This community is pronounced kay-row by its inhabitants. Cairo is
located at the southernmost point of Illinois where the Mississippi and
Ohio Rivers meet and is protected by levees from the two rivers. The
first attempt at founded a community at this location was made by the
Cairo City & Canal Company in 1837 but this effort failed. But land
companies and others felt that the location was bound to become the
crossroads of America. In 1949 a panorama by artist John Banvard
promoted Cairo as “destined to become one of the largest inland cities
in the United States.” It took another two tries by the land companies
to get Cairo started as a permanent city. The sale of lots, which began
in 1853, and the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad spurred its
growth by attracting settlers and merchants and Cairo was incorporated
as a city in 1858. For the first fifteen years the town grew slowly. By
1860, the population exceeded 2,000. Cairo began to emerge as an
important steamboat port. Because so much river traffic used or passed
by Cairo that it was designated as a port of delivery by act of Congress
in 1854. The strategic importance of Cairo's geographic location had
sparked great prosperity in Cairo during the Civil War. Cairo's success
continued after the war being both a railheas and a major river port. As
many as 4,000 steamboats would dock at Cairo in the years immediately
after the Civil War.
Construction began in 1869 on the United States Custom House and Post
Office and completed in 1872. The completed building served various uses
over the years including a custom house, a post office, and a U.S.
District Court. The post office in the building was the third busiest in
the United States at the height of Cairo's prosperity. Today the
building houses a museum that interprets the history of Cairo. Cairo
location made it a hub for railroad shipping. By 1900 there were several
railroad lines branching from Cairo. In addition to shipping and
railroads, a major industry in Cairo was also the operations of ferries.
Into the late 1800s, nearly 250,000 railroad cars could be ferried
across the river in as little as six months. Later motorized vehicles
were ferried as there were no automobile bridges in the area in the
early 20th century.
Merchants and shippers made prosperous by the river trade built numerous
fine mansions in the 19th century including the Italianate Magnolia
Manor, completed in 1872, and the Second Empire Riverlore Mansion built
by Capt. William P. Halliday in 1865. Across the street from the Customs
House is the Cairo Public Library. This Queen Anne style building with
stained glass and ornate woodwork was dedicated in 1884 as the A. B.
Safford Memorial Library. These and other significant buildings are also
listed on the National Register.
the decline in river trade and as a result of racial disturbances, Cairo
has experienced a marked decline in its economy and population. Its
highest population was 15,203 in 1920 and in 2010 it less than 3,000
residents. The community and region are working to stop the abandonment
of the city, restore its architectural landmarks, and develop heritage
tourism focusing on its history and relationship to the Great Rivers, to
bring new opportunities to the community.