With its location right at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, you might assume that Cairo, Illinois would be a bustling town– not quite as it became a virtual ghost town.
Busy as Cairo would have been during the glory days of riverboats (in fact, Cairo was seen as the Promised Land in Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a place where Huck and escaped slave Jim could start over), but a well-established community nonetheless. That’s far from the case for the tiny town, though. If you head to their historic downtown district, you’ll find a veritable ghost town — abandoned storefronts, boarded up buildings, rusted street signs, and a lack of any sign of human life marks the once-busy street. It’s obvious that the town has struggled… but why?
It was a combination of things that brought Cairo to its current state. First, the decline of the riverboat and ferry industry made a marked impact on the town– even though railroads and highways were built through Cairo, the town was mostly known for its convenient location at the meeting of the two rivers, and when boats began to become less popular as a means of transporting goods and people, it had a noticeable, lasting effect. The town has also dealt with several floods over the past few years that have been pretty rough.
But the most tragic thing about Cairo is the role that racism and racial tension played in the town’s deterioration. Even since the late 19th century, there were a high number of lynchings of African Americans, and the mysterious death of a black 19-year-old young man, found hanging in the police station in 1967, led to even more tension that lasted years– boycotts, protests, demonstrations and clashes between police, protestors, and a citizen protection group known as the White Hats that often did more harm than good, further led to a decline in population as people left to find friendlier climates. Sounds eerily familiar.
But all is not lost for Cairo. The town is actively working to bring new interest to the area and is restoring architectural landmarks, developing tourism plans based on its history as a major hub for riverboat travel along the Mississippi, and generally bring new life to the town. Looking at the pictures of the abandoned storefronts, it’s easy to see that there is tons of potential to make Historic Downtown Cairo super awesome, and hopefully, the work to restore everything will bring the community closer together.