Travel

The Tragic Story Behind Cairo, Illinois, a Midwestern Ghost Town

Cairo, Ill. was once a bustling town near the banks of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It was the original destination city in Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the Cairo, Ill. of today is a lot less lively than the one Huck and Jim would have discovered.

The main street that was once an entertainment epicenter is now a desolate outpost. Little more than a public library and a few towering, slowly decaying Victorian manors now serve as a reminder of the town’s glory days. Businesses are shuttered and overgrown grass and weeds are encroaching on the once meticulously groomed downtown.

Source: Flickr/ Joseph Novak
Flickr/Joseph Novak

Cairo’s downfall was a combination of economic distress and racial tension.

In the 1960s, the tragic death of Robert Hunt, a young African-American soldier on leave in his hometown of Cairo, sparked racial unrest in the community. Hunt was found hanged in the local police station. Hunt’s death was ruled a suicide by authorities. But given the area’s history of Jim Crow-era policies, the African-American community was understandably suspicious.

A civil rights group formed to protest Hunt’s death, as well as the town’s segregated practices. Members of Cairo’s white community formed the “White Hats,” a vigilante organization formed to stifle protesters. As racism and segregation continued over the years, many in the African American community left Cairo in search of equality in a more progressive and civil city.

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Flickr/Joseph Novak
Source: Flickr/ Joseph Novak
Flickr/Joseph Novak

The decline of the ferry and steamboat industry, as well as an overall lack of employment opportunities, continued to drive down the town’s population.

In the 1920s, Cairo had a population of 15,000. By the 1980s, over half the town’s population had left. As of 2010, a mere 2,000 people resided in the town.

A 2011 flood threatened to take what was left of Cairo, but the little town held on. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers actually blew up a levee, flooding acres of Missouri farmland, in order to save Cairo.

Cairo, Illinois
Flickr/Joseph Novak
Source: Flickr/ Joseph Novak
The Gem Theater, another reminder of what Cairo once was, opened in 1910. Source: Flickr/ Joseph Novak

Want to take a virtual trip to the Midwest’s creepiest ghost town? A 2011 YouTube video chronicled a visit to Cairo, complete with creepy music fit for The Walking Dead:

 

YouTube is rife with videos of depressing strolls through Cairo, but there’s at least one semi-positive representation of the abandoned town. St. Louis-based roots musician Pokey LaFarge wrote a deceptively jaunty tune about Cairo, appropriately titled “Cairo, Illinois,” in which LaFarge sings the geographically-accurate refrain: “Take me to the bridge where the rivers collide/ down in Cairo, Illinois on a Saturday night/ I might jump in”

A 2012 documentary, Between Two Riversdelved into Cairo’s sad history and downfall. A voice over in the trailer sums up the town’s decline:

“Cairo just happens to be the most prolific example I know of our inability to dig down inside of us and consider who we really are as a country.”

The local government has expressed plans to revive the downtown through historic preservation but so far efforts have been unsuccessful.

The Antique Archaeology blog, the online home of the shop owned by American Pickers host Mike Wolfe, featured a post about Cairo’s potential for revival.

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The Tragic Story Behind Cairo, Illinois, a Midwestern Ghost Town