Is Cairo Worth Saving?


By the time you read this, Cairo may or may not still be there. It all depends on how much higher the river gets and whether the Corps of Engineers has to blow the levee at Bird’s Point to reduce pressure on the city’s floodwall.

I’m not going to get into the Sophie’s choice argument about whether farms in Missouri should be flooded to save a city in Illinois.

I am going to spend several days sharing photos that I hope will answer those folks who ask, “Why should we care about Cairo?”

Fort Defiance

I was on my way back to Ohio Oct. 14, 1968, when I shot this photo at Fort Defiance, the southernmost point in Illinois, where the waters of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet  It’s long been one of my favorite pictures.

Songwriter Stace England wrote an album of songs about Cairo. One is titled,  The North Starts in Cairo, where he points out that black bus travelers coming from the South were segregated from whites by a curtain until they crossed the Ohio River into Cairo. Here’s a sample of The North Starts In Cairo. It’s worth buying the whole Greetings From Cairo, Illinois album. (If you click on this Amazon link, I get 6% at no additional cost to you.)

It’s a great selection of songs, all historically accurate and done in a variety of ways.

Where the waters mingle

It’s just as pretty today.

How safe is that flood gate?

I’m sure that everyone who has driven under the massive flood gate at the north end of the city has wondered, just how safe is that thing, anyhow?

A plaque in the tunnel says “The Big Subway Gate” was built in 1914. It’s 60 feet wide, 24 feet high and five feet thick. Even though it weighs 80 tons, it has a counterweight that weighs almost as much, so it can be operated by two men, one at each end.

The other thing that Dad always impressed upon me was that Cairo was a notorious speed trap. Don’t go even one mile per hour over the limit, he warned on every trip through.

My first riot

I covered my first riot in Cairo. Actually, by the time I got there, the National Guard had been called out and things had pretty much settled down. Still, I learned some lessons that served me well during the turbulent 60s and 70s and 80s.

I’ll have photos from July 1967 and will touch on the turmoil that sent the city’s population into a freefall.

Elegant mansions

Cairo is noted for its historic buildings. The Magnolia Manor is one of the most famous. Within a block of it, I saw one that could be fixed up equally as nicely for an unbelievably low price.

I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time on the pretty side of town. Years ago, when I was first getting into this racket, someone asked, “Do you want to shoot for National Geographic?”

I responded, “I don’t think that’ll work out. National Geographic photographers stand on trash cans to shoot pretty pictures of roses. I trample roses to shoot photos of trash cans.”

Collapsing buildings

It’s equally noted for its decaying buildings. I took this picture Oct. 28, 2008.

Whole block knocked down

When I came back in April of 2010, the whole block had been knocked down.

“Why?” the sign asks

“Why?” reads the sign on what I think had been a bar. I’m assuming the 1933-2005 refers to the years of operation.

The bigger question is “Why didn’t a city located at the confluence of two of the nation’s largest rivers ever meet its potential?”

I ask your indulgence while I step outside Cape County for a few days to share with you some of the hundreds of photos I’ve taken in Cairo over the last nearly 50 years.

I hope it’ll still be there on my return. The bridge leading to Wickliffe was closed, so I couldn’t go that way on my way back to Florida this trip.

66 Replies to “Is Cairo Worth Saving?”

  1. This is a fascinating topic, Ken, and I, for one, will certainly not mind if you spend several days looking into the history of Cairo. The questions are haunting–Why didn’t Cairo become a great city? Was it doomed to fail from its inception?
    KFVS did a startlingly honest documentary on the city several years ago. I was pleased to see that they chose honesty and realism over political correctness in the piece. I was riveted to the screen and didn’t want it to end.

  2. I’ve always found Cairo to a be a speculative fascination. Why did it not prosper? It has historically been ignored by upstate Illinois. I believe it is due to that region of the state being intrenched in southern sympathy before and after the civil war. The racial tension of the sixties was probably the final cause for it’s demise.

  3. I can’t wait for the the other installments in your Cairo series. The old buildings were/are so beautiful. Another benefit we’ve found by “shunpiking” (driving the back roads instead of the interstates) is seeing many wonderful old buildings in the small towns. That makes our trips so much more enjoyable.

  4. I spent 7 years of my life teaching in Cairo. The people are wonderful, the old buildings and the town was wonderful. Our family even has some ancient relatives buried in the cemetary there. Yes, it needs to be saved and please continue your pictures of the town and don’t forget the faces of the people if you can Ken.

  5. I drive thru Cairo about once a month from Florida when go up and see me Dad in Cape.
    My dad used to work in Cario during WWII the “BIG ONE”, before he was drafted in early 1944. He told me the town was booming thriving place with about 25,000 people work was everywhere and the people were well off. The Coca Cola bottler there was one of the biggest inthe USA at the time. After the war he returned to Cape and stayed there because Cape was growing.
    Cario has in decline since the 60’s and guess since then the decline has accelerated. It now looks like a bombed out zone…with blocks missing and leveled with lots missions and second hand stores.
    Shemwell’s Bar-b-que is still there and not much else!
    I can remember driving to Cario as a Kid and eating in the Mark Twain Resterant as fine dinning experiance and visited Ed Hanna’s Sign shop on the curve in town. Now…nothing …
    I don’t think Cario was doomed ot fail, I think those who were running Cario were less than stellar individuals.

  6. Thanks, Ken. Your stories are so important to me as a ‘new’ native of Cape Girardeau. I love this area and have been here for 25 years, so it is home to me now. My kids were born at Southeast Hospital and have gone through the Cape School system. I got my grad degree at SIUC, so I did my fair share of commuting across the ‘junky old bridge,’ even through the ’93 flood. But, I don’t know the previous history of the area. Everything I find out from you opens my eyes, and I can see the region in a different light. Your photos are fabulous.

  7. I’ve always been fascinated by the “bones” of Cairo, but much too chicken to stop and take pics there. I too was told “don’t go 1 mile over the speed limit” but also “never ever ever stop in Cairo for any reason.”

    Looking forward to seeing what you’ve got to share!

    Oh, and this may be one of the best lines ever: ““I don’t think that’ll work out. National Geographic photographers stand on trash cans to shoot pretty pictures of roses. I trample roses to shoot photos of trash cans.””

    1. April,

      I’ve spent hours and hours wandering around Cairo and have never felt threatened. Of course, there are so few folks in the downtown area that a mugger would starve to death waiting for a victim to meander by.

      Like any city, you could run into a predator, but I’ve always found that people react to you by the way you present yourself to them. If you greet ’em with a friendly smile and nod, you can have some interesting conversations.

      I’m editing a huge collection of photos as we type. Look for them in the morning.

  8. Ken,
    As a huge fan of the “Ashcan School” of American painting, I point out what you already know: You’re in the worthiest of traditions!

  9. I was raised in Southern Illinois. I went to college in Jackson, Tenn. and road the bus to Cairo, where my folks picked me up at the bus station. From the pictures I see I would not get off a bus in Cairo now. It is sad to see a city go down hill but it happens. Thanks for the memories.

  10. I, too, am from Alexander County, IL. Cairo is my home countyseat. It saddened me to see what is happening to Cairo. Van is correct in his speculation about the final demise was in the late 1960s with the riots. In the early 60s I worked at a dime store there for a couple of months. It was a prosperous town with all kinds of stores and shops.
    I think this flood is almost the final straw because how will they get the money to fix the sink holes. Then I wonder where they could move the county seat to. Olive Branch floods too and little old Tamms is a dying town also. Join with Pulaski county, I think not!!

  11. I lived in Mounds,as a little girl..1948 to 1955, when we moved to Cape. My Mom took me to Cairo to see the dentist..I think he was in that old 4 story building I see in the pictures, with the big oval window on the 2nd story..his office was on the 2nd floor. I also have a picture of me when I was around 4 sitting on an Easter Bunny’s lap..some dept. store in Cairo had “Bunnyland” set up. I remember a parade there and the Clysdale Horses pulling the Bud wagon. I think there was a “Whataburger” hamburger stand over there too. Going to Cairo was going to the big city. I returned there in 1988 to show my husband Ft. Defiance, and to go back to CapeGirardeau,whee I was born at S.E.Mo. hospital in 1948. My Mom used to play piano at the Petite N’Orleans and I had my 40th birthday dinner there! Sad to see all the old places go,as I have fond memories. Hope Cairo becomes a thriving and historic little town once again.

  12. Ken,

    I am grateful to have stumbled upon your web site. Thank you for your beautiful photographs of Cairo. I fell in love with the town several years ago when I was there to work, and I have returned several times since to walk the streets, eat in the diner downtown, sit by the river. As a documentary filmmaker, and a myriad of other more important reasons, I am drawn to Cairo and it’s complicated story–past and present. There is a heartbeat there that refuses to silence as proven lately with the decision to save the town by blowing the levees.

    I want to re-visit Cairo in July to begin this documentary that I have long dreamed about, and would very much like to speak with you prior to that. Please contact me at your earliest. Thank you.

  13. I graduated from SEMO State in August, 1967. Cairo was known as a large town, but a dangerous town and was to be avoided. Recently I stopped in Mound City to visit an old friend. I also drove into Cairo to see the town. I knew the area was depressed and struggling but was unprepared for the scene that greeted me, despair and rubble.

    1. I’ve always heard that Cairo was dangerous, but I’ve roamed the streets for years, including during the 1967 riots and have never had a situation where I was uncomfortable. Well, there was one time when I was in an alley shooting an old abandoned building at dusk when I heard a rustling and saw a score or more of feral cats coming out of the bushes.

      I thought, man, if I trip, they won’t find anything but bones and my camera here in the morning. I suspect that’s not the kind of danger you were thinking of, though.

  14. Wow! I lived in Cairo from January 1966 to January 1969 (halfway through 6th grade till halfway through 9th) and knew that the town had declined, but am shocked to see these photos! I have some fairly vague memories of the racial tension during that time and remember that my parents had a hose hooked up to the bathtub spigot in case we got firebombed. I’ve often wondered what happened to people I knew in school. I’m guessing they left decades ago, as did we.

  15. Could you please direct me to your pictures of Cairo over 50’s. My family is from there. However I only visited during the summers. from 1962 to around 1980. I have tried to find pictures of popular street and 28th street. I called the mayor to asked about purchasing buildings and adding new sources of income to the area.
    I was met with a rude response. I believe he enjoys knocking buildings down. Thank you for providing memories

  16. I was born in Mound City on Commercial AV.Lived in Cairo, on 29 th St.

    I was in the integration of Lincoln Grade School.

    Anyone remember Warden Ford Sale, Nancy Warden and Her boxer Winnie?

  17. Both Cairo, IL and Mound City is worth SAVING. Both have a rich History.

    Pre, and Post Civil War. I want to move back to Mound City.

  18. My grandmother Kerr lived in Cairo during the late 1940s or early 1950s. Cairo was a busy town at that time with many restaurants that always made me hungry as we passed through there. They also had a municipal pool which was much larger than the small swimming pool that Cape had. My grandmother lived in a nice older 1 1/2 story home that would have been considered large at that time but not by todays standard

  19. Did I miss a picture of that old handsome building–it was a government building built in the 1890’s (or earlier)? Is it still in use? Could you get some pictures from inside of it?

  20. My parents moved to Cairo when I was 4 years old(1952). I went to Safford El School, Cairo Jr. High School, and the old three story Cairo High School. I worked at the “Mark Twain” restaurant. I was there for part of the riots. My oldest daughter was born at St. Mary’s Hospital. The last time I was there, I wasn’t allowed to go to Fort Defiance (2 years ago). That hurt me. I feel like I am going home when I go there. My parents are deceased, and I have no other family there. I went to St. Mary’s Park, where we had end of the school picnic, when I was in elementary school. I cried a lot. I wasn’t afraid to stop. I went all over town, crawling in and out of the car, looking at the changes, and they are drastic. It’s still home to me. I definitely think the town needs to be saved. It has so much history

    1. I was born in Cairo at St. Mary’s Hospital. Oct. 1955. I lived on 34th street until I moved to Tn. for reasons of my father’s job on the railroad. I grew up going to the park that faced 33rd street. I think it was named St. Mary’s Park. I often went to the Reason’s Grocery Store that was across the street from my house on 34th Street. I went to Elmwood school. Some of my classmates were, Connie Harris, Gregg Hileman, Susan Hafford. IF anyone would like to contact me that lived in Cairo or went to the same school, you can call me at 1-270- 331-4125. If no answer please leave a voice message or tex. Would love to hear from someone that still will always love Cairo. It has been through so much in the past few decades, but I live always have a special place in my heart for it, and it will always be my hometown that I have great memories of which far out shadow that bad ones. Yes I will always love Cairo Illionois and will never stop praying for it.

    2. Hi Shirley, I have just recently discovered this blog and it’s been very interesting reading some of the stories! My father delivered fresh meat every week to most of the stores and restaurants (including the Mark Twain restaurant), in Cairo from 1934-1974. He drove for Cantwell Motor Service and hauled meat from packing houses in St. Louis and E. St. Louis. Since you worked there during this time I can’t help but think that you may have seen him as he made his deliveries. Dad was always very fond of Cairo and made many friends there over that 40 year period. I go back to Cairo every year driving his old Mack truck that he used on his meat route and remember the stories he told about what a great town Cairo was in the 40’s and 50’s. ….sincerely, William Keller

  21. I was born in McLeansboro, IL, but my two brothers were born (at home) in Cairo. We lived there from 1934 to 1947. I still attend the Cairo High School reunions every year. Everyone there talks about what a beautiful place it was, and how much we enjoyed growing up there. Anyone visiting after 1969 cannot possibly imagine what a wonderful place it was. Visit the Custom House Museum and get a slight taste of Cairo’s history. A few years ago while attending the C.H.S. reunion in Cape, we went to Cairo and ruined a tire on some street glass. We stopped in the Court House parking lot to change the tire. A car pulled up and a man got out. I thought, “Oh, oh. Now we’re in trouble. However, he stopped to see if he could help us. Not all fears are justified.

    1. I’ve found that MOST fears are unjustified. You can tell from my photos that I’ve wandered the streets of Cairo at all times of the day and night and never had a problem.

  22. Born in 1929 and raised in Cairo. Worked for the Rodgers’ family at the Gem and Rodgers theatre, which later became the Lincoln theatre after the Opera House on Commercial was burnt. Was transferred to the Rodgers theatre in Poplar Bluff in 1949. Spent
    three years there and then moved to Monrovia, California, near the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia.
    I now live in Las Vegas, Nevada. Have attended a lot
    of Cairo High/St. Joe school reunions in Cape.
    And YES the town of Cairo is worth saving. I still have a few friends left there at the Elks Club.

    1. I agree with Mr Bill Johnson Cairo is worth saving. I was born at St. Mary Catholic Hospital in 1960 to Diane (Simpson) Whitaker who was born and raised in Cairo. I lived in Cairo until 1963 and spent the summers with my grandmother Delores Simpson until 1971. I remember spending time at the Gem Theater were my mothers cousin Louis Aldridge worked and years later managed. My grandmother and great- grandmother used to have a cafe in Cairo that both my mother Diane (Simpson) Ashworth and Marilyn (Simpson) Daniels both helped. When I was growing up my grandmother Delores Simpson and great-grandmother Myra (Brame)Thornbrough,Pederson lived on 18th and 19th street. My summers were filled with going to the Wonder Market to get a Wonder Bird how awesome the rotisserie chickens were. There used to be a bakery down by the big arched flood gate that had the Best Gooy Butter coffee cakes to ” Die For”. The old Water Burger was were everyone went to back in the 60’s. As a kid there was something about the statue ” The Thinker”. So much so I have a replica “The Thinker” in my office in my home. I remember as a child walking past Club 18 with my mom as we walked to go downtown. We stopped by the record store, Roads and Burfords Furiture store. Later in my life to take care of one of the Burfords boys whom had moved 300 miles north in Illinois from Cairo were I continue to reside. As me and my mom continued to walk I used to beg to go walk thru the gates of the levee so I could see the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet. My mom used to tell of all the old stories about hanging out down by the river. The picture of her and my aunt prove it was the place to have your picture taken back in the day. After seeing the river it old be time to stop for soda my mothers aunt Catherine (Thornbrough) Aldridge Humphrey and her husband Bob Humphrey whom tended bar at the bar that sat on a corner that lead to the River levee and at the Main Street that Gem Theater was on. On our way back after the stop for soda was to stop at Shemwalds BBQ to get BBQ sandwiches on a toasted bun with Cairo BBQ Sauce. Best BBQ ever. I still go there when I get to Cairo. Then back to my grandmother and great grandmothers house to feast on the BBQ. The old post office in Cairo when I was going for stamps for my grandmother I remember thinking I was walking into a big palace then to get in there and see all those mail boxes. Then to the Dairy Queen to get a Mr Misty on a hot day. The Sabotas of Cairo had a granddaughter named Lorie that came to stay every summer as a little girl in the 60’s. The days that I went across the street to play with the Sabota granddaughter I got to see how the upper crust lived. They had a maid and she served the granddaughter Lorie and me cookies and ice cream. When my dad Don Daniels from Mounds wound come for me as the summer ended I always begged to take me to see all the old Victorian Homes with the magnolias all around them and the brick roads. But we couldn’t leave without going toward the Kentucky Bridge to stop by the levee area to get catfish to take home. Those were the good old days. With the right investors Cairo could come alive again.

      1. Thanks for your comment. I’ve been to some of the places you mentioned, but not all of them. It’s nice to hear from someone with fond memories of Cairo.

        I passed by that catfish sign many times, but never stopped in.

      2. Dixie, I just ran across your post while researching the history of Cairo.

        My great grandparents were James Whitaker and Lucinda Aldridge and I grew up in Union County.

  23. I was born Cairo. went to Lincoln grade school, also Cairo Middle And high school I was wondering if anyone remember archery in high school. I think we had that in PE.I have lot of fond memory living in cairo. Does anyone remember the point?

  24. I remember in the early 1960s Cairo’s downtown merchants were working to bring back their town. They gave out “Cairo” trading stamps to encourage shoppers. The store front advertisements read “Save Cairo”. At the time I thought that was clever to use “Save” to mean two things: Save the stamps and Save downtown Cairo. We can understand the need to Save downtown Cairo when we realize that population had declined from a high of 15,000 in 1920 to 9,000 in 1960.

    Then came the racial violence and the boycott of the late 1960s and 1970s. There are many things to be learned from those times. Looking just at the economic viability of Cairo, those events accelerated the decline. Today’s population is 3,000 or less.

    I think this helps answer the question: “Is Cairo Worth Saving?” Yes, the people are worth saving. But, it seems that the town itself is no sustainable. As previous posters have mentioned, this is the same as many other small towns in America.

  25. Previous Cairo commenters already know this, but I just came across it. It is the website for Cairo High School 1960s alumni. Click here. On the main page it says “(it was a) “Norman Rockwell” existence. It was in fact, a special place in a special time.”

    Imagine! We thought it was just us at Cape Central! 🙂

  26. Does anyone remember Ms. Wilson, or Ms. Bauer both Teacher Lincoln Grade School, or, Nancy Warden a student at Lincoln?
    Bill the year 1952, 1953
    mytruestory2000 at yahoo dot come

  27. My great grand father, William Myers, bought the second auto in Cairo, shortly after Dr. A.A.Bondurant purchased his. It was unloaded from a flat car at 15th and Commercial and Myers got in and drove it home to 223-16th Street.I have all pictures and documentation for the Myers family.I have family that lives there to this day. Many photo’s and lots of info to share with all that may be interested in years gone by.

  28. My great, grand father, William Myers, bought the second auto in Cairo, shortly after Dr. A.A.Bondurant purchased his. It was unloaded from a flat car at 15th and Commercial and Myers got in and drove it home to 223-16th Street.I have all pictures and documentation for the Myers family.I have family that lives there to this day. Many photo’s and lots of info to share with all that may be interested in years gone by. Would like to share info and pictures, from 1950–to current.

    1. Sandy,

      Very interesting. By the way, this site has a quirk. Sometimes you won’t see new content if you haven’t refreshed your browser after visiting in the first time.

      I noticed that you had left duplicate comments, so I figured that was what had happened.

      The easiest way to do that on a PC is to press Ctrl-F5.

      Thanks for sharing. I have always been fascinated by Cairo.

  29. I was born in mound city 1959 raised there until i joined the army in 1983. Cairo was fun and jumpin until the interstate came in and bypassed cairo
    Cars before that on the holidays were backed up for miles and had to go through cairo en route to missouri or kentucky. After the interstate came town bussiness died rapidly

  30. As long as the three rivers meet, so will Cairo be in our towboats logs. As people drive across the bridge they have no idea what has gone one here since the beginning of river

  31. I drove down to Cairo the summer of 2015, parked at that old flood gate.

    Looked around, spent the night at one of the near by Motel, came home

  32. So glad to have run across your Cairo compilation. My grandmother’s family were Cairo residents for generations. My sister and I visited Cairo in 1999, to walk in the footsteps of those who had thrived in the city. As I can tell from your photos, it has changed remarkably since then. My great grandfather emigrated to Cairo from Ireland in the mid 19th century. His son (John P. Glynn) grew their Livery & Transfer business into a booming enterprise. I have a period photo of their impressive brick residence (the house no longer stands). The names associated with my family are Glynn, Wheeler, Keirce. When I visited, the warehouse with Glynn signage was still standing (it also bore a Servicemaster sign). Wonder if it has survived? Your photos truly evoke the sadness of a decayed, once great town.

    1. Shelley,

      I just looked over a bunch of my Cairo photos taken in the last 10 years, and I don’t see anything with that signage on it. Can you give me an idea of what street and block it was in, and a general description of how tall it was and what material it was made of. I have to pass by there in a week or so, and I’ll see what I can find out for you.

  33. Thank you for your reply, Ken. According to historical records I have, there were 2 Glynn buildings, the first was 1214-16 Commercial Avenue, the second was erected in 1909 at 1210-12 Commercial Avenue. They are described as 3 storied, brick. If you Google Glynn’s Livery, there is another photographer’s image online. When my sister and I were in Cairo, we did see the faint remnant of the Glynn signage; a Servicemaster sign was more prominent on the same building. Appreciate your time!

    1. Shelley Griffitts I am Agnes Glynn Wheeler’s granddaughter, Cathy. My sister, Virginia, is starting to work on Glynn genealogy. It you are interested in communicating reply. Please reference Glynn. Thank you

  34. Shelley Griffitts I am Agnes Glynn Wheeler’s granddaughter, Cathy. My sister, Virginia, is starting to work on Glynn genealogy. It you are interested in communicating reply. Please reference Glynn. Thank you

  35. Hello Ken,
    My Grandfather, Charles W. Wheeler, ran a business CW Wheeler evidently on 10th street wood yard and had coal too. Mr. Wheeler had a step son, Charles Spence, who kept an office there and ran an ice delivery business. Curious if you had photos. Thank you

    1. It doesn’t ring a bell, but I’ve published just about everything I’ve shot in Cairo. There are probably at least a dozen posts on the city over about 10 years. Put the word “Cairo” in the search box, and they’ll pop up.

  36. anyone remember a Floral shop on 8th street. or niels CUT-Rate drugs. I miss grabbing a “free” Coca-Cola out of the back of the old coke commercial trucks when they would stop at the piggly wiggly also does anyone remember the name the body shop on Washington street it was painted white with red dots. also on 8th street there was a cafe, I think it was called Keller cafe! that place was so good! I remember geting cream puffs there for 75 cents I went Cairo a few weeks ago and almost everything is gone. just empty lots or crumbled piles of brick. very sad.

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