Entrance to Cairo
Entrance to Cairo. The old flood dates are no longer in working, but the old rivers still work really, really well.

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Part of the charm of the downtown is it really is a step back in time. Notice the vintage cat in the foreground.

Spearmint “Pepsin Gum” surely got their money’s worth out of this old advertisement.

Hospital in Cairo

Is there a doctor in the house?

School

School's out for summer. And for the rest of time.

Throughout the city, there are many such houses, burned out and left to fall down. Note, this shot shows three houses in a row.

Throughout the city, there are many such houses, burned out and left to fall down. Note, this shot shows three burned out houses in a row.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Most are in marginal condition.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Many of these Sears Homes are no longer "pretty little homes."

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL. Homart Homes were post-WW2 Sears Homes that were shipped out in sections, which were then bolted together at the building site. These were radically different from "Sears Modern Homes" which were pre-cut kit homes.

Sears

A glorious billboard at the city's entrance offers such promise.

To learn more about Cairo, click here.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

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  1. Richard Kearney
    February 25th, 2011 at 10:51 | #1

    Cairo was a wonderful town to grow up in, and could very well flourish again.

    The City still maintains an Air Port and has River, Rail and Trucking. It was once the Transportation Hub for the United States and could be again.

  2. K Ryan
    April 30th, 2011 at 13:38 | #2

    @Richard Kearney
    Perhaps Cairo could once again become ‘the Transportation Hub for the United States’.

    But for that to happen America would have to again produce and build things with American labor to be sold to Americans.

    As it is, everything is imported from outside the US. Making seaports the ‘hubs’ of today’s broken economy.

  3. Janace Grosbach
    May 3rd, 2011 at 14:31 | #3

    I grew up in Cairo and it was a lovely little “Mayberry like” town. The news media only shows the very worst of Cairo. There are still MANY lovely homes and mansions in Cairo. Not to mention many lovely people that call Cairo home. I pray for my hometown.

  4. Alex Ring
    November 19th, 2011 at 22:41 | #4

    Does anyone know where the site of the “Chicago Mill and Lumber Company” is or was in Cairo, IL? Various books on Google Books note that Hermann Paepcke purchased the Wolverine Lumber Company in 1892 and remained it to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. This site apparently occupied approximately 60 acres in or near Cairo, IL. This company cut timber in the south (Arkansas and Louisiana) and shipped it to the north via Cairo, IL for box making. I would be very interested to know where this site was, and if it still exists or not. Thanks!!

    Rose’s Reply: I haven’t a clue. I’ve never heard of this company. Perhaps one of the Cairo people will know.

  5. Mary MacNeil
    May 16th, 2012 at 14:49 | #5

    I am going my family genealogy - my Grandfather lived in Cairo 1900-1906 in a boarding house run by a Rose Walker. Does anyone know if there is a local historian that I might contact? Thanks so much.

  6. Mary MacNeil
    May 16th, 2012 at 14:50 | #6

    My grandfather’s name was William Saunders and he married Margaret Rachael Baker in Cairo about 1906 and worked for the lumber mill there. I wish I knew more.

  7. Scott Walston
    January 6th, 2015 at 21:51 | #7

    I was in Cairo today working and it was so sad to drive through town.

    I think it must have been The Boss that wrote, “This was my home town.”

    I hurt just driving through town knowing what it could have been.

    So many memories and so sad to see what has happened.

    Sometimes I wonder, if I would have stayed, could it have made a difference?

    I tried getting involved the Jaycees, coaching, running the softball league and running for the school board.

    Unfortunately every time we tried something new we had hurdles to overcome.

    I’m still proud to tell people I’m from Cairo and have wonderful memories!

  8. ShariD
    January 8th, 2015 at 07:12 | #8

    What, pray tell, is a “Custom House Museum”?

    Yes, it’s incredibly sad and depressing to see what can become of a whole town, once vibrant, productive and alive with business and industry, once the old rules of living come crashing down on the heads of not only the ones forced to endure them, but the ones who forced them on the people who only wanted a fair chance to be a part of the productive, vibrant society that prevailed at the time.

    Instead of making things more fair and equal for all, instead of setting aside the old prejudices of another era, the people responsible over many decades for creating and enforcing them beyond all reason just pick up, pack up, and take everything away from everyone, leaving it all to rot and decay around the few left behind.

    No wonder (to me) that this keeps repeating and repeating itself all across America. You can’t keep repeating and repeating the same old themes without getting the same old results, time after time.

    Expecting something different I believe has been tagged as the definition of insanity.

  9. ShariD
    January 8th, 2015 at 07:21 | #9

    Ahh ~ I just found the answer to my own question above ~ http://www.greatriverroad.com/meetohio/customshouse.htm

    Sounds like someone tried to do something with it, but never got beyond the first floor.

    Likely staffed by volunteers ~ the hours are very short, and it’s even closed in the middle of them for a lunch hour.

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