We’d been one step ahead of the storm for a while. Dark clouds piled high behind us, lighting streaking between them, as we sped on heading home. It was late afternoon when I slowed the car as the road cut through a small city. Or rather, what once was a city. The wind picked up and large raindrops fell, splashing onto the windshield, adding to the moodiness as we drove through the town.
Huge letters on a bridge announced to us that we had entered a city named Cairo.
I’ve always been fascinated with locations on the edge of something. Places that just don’t seem to fit in anywhere or rather, maybe, are the beginning or end of the line. Cairo (pronounced “Care-O” by locals) Illinois feels this way to me. Cairo is just barely in Illinois. It’s located on a small spit of land clinging to the bottom of Illinois and is bordered by Missiouri on one side and Kentucky on the other. It’s also just barely out of the water with the lowest elevation in Illinois and is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. All of this makes Cario feel cut off from the world. Not really belonging anywhere.
We drove into the center of town to its Main Street, Commercial Ave. Something was not right. The street was empty; abandoned. Buildings here were in various stages of decay, crumbling in on themselves as weeds consumed them from the outside. Many buildings were just gone, nothing more than an empty lot.
The wind picked up, sending a whirlwind of leaves and litter across the street. A pack of dogs ran by, chasing the blowing garbage into an empty lot. But other than those dogs, there was no one around. All was eerily quiet. How could a town that was once obviously thriving become a virtual ghost town?
Cairo was once a bustling town. It’s location made it an important city in the Civil War where it was used as a supply base and training ground for the Union Army. After the war it became an important steamboat port, then a hub for railroad shipping. Mark Twain, in his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, even portrayed Cairo as the town Huck and Jim were headed to where Jim would be safe. Cairo was soon an important , wealthy city of 15,000.
Then the steamboats stopped running. Bridges were built to reroute railroads, and later autos, away from Cairo. And there was always the water. Despite levees and flood walls built to protect the city against seasonal flooding, the water kept overtaking the city. Numerous floods have devastated the city throughout the years. Jobs, then people left.
Racial tensions have been a major problem as well. There were a number of lynchings in the late 1800s-early 1900s. In the mid-1960s, the alleged police murder of a young black soldier led to protests and riots, and the National Guard was even called in. In response to perceived threats from the black community, the white community formed a civilians’ militia called the White Hats (wow, does that name sound like something else?!!!). Of course, that just made everything worse and more people left Cairo. You can read more about Cairo’s history here.
The final blow was the creation of Interstate 57 across the Mississippi in the late 1970s. There was now no reason to enter Cairo. Hotels closed, restaurants followed, and soon even the hospital shut down. Poverty skyrocketed and the population continued to dwindle. Cairo has, I think, the highest population drop of any city in the United States.
I’ve read that that there are efforts to revitalize Cairo. There’s so much history there, but I don’t know. The jobs are gone. The population has fallen to less than 2,400. Poverty and a poor education system plague the town. How do you recover? Looking at pictures online you see that more and more buildings disappear each year. The only tourists seem to be people like us, driving through, gawking at the devastation. Snapping those pictures.
But, I think the pictures show a certain beauty. The architecture of many of the buildings is amazing. Details you just don’t see today. And there’s beauty in the abandoned and overgrown. I think that you can feel more in an abandoned building. These buildings literally expose, layer upon layer, their history. The good, the bad, the changing world; all there revealed in the decay. You just get a feel of how much has gone on in the building when you see it crumbling and slowly being overtaken by nature.
Before we left Cairo we drove down to Fort Defiance Park (a military fortification during the Civil War). We walked up an overlook at stared out at the rivers. The exact place where the Ohio and Mississippi met and became one was very obvious. The waters slammed into one another and continued the flow south now as one; the mighty Mississippi. Always moving forward, fast, stopping for nothing.
A bolt of lightning suddenly hit near us lighting up the murky evening bright as day.
It was time to go. Time to move on.