Cairo: The River City Being Abandoned in Illinois

Pronounced “CaRe-ro,” Cairo is the southernmost city in Illinois. It sits on a strip of land between Kentucky and Missouri, not forgetting the confluence of rivers Mississippi and Ohio. Besides being the lowest elevation of any location in the state, Cairo is the only city in Illinois surrounded by levees (a structure used to prevent the course of water from changing), protecting the area from flooding. But how did a city full of life become abandoned? Is there a correlation between the city’s name and that of the capital of Africa’s Egypt? Keep reading to find out.

The History of Cairo, Illinois (How it Started)

Washington avenue in Cairo, Illinois.

Even though the area where Cairo, Illinois, sits has existed since time immemorial, the first effort to establish a town there was when the authorities issued it with a charter in 1818. The Bank of Cairo was also chattered around the same time, but there were no depositors. The second attempt to establish the town came in 1836-37 when the Canal Company built a large levee around it to prevent flooding. Unfortunately, the effort also collapsed three years later.

In 1842, a famous English novelist and social critic, Charles Dickens, visited the region but was unimpressed. He used Cairo as a prototype for the scary City of Eden, as highlighted in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Cairo’s major breakthrough came in 1846 when the 10,000 acre-land was purchased by the trustees of the Cairo City Property Trust. They planned major infrastructural developments in the area.

The Steamboats of Cairo, Illinois

The Ohio River waterfront in Cairo. Although no longer a significant hub, the city still sees commercial activity on its riverbanks.

By the 1850s, signs of Cairo’s growth were imminent. Being a river city, the area was perfect for steamboat operations, which opened it up to more economic activities. The town received a new charter in 1857. With the help of Chicago from the north, Cairo rapidly grew – it had over 2,000 people by 1880.

The city continued to grow amid challenges such as the Civil War and the constantly flooding rivers (the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 is a great example). By 1942, Cairo, Illinois, had a US Post Office and courthouse. The region’s population had grown to over 15,000 people.

Challenges that Impeded Cairo’s Growth

Although the population of Cairo, Illinois, had steadily grown, it was impressive given the region’s strategic position and the potential economic growth. Historians believe the following factors played a huge role in the stunted growth:


Even before putting Cairo into the picture, Illinois was among the most favored destinations for African-Americans during the Great Migration. By 1900, Cairo had a population of about 13,000, with about 38% (over 5,000) comprising African American residents. At the time, this was a significant number. Unfortunately, that, coupled with the fact that the 1818 Illinois constitution allowed for limited slavery, paved the way for massive racism.

African Americans in Cairo, Illinois, faced extensive discrimination in their jobs and houses and were constantly targeted by the police. The lynching of two men from the race in 1909 made matters worse. William James was one of the two. He was accused of murdering Anna Pelly, a young white woman who was killed three days prior. The other was Henry Salzner, a white man who it was claimed killed his wife a while before. All these happened even with the 1905 anti-lynching law in place. A top-ranking sheriff was dismissed for failing to protect the two men.

Unfortunately, that did not stop racism incidences in Cairo, Illinois. Unemployment caused by the departure of railroad, shipping, and ferry industries between 1930 and 1960 didn’t make the situation better. By 1960, the African Americans in the region had had enough; they demanded to implement the new civil rights laws passed following the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1967, Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black soldier, was found hanging in a police station in Cairo, Illinois. Those around claimed Hunt hanged himself, but the African-American community wasn’t hearing it. Massive riots ensued, and ungovernable violence was witnessed.

Economic Decline

Besides racism, Cairo, Illinois’ economy wasn’t the best. Many people became unemployed after the completion of various bridges, including the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge and the Cairo Ohio River Bridge. Constant flooding and the rising water levels further dwindled economic activities.

What is Cairo, Illinois, Famous For?

Cairo, Illinois, is famous for its strategic location; it is at the delta of some of the world’s biggest rivers. Additionally, it was named after a foreign place and harbored the majority of African Americans during the Great Migration.

Why Was Cairo, Illinois Abandoned?

The main reason for Cairo’s abandonment was the decline of river trade. Shipping, railroad, and ferry industries could no longer sustain their activities, so they left. Residents sought alternative means of surviving in other regions, leading to massive population decline. According to 2020 US census reports, there are less than 2,000 people in Cairo, Illinois, at the moment.

Why Is Cairo, Illinois, Called Little Egypt?

Historical documents show Cairo, Illinois, was named after Egypt’s capital because they have a significant resemblance. The two cities are located near renowned rivers in the world: Egypt’s Cairo on the Nile and the US’ Cairo on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Can You Live in Cairo, Illinois?

Yes, you can live in Cairo, Illinois – no law is against that. If anything, you are the type that loves the suburban feeling and owns your home, so Cairo might be a perfect fit. A community clinic also offers several health services, including mental health, dental, and medical procedures.

Current State of Cairo, Illinois

Unfortunately, most of the buildings in Cairo, Illinois, are currently dilapidated. Residents face challenges such as unemployment, issues in education, and high crime rates. The McBride and Elmwood Housing Projects were halted in 2017, further compounding the housing woes.

Efforts by the community to stop the abandonment of the city by restoring some architectural landmarks and developing heritage tourism haven’t been fruitful.

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