Further South than Richmond, Virginia: Cairo, Illinois

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I finally made it to Cairo, Illinois with my father last week. I have to admit, while I was prepared to see what many of my friends have already been documenting for years, I was struck how much more there was to this infamous town than just Commercial Avenue (seen above), which is the most common subject in Cairo “ruin porn.” In reality, while much of the town is vacant buildings or lots, a surprising amount of the town is in good to great condition. Over the next week or so, I will show the various facets of Cairo, the town described once as “further south than Richmond, Virgina” both literally and figuratively.

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Above the public library, which locals describe as the Queen Anne Style, which I will accept, though that style usually utilizes wood.

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Above, the stunning and well preserved Italianate style US Customs House.

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Abandonment of both wood frame houses, and brick commercial buildings, dominates the east side of Cairo.

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The Second Empire style Riverlore Mansion, and the the Italiante Magnolia Manor show the opulence of the town’s elite.

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But much of the rest of the lower and eastern part of town, as mentioned above, is in rough shape.

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom Maher - Kirkwood MO says:

    The Customs house was designed by Alfred B. Mullett !
    See http://www.lib.niu.edu/1999/ihy990446.html Long history of it.
    And http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Custom_House_(Cairo,_Illinois)

  2. Pete says:

    I spent a year working about 15 miles north of there – on a little federal-budget-draining $3B dam project that pops up in the newspapers from time to time – and, every now and then, would take detours after work, through Cairo, back to my rental house in Cape. Mostly, I just wanted to see what the big deal was (everybody in that part of the world “knows” about Cairo)…but I wish I’d have seen some of those nicer structures; all I saw was sadness.

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      What did people tell you about Cairo, Pete?

      1. Pete says:

        I worked in Olmsted, IL (population 200; a phenomenal place to build a $3B lock/dam on the Ohio River), and some of the locals – people from Marion, Carbondale, etc. – that worked on the project with me always spoke VERY negatively about Cairo. “Hood”. “Ghetto”. Crazy dangerous. Abandoned. Made it seem like East St. Louis x 800. Call it morbid curiosity; I wanted some verification. Plus, with a background in city planning, I know that almost no area is ever as bad (or perfect) as its reputation, and that propagating something a person hasn’t seen or experienced firsthand…not good. Anyways…after a few detours through Cairo on my way back to Cape, Cairo seemed liked a place that had suffered through some pretty hard times, but wasn’t quite as bad as everybody made it out to be. That said…a city can only experience so many floods and race-related turmoil and the general decline of river traffic, etc., while being in the poorest region of the entire state…eventually…Cairo happens, I suppose.

  3. Rick says:

    So, Chris – what were your impressions? Who lives there? Were do they work? Did you fell safe?

    Great post, BTW.

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      I never felt unsafe. In many ways, I wondered how really “Southern” the town is nowadays, at least judging by accents. There is very little good food–something I found surprising. You’d think there would be at least one really good restaurant. The food was poor at the place we ate; there is no great barbeque as some would suspect in a “Southern” town. People were friendly; we did not encounter any hostility, though my dad and I looked in many ways like we were from another planet. I guess in many ways, it is a perfect example of rural poverty–so much different in appearance from urban poverty–that is so often forgotten about in America.

      1. Jonathan Ball says:

        Did you go to Shemwell’s for barbecue? Their pork is good, and they have an unusual mustard-based sauce that I like. I was there in 1968 and again in 2012, and I swear the place hadn’t changed a jot.

        1. Chris Naffziger says:

          I did go to a barbecue restaurant, but they didn’t have any barbecue on the menu! Not sure what happened.

  4. Jonathan Ball says:

    “Further south than Richmond, Virginia.” Boy, oh boy, how that resonates. My mom was from southern Illinois, just a little north of Cairo. She grew up on a farm just outside Villa Ridge, maybe 11 miles up the road. She and her family moved to California in 1943 after my grandfather could no longer work the farm due to poor health. In 1968, she took me and my siblings back so she could visit with elderly relatives before they began dying off, which they promptly did not long after our visit. At age 15, I was full of the civil rights fire of the 1960s, and I was aware of the unrest that had begun a year or two earlier. During a visit with my grandfather’s cousin, Carrie, I made a probably naive and impertinent comment about race relations. Aunt Carrie’s husband, Melvin, leaned forward in his chair, pushed his glasses down his nose a little and looked over the top of them at me, and said, “Boy…Cairo is farther south than Richmond, Virginia,” and then glared at me to see if I understood the import of that statement. I don’t remember what I said, if anything, but in my memory I sort of gulped and thought, “Okay, I get it.”

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      Thanks for the story, Jonathan! Here are more pictures and posts:


  5. My grandfather (James Everett Fairless) was born in Cairo, Illinois. His father’s name was Robert Fairless his mother name Mary Jane Clayton I loved the pictures I heard there was a Clayton House there in Cairo please let me know if you have any information. Thank you very much

  6. Mark Franklin says:

    Cairo is the only place in the U.S. you can buy a million dollar house for 50 thousand. I was born and raised in Cairo. Have moved back from time to time. Now I live in Mo but still have family there. I always thought of buying a house there after I retire. Could have purchased the River lore for 100 thousand. Remember when Bill W. Lived there. My dad worked for him at the Water Front for 30 years.

  7. Eileen Madden says:

    I’ve done some research on Cairo, but until I heard this podcast, I never knew that Sears had its largest mill for Sears Homes in Cairo, and there are still a few there. North of town there is Sears Roebuck Road, and Sears Mill Road.

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      Wow, that is really interesting! Thank you!

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