Cairo, IL- the most desolate city in the US

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.

22 thoughts on “Cairo, IL- the most desolate city in the US

  1. as a former resident thank you for the cairo article you told the truth and it was predicted in 84 and it came true but now its plans for a million dollar port on the mississippi and new 16 room hospital!! i just hope it comes true like the last prediction!! thanks for the positive article its damn good!!

  2. You were driving through Cairo on a rainy day of course no one was outside. You make the town sound worse than what it is. Of course it needs some work. This whole country is a disaster in reality. Will you be willing to make a donation to fix something? I thought not. Do your looking, take your pics, and move along.

    1. We grew up in Charleston, MO – just across the river and south a few miles. I remember Cairo fondly – we liked to go to the movies there sometimes.

  3. Wish you could have seen it 50 or 60 years ago. Probably not as special as my memories but it is such a wasteland now. It is such a shame to see so many beautiful building that are empty and going to ruin. My family lived in Mound City. Cairo was where we shopped often.
    Marie Cobb

  4. the town is depressing but you never see anything offered for sale in any of the areas shown. maybe list something and an adventurous spirit my want to take the risk and restore. the whole place gives off a vibe of “just leave”.

  5. My wife and I grew up in Mound City during the Great Times of the 50’s, At that time it was a small town of 3500 and Cairo was around 13000–15000. Mounds was about the same. size as Mound City. It was called The Tri-Cities. You could buy a combined bus and movie ticket from I. J Hudson Tri-City Bus Line to the Roxy Theatre in Mounds (round rip) for 55 cents. Oh Those Were The Days My Friend, I Thought They Would Never End.

    1. Jim! Good to know you are still kicking! We haven’t seen you in years. We all four have a Cairo connection and now live in Knoxville! These are such interesting pictures of Cairo. We were there for a get together with Jim’s grade school buddies last summer and must say it’s hard to believe that the vibrant town that we knew simply is no longer there. We have such fond memories of Cairo.

  6. Cairo even had a Ironclad named for her during the Civil War. It was built in nearby Mounds Il. It was the first Ironclad sank in the war down near Vicksburg Ms. It was found ,recovered, restored, and now sits in a military museum in Vicksburg.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this very descriptive article and seeing the photos! Previous generations of my family lived or worked in Mounds and Cairo before settling in Western Kentucky around the Columbus area. I recall hearing stories about shopping and visiting in Cairo and then visited it during my youth in the 1960s and ’70s when it still had commercial business. I recall being disappointed at the decline of the city when I took my husband to Magnolia Manor around 2000. It has been really sad to see continued decay and desolation in recent years. Such beautiful buildings!

  8. I enjoyed your article and thought one comment on here was rather hateful. We love some of the history of Cairo and Mounds City. Was just at the National Cemetery in Mounds City and so may people from the 1800’s are buried in the unknow section. Metropolis is not quite as bad but every place in S. Il is needing help, new industry, etc. We have lost so many jobs here it’s just sad. But I’m hopeful things will get better.

  9. great article, i actually intentionally went to cairo over the summer and it was fine. sure , many buildings are empty but the pride of property ownership is easily recognized. the infrastructure on one particle road was second to none in southern illinois…a divided road for each direction with a magnificent row of beautiful mature trees separating them. amazing history!

  10. In the late 60’s the riots broke out in Cairo as in other parts of the country. Everyone in So Ill was scared of getting caught up in a race war. As far as I know, that was the final death nail that doomed Cairo’s future.

  11. Yes, from listening to my mother, her sister and brother, the ‘race war’ was the start of an economical change within the city. The “bus loads of paid rioters from Memphis”, as many have called them, moved in and apparently their school-age children were quite open about this. I’ve heard my family talk about how this disrupted the flow of this city. It was a prosperous and loved place to live and could have survived, imo. It sounds like aggressiveness moved in and money moved out. I lived there for a few years and I can tell you that I’ve never seen so many on welfare in my life. I often wondered if this stemmed from decades ago, when so many people moved in without an economic growth to sustain the abrupt change within the city.

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