Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bridges at Cairo, Illinois

Railroads and ferries brought prosperity

A. B. Safford Memorial Museum in Cairo, Illinois, built in 1883

Cairo, Illinois, is at the extreme southern tip of Illinois, at the point where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers converge.

I always have mixed feelings as I drive through Cairo (pronounced "Care-roh".) Sadly, the town has endured a long period of hard times and population loss. In the business district, empty lots suggest that many deteriorated buildings have been bulldozed and hauled away. Some old buildings, still standing, are candidates for the next demolition list.

I'm not sure if this church is in use.
But the town still has some fabulous old buildings. I always enjoy the architecture when life leads me to Cairo.

Cairo became an important railroad hub after the Civil War, and the town enjoyed several decades of great prosperity. Train cars (and other vehicles) were ferried across the rivers, and the ferry business was as important to local fortunes as the railroad and river-shipping businesses.

The Riverlore in Cairo, Illinois
During this era, a U.S. Customs House was built in Cairo to process goods from foreign countries.  The Cairo Post Office (a mail distribution center of major national importance) and a Federal court were also located in the Customs House.

Then in 1889, the Illinois Central Railroad completed the Cairo Rail Bridge across the Ohio River (image, another image). It was a masterpiece of engineering. The metal bridge itself was nearly 2 miles long and the entire structure including the wooden approaches was almost 4 miles long. Freight from Chicago could travel directly to New Orleans via the Cairo Rail Bridge -- a revolution in rail shipping, but a blow to Cairo.

More mansions in Cairo
In 1905, a group of five railroads built the Thebes Rail Bridge over the Mississippi River, eliminating the need for railroad cars to be ferried at Cairo. Thebes, a town on the Mississippi River about 25 miles north of Cairo, was chosen for the bridge because the earth there was much firmer than at Cairo.

Vehicles traveling in the Cairo area still used the ferries until two highway bridges were built -- the Mississippi River bridge (leading to Missouri) in 1929, and the Ohio River bridge (leading to Kentucky) in 1937. The bridges and roads connected a short distance south of Cairo, so travelers could quickly cross both rivers without even entering town.

The loss of the railroad and ferry industries was significant, but it alone did not kill the town. By the early 1900s, other serious problems (racism, corruption, violence, crime) were well-established in Cairo. Over the next century, these evils had a slow-but-deadly effect on the town. You can read about the darker side of Cairo's history at "Cairo, Illinois, Death by Racism."

Overgrowth and disrepair, too!
Last summer, I traveled from Kentucky to Missouri. South of Cairo, I crossed the Ohio River bridge from Kentucky to Illinois, but the Mississippi River bridge south of Cairo was closed for repair. So I drove through Cairo, got on Interstate 57 a few miles north of town, and crossed over the Mississippi River and into Missouri on the I-57 bridge. A few days later, I drove through Cairo again on my way home. That's when I took these pictures.

A photo I took inside the Customs House some years ago
Seen at Wickliffe, Kentucky

Ohio River bridge, just south of Cairo


Collagemama said...

Is that the Cairo in Huck Finn? Also, I thought your post was about brides, not bridges. Maybe these glasses aren't quite right!

Genevieve said...

The very same Cairo. Jim wanted to go up the Ohio River at Cairo to a free state, but they missed Cairo on a foggy night (no electric lights back then) and floated on into the South.

John Ruberry said...

Cairo is in Alexander County. It is quite corrupt, even on Illinois standards. Last month it was reported that it had 7,100 voting age residents, but 7,800 registered to vote. Obama wrote movingly about it in "Audacity of Hope," while admitting its sorry situation. The union leader who hosted a barbecue for Obama in 2004 in Cairo was implicated, but never charged, in a 2000 vote buying scandal.

Collagemama said...

A barbecue on the river sounds like a nice thing in warm weather. Thanks for the Twain clarification.

Shirley Fritsche said...

Cairo is not pronounced Kay-ro except in the South. In the North, people generally say Ki-ro. The correct pronunciation is Care-ro. I would like to say that the Cairo of today is nothing like it was in the 40s to the 60s. It was a wonderful town and a great place to grow up -- as the 1940-1970 Cairo/St. Joseph High School graduates will testify at their ANNUAL high school reunions. Thanks for writing your blog about the old hometown of our hearts.

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IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
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