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.

Barry Goldwater Campaigns in Cairo

I’m not sure whether to count Barry Goldwater as the first presidential candidate I covered or the second. Barry was in Cairo on Oct. 2, 1964, but I had covered Ronald Reagan stumping FOR Goldwater in Sikeston earlier for The Jackson Pioneer. To be honest, I think I was more impressed by Reagan than Goldwater.

I was prepared when I went to see Reagan. I had a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera, a 35mm camera and a Polaroid camera. I’m sure I had a dozen backup pencils and, maybe, even a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Find the Central students in the crowd

[Note: click on the photos to make them larger. There are a lot of interesting faces in the crowd. Once you get into the gallery, you can click on the left or right side of the photo to move backwards and forwards to the other images.]

I haven’t run across my film and clips from the Sikeston Reagan speech, but I’ll never forget writing the story. I’ve probably recounted it before, but, that’s what happens when you get old.

I was sitting at the typewriter churning out pages and pages of copy. Since we were a Republican newspaper, I was given a lot of latitude.

One more word about Reagan….

Just then, the double doors separating the newsroom from the composing room slammed open and a burly, ink-stained wretch came charging at me with my copy wadded up in fists that were short a finger or two. “Kid, you type one more F-‘ing word and I’ll break your fingers.”

Mother didn’t raise any fools. I quickly typed – 30 – which is newspaperspeak for The End, and handed him my last sheet. He snatched it up and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

I had just met the new Linotype operator. The Jackson Pioneer was an unusual place to work. If the Linotype operator didn’t agree with an editorial, he’d simply refuse to set it.

The universal media scowl

Maybe all these newsmen and women started out at small papers like I did. That would explain the carefully cultivated squint and universal scowls on the faces. Or, it might just be that they had heard Barry’s standard speech a hundred times before and they were wondering where they were going to end up for lunch.

Central High Tiger represented

Jim Stone, Shari Stiver and Sally Wright covered the rally for the Central High School Tiger. Jim had the school’s 4×5 Crown Graphic camera and Shari and Sally shared a byline on the Oct. 23 front-page story.

Despite their expressions, the story said “The impressions of the two editors who covered this story for The Tiger was mainly one of pure excitement. ‘We had our own press passes and sat in the very front of the press box, and they even fed us,’ said Sally Wright, 12B.

“‘And we saw every detail,’ added Shari Stiver, 12B.

The Tiger story and photos

The editors weren’t the only ones excited. They quoted Pat Sommers as saying, “I shook his hand twice – I’ll never wash my hands again!”

Barbara Nunnelly sounded less impressed. “He’s different from what I expected, but he’s a very good speaker,” she said.

Access to candidates

Something that strikes me today is the access the press (and the public) had to a presidential candidate in 1964. You can tell from the variety of angles that I was all over the place. You have to remember that John F. Kennedy had been shot less than a year before. When I looked around the Cairo High School football field where the rally was held, I saw all kinds of places where a sniper could be hiding, and felt distinctly uneasy.

I love crowd shots

That ability to move around and pick your own photo angles was quickly quashed in the coming years. By the time Jimmy Carter was elected, you had to submit requests for media credentials well in advance of the visit. You had to provide a photo, DOB, place of birth and a whole raft of other info before you got your credential.

What that was mostly good for was so they could herd you into a tightly controlled spot where you could shoot only what they wanted you to shoot, from the angle they wanted you to shoot it, when they wanted it shot. It irked me no end to go through all those security checks only to be kept farther back than the general public and have to deal with a stage-managed photo op. (Can we say, “Mission Accomplished?”)

Not every PR idea works

I don’t know if the concept of Goldwater Girls was a local idea or one cooked up by the campaign folks, but it has to go down as a really bad idea. I can just see the girls saying, “You want us to dress up HOW? And be seen in public?”

Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Girl

Holy Cow! It WASN’T a local idea.

I just Googled “Goldwater Girl” and the first story to pop up was an account of a Charles Gibson interview with Hilary Clinton that quoted her as saying, “My best friend and I became quote ‘Goldwater Girls. We got to wear cowboy hats. We had a sash that said, you know, I voted AUH2O. I mean, it was really a lot of fun.”

Relatives spinning in their graves

I was an ardent Barry Goldwater supporter. My grandmother, Elsie Welch, was in the hospital before the 1964 election. She said, “I know you wish you were old enough to vote for Goldwater. If you get me an absentee ballot, I’ll cast my vote for him for you.”

I went to the Clerk of Courts, picked up the absentee ballot and took it to the hospital. She made a blue X to vote a straight Republican ticket and said, “I can hear my relatives spinning in their graves because I just voted for a Republican.”

I knew she wasn’t registered to vote, so I didn’t file the ballot just to have it thrown out. I’ve held on to it for all these years as something to remember my grandmother by.

Unless she’s reading this over my shoulder – and I wouldn’t rule that out – she never knew that her vote didn’t count.

Goldwater Rally Photo Gallery

As mentioned earlier, click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the image to move through the gallery.

Copyright © Ken Steinhoff. All rights reserved.