There is an abandoned town in Illinois that most people are unaware of

Cairo, Illinois, a city at the southernmost tip of the state, has a history as dynamic and tumultuous as the rivers it borders. Founded in 1818, this once-thriving river port, situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, boasts a rich and complex narrative that spans over two centuries.

From its early days as a booming transport hub to its current status as an almost forgotten town, Cairo’s story is one of both resilience and struggle. This article delves into the rise and fall of Cairo, exploring its historical significance and the potential that still lies within its quiet streets.

Early History and Development

The initial charter for Cairo and the Bank of Cairo was issued in 1818, marking the beginning of the city’s journey. However, it wasn’t until the Cairo City and Canal Company’s successful efforts in the 1830s that the city began to take shape, bolstered by a large levee encircling the site.

The town’s strategic location made it a vital river port for steamboats traveling to New Orleans. By 1860, with a new city charter fueling development, Cairo’s population exceeded 2,000, and it had been officially designated as a port of delivery by Congress in 1854​​.

Civil War Era and Post-War Prosperity

During the Civil War, Cairo gained prominence as a Union Army base and a significant supply and training center. The city’s geographical significance was further highlighted when General Ulysses S. Grant constructed Fort Defiance to protect the river confluence.

However, the military occupation led to a diversion of trade to Chicago, causing a shift in Cairo’s economic dynamics. Despite this, the city experienced a period of prosperity, with growth in banking, steamboat traffic, and the establishment of the United States Custom House and Post Office​​.

Economic Decline and Challenges

Cairo’s decline can be traced back to the late 19th century, with the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad bridge over the Ohio River in 1889, which reduced the city’s ferry business. The decline accelerated with the completion of the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge and the Cairo Ohio River Bridge in the 1920s and 1930s, effectively bypassing the city and ending the ferry industry.

This economic downturn was exacerbated by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which necessitated strengthening the city’s levee system​​.

Racial Tensions and Further Decline

The mid-20th century saw Cairo grappling with severe racial tensions, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. The city’s police and fire departments, along with most city jobs, were predominantly white, leading to allegations of discrimination and violence against African Americans. These tensions culminated in the summer of 1969 with the Cairo United Front leading protests and demonstrations, resulting in a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses​​.

Cairo Today: Challenges and Potential

Today, Cairo is a shadow of its former self, with a population of just 1,733 as of the 2020 census. The city, however, is not without its charms and potential. It is home to the oldest public library in Illinois, the Victorian-era Magnolia Manor, and the historic Fort Defiance Park.

The Cairo Custom House, now a museum, along with the Cairo Historic District, offer glimpses into the city’s rich history. Despite the challenges, Cairo’s resilience is evident, with initiatives aimed at revitalizing the community and preserving its unique heritage​​​​.


Cairo’s journey from a bustling river port to a quiet town is a testament to the ebbs and flows of history. Its strategic location once made it a hub of commerce and culture, but economic shifts and social upheavals led to its decline. Yet, Cairo remains more than a collection of ruins; it is a town with a resilient spirit, rich history, and potential for renewal.

As initiatives continue to preserve its heritage and revitalize the community, Cairo stands as a reminder of the enduring capacity of towns to adapt and evolve, writing new chapters in their storied pasts.

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