• Ongoing coronavirus / COVID-19 discussion: how is the pandemic affecting your community, workplace, and wellness? 🦠

    Working from home? So are we. Come join us! Cyburbia is a friendly big tent, where we share our experiences and thoughts about urban planning practice, planning adjacent topics, and whatever else comes to mind. No ads, no spam, no social distancing.

Places Cairo, Illinois: worth the stop if I'm going in that direction?

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
I may be making a cross-country road trip in a few weeks, where I'll be driving to the Southwest,. I'm looking at different routes incorporating as many Interstates I haven't traveled on as possible, and one of the routes takes me through Cairo, Illinois: Cyburbia's favorite ghost town.

So, is Cairo worth the stop? A few concerns: I-64 west to I-67 south going to be about two hours longer compared to taking the more scenic Western Kentucky Parkway, I-24 and the Purchase Parkway. Is Cairo safe? It's discussed a lot on Cyburbia, but have any Cyburbians spent time in the town itself?
 

Veloise

Cyburbian
Messages
5,871
Points
33
Safe? Compared to East St Louis or DT Detroit, or a coal mine, or...what?

My father went to SIU for his undergrad there. It was the big city for southern Illinois. Excellent NPR station with great folk music all the time.

Dan, you can't go wrong stopping in small towns and looking around. That's where you find the wrap-around front porches and five-calendar diners. And friendly folks who'll recognize that "you're not from around here," and open a conversation.
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
Dan, you can't go wrong stopping in small towns and looking around. That's where you find the wrap-around front porches and five-calendar diners. And friendly folks who'll recognize that "you're not from around here," and open a conversation.

Cairo doesn't have much of that left. It's known for being a modern-day ghost town with a very sad history. Essentially, racism and discrimination killed the place; in the 1960s, businesses closed rather than integrate, and the decline spiraled downward from there.
 

JNA

Cyburbian Plus
Messages
26,024
Points
64
I would visit Land Between the Lakes area and Paducah floodwall murals first then drive through Cairo to Fort Defiance Park (confluence of the great Ohio River and the mighty Mississippi River)
or
along I-64 at the Ohio River you could visit a certain Cyburbian Mod on a workday, then 2 hrs later by car but 1 hr later by the clock you could visit another certain Cyburbian. :-D
 
Last edited:

jsk1983

Cyburbian
Messages
2,482
Points
24
I'd stop by if I was in the area. Really, how often would you find yourself anywhere near there again? Cairo (I think its pronounced Kay-ro) is about as far away from Chicago as you can get in Illinois. I don't know if you've read Bill Bryson's books, but the one on the U.S. mentions Cairo, not that it gives a ringing endorsement.
 

DetroitPlanner

Cyburbian Emeritus
Messages
6,241
Points
27
I would not hesitate to stop and walk around, but then again I've been known to walk around Downtown Gary too. I never get hassled but it may have something to do with me being 6'5" and keeping my 'grew up next to the projects' street smarts.
 

Veloise

Cyburbian
Messages
5,871
Points
33
The Wikipedia page shows some interesting images. Heck, I'd stop.

If memory serves, it's near the "throwed rolls" restaurant place.
 

boiker

Cyburbian
Messages
3,889
Points
26
My father went to SIU for his undergrad there. It was the big city for southern Illinois. Excellent NPR station with great folk music all the time.

Perhaps that was Carbondale. Cairo, to my knowledge, doesn't have a branch of SIU.

I think that for urban decay/planning history considerations visiting is completely worth it.

@HarryFossettsHat True! But the City did have an important role before the decline. I guess I was referring to the establishment of the town, its heyday, and then the subsequent decline as a history that planners are geeks about.
 
Last edited:
Messages
357
Points
12
Perhaps that was Carbondale. Cairo, to my knowledge, doesn't have a branch of SIU.

I think that for urban decay/planning history considerations visiting is completely worth it.

Based on my limited knowledge and background reading about Cairo (er...wikipedia), is this an example of urban decline that was out of the control of town planning?
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
Thanks all! I think I'm going to make a stop there, but since I'll be arriving after sundown, it'll probably go something like this:

1) Stay in Charleston, MO for the night
2) Early in the morning, check out Cairo for a couple of hours.
3) Drive back to the hotel and check out.
4) Throwed rolls at Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston, MO.
5) Back on the road.
 

jsk1983

Cyburbian
Messages
2,482
Points
24
I've got a 1940s travel guide to southern Illinois which includes Cairo. When my scanner decides to work again I'll post it here. You do want to know about its many attractions don't you?
 

Veloise

Cyburbian
Messages
5,871
Points
33
If you find yourself in Royalton while you're in the area (and if you do, you will be LOST!), that's the town my father grew up in. I think Cairo was a major city where we stayed or went through while visiting the G'rents.

Also in the vicinity is a gignormous cross along the highway. Google sez it's in Effingham. http://www.thecross-photo.com/The_Cross_in_Effingham_Illinois.htm Needs some wireless antennas, IMHO.

St Louis? Ted Drewe's custard? The Mother Road? The Arch? (Gotta do that, too.)

Or Memphis? The shrine is on Route 51 south of town. A gas station attendant, circa 1978, told my sister and me, "if you miss it, you deserve to." I liked Mud Island, the pyramid, and Beale Street.

You want bad planning, check out West Memphis.

Little Rock is sortof pretty. I know of a corporate campus you can flip off as you go by, on my behalf.

Hope is a nice place to pick up a postcard. Hot Springs hosted Prairie Home Companion one time.

Texarkana is interesting. It's a state law that you have to stop at the rest area and do a timer portrait by the WELCOME TO sign. (In fact, that may be a federal law.)

Swing by a HEB and I'll tell ya a joke when you get back.
 

H

Cyburbian
Messages
2,850
Points
24
Thanks all! I think I'm going to make a stop there, but since I'll be arriving after sundown, it'll probably go something like this:

1) Stay in Charlkeston, MO for the night
2) Early in the morning, check out Cairo for a couple of hours.
3) Drive back to the hotel and check out.
4) Throwed rolls at Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston, MO.
5) Back on the road.

My wife is from East Praire Mo. (Same county as Charleston). So I have been there several times over the past 10 years.

First, Cairo = DONT stop, and if you go through keep your doors locked. My gosh, this shell of a town is scary! But the island in the river (Fort Defiance State Park), between the bridges is sorta cool - the Ohio and Mississippi run together there.

Charleston, only has hotels on the interstate, the downtown hotel is closed. I sugest staying in Sikeston. MUCH cleaner establishments.

Lambert's is basically an expensive Cracker Barrel. Yes, they throw the rolls, but my wifes family wont even go there any more, and laughed at me the time I suggested we eat there. But, it is famous, so you should still eat there.

New Madrid Mo. is neat. The Hunter Dawson House is an historic home there you can tour, and it is worth it. Also, downtown New Madrid has a cool river museum by the levy. And while you are there, hop on the levy and take a scenic drive.

And Big Oak State park is ok.
 
Last edited:

Jen

Cyburbian
Messages
1,704
Points
26
Wow even google confirms a lack of existence for the city site of Cay-ro! I wonder is it still a city or more a "colonia" lacking in many services, the median income is 25k! :-c
 

Gedunker

Moderating
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
11,556
Points
42
Dan, if you decide on the I-64 route, I'd be happy to meet up with you if you have time. We could run down to the Greenway and let Bailey and Guiness stretch their legs for a bit.

If you don't have time, my building is the Stockholm-style four storey building on your right immediately after you cross the Sherman Minton Bridge. I'll be the one waving from a window on the Third Floor, near the north end of the building;-)

I would certainly visit Cairo -- when will you ever get a chance like that again?
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
I think the route is going to be ...

I-71: Cleveland OH to Louisville KY
I-64: Louisville KY to Mt. Vernon IL
I-57: Mt. Vernon IL to Sikeston MO
(stop for the night somewhere around here)
I-55: Sikeston MO to West Memphis AR
I-40: West Memphis AR to Little Rock AR
I-30: Little Rock AR to Dallas TX
I-35: Dallas TX to Austin TX
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
My dogs exploring downtown Cairo. I wasn't worried about them, because there were no people around, and virtually no vehicular traffic. More photos to come in a new thread.

 

Richmond Jake

You can't fight in here. This is the War Room!
Messages
18,313
Points
44
I looked through Dan's pictures. Holy cow, WTF happened?!?! Wiki wasn't much help. That's really depressing.
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
I looked through Dan's pictures. Holy cow, WTF happened?!?! Wiki wasn't much help. That's really depressing.

And I'm uploading more. They're in the gallery under the United States -> Illinois - Other section. I spent maybe an hour and a half there, but there's enough faded glory in the town to fill up a day or two of exploration. It really is a fascinating place, made even more so by the story of its decline and its current state.
 

Super Amputee Cat

Cyburbian
Messages
2,322
Points
32
I was in Cairo in 2003. There are pictures in the Gallery

If you want to read a fascinating book about Cairo, I would highly recommend you read this:


94Cairobook1.jpg
 

Super Amputee Cat

Cyburbian
Messages
2,322
Points
32
I looked through Dan's pictures. Holy cow, WTF happened?!?! Wiki wasn't much help. That's really depressing.

Basically from the book I read above it was a combination of a lot of things:

Racism. Blacks made up almost 45% of the town after the Civil War and should have gotten representation in City government. Indeed in the era of reconstruction, they held several seats in council as a result of a district-based system of government. Socially, they enjoyed more latitude and mobility than their counterparts in other southern cities. But by the early 1900s racist whites eliminated ward-based council districts and made everything "at large". This stopped blacks from retaining any council seats simply because there was no way they could get a majority and eventually resulted in a deeply segregated town.

Things got really ugly when KKK-like gangs such as the White Hats ran a campaign of terror during the 1960 and 1970s. Most people were afraid to leave their homes and this eventually lead to massive population loss. Snipers and nightly reports of gunfire made national headlines.

Location: Though seemingly an ideal location due to its location at a major confluence, the town was always susceptible to flooding.

Civil War. The Civil War did two things. It brought a whole host of undesirable characters - prostitutes, predatory opportunists, gamblers - etc. that catered to the huge influx of soldiers in the town and stayed on long after Appomattox. It is estimated that over 1000 prostitutes lived in the down during by 1930s. Also the blockade of the Mississippi River resulted in the loss of that river's prominence as a major transportation conduit, never to be regained. Railroads well to the north of Cairo took freight traffic away from the Mississippi, spelling doom for Cairo as a major transportation hub.

Good-Old-Boyism. The dark political forces of Cairo maintained a stranglehold on the town beginning in the early 1900s, running Cairo in their interest and to their political or economic gain, oppressing poor blacks as well as whites. They were deeply ignorant, mostly Republican - good ol' boys, the epitome of the worst southern stereotypes. Figureheads such as the mayor cow-towed to powerful bulllike men who ran Cairo to their sole benefit well into the late 20th Century.

Illinois. To most of the rest of the Illinois, the southern boundary of the state is Carbondale, not Cairo, and the powers-that-be in Springfield and Chicago relegated resources accordingly.
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
You want bad planning, check out West Memphis.

[snip]

Swing by a HEB and I'll tell ya a joke when you get back.

West Memphis: I've been meaning to start a thread on towns like that, called "Glorified truck stops" - cities that are really just function as ginormious truck stops, such as West Memphis and Mt. Vernon, Illinois. "Wow, a T of A, Flying J, Petro and Pilot at one exit ... who woulda'a thunk ..."

HEB: Yes, there really are Texas-shaped corn chips there. I literally LOLed when I saw the display, but then I bought a bag.

I encourage everyone to check out SAC's Cairo photos, too. Like I said, a few hours in town really isn't enough to capture the place. It's amazing: gorgeous churches everywhere, a beautiful neighborhood following brick-paved Washington Avenue, a built environment that seems more like that of an urban neighborhood than a rural Illinois town, all enveloped by a history and character that is tragic and depressing. If any community attempted for years to commit collective suicide, it's Cairo.
 

Maister

Chairman of the bored
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
28,945
Points
71
I looked through Dan's pictures. Holy cow, WTF happened?!?! Wiki wasn't much help. That's really depressing.

I looked at the pics too. Amazing!

You know, it might be interesting and enlightening to examine Cairo from the standpoint of what's left and the who/what/where/when/why of how ANYTHING managed to survive after such a spectacular decline - not unlike the way certain folks study the few surviving American chestnut trees or survivors of the ebola virus.
 

b3nr

Cyburbian
Messages
272
Points
10
I've just been looking through your pictures, which leant itself to looking through other pictures in the gallery... If one thing has happened over the years i have been reading this forum, you have all done a rather good job of putting me off ever even going to America.

Perhaps you could take some pictures of some nice bits?
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
I've got the last of the Cairo images uploaded, which show the now very small portion of the city that hasn't been decimated by decades of abandonment and neglect. I'll be starting a new thread soon where all the images will be in one place.

To non-US Cyburbians: please understand that Cairo is NOT a typical American small town. We're fascinated with it because while many small towns in the United States have struggled in recent decades, noplace has fallen as hard as Cairo, and the backstory is so fascinating and tragic. Americans are proud, but we're also very transparent; like a skateboarder proudly showing off his scars to his buddies, we tend not to hide our scrapes, bruises, scabs and infections.
 

b3nr

Cyburbian
Messages
272
Points
10
I fully understand your point, and that Cairo is an exception. But to be honest I was referring to the greater body of photo and places threads I have come to love reading over the years as well. Perhaps if i come into money i should take a year off and travel around (/buys lottery ticket).
 

FightingIllini07

Cyburbian
Messages
35
Points
2
interesting thread. I work in a 39 county region of Illinois that includes Alexander County (Cairo)...

I drove through town on one of my random "get to know the area I work in" road trips one saturday... it really is the land time forgot... its population is barely 20% of what it was in the 20's (when a lot of those structures were built)... doing some wikipedia research... population is 60%+ black, and 60%+ in poverty... making it one of the poorest school districts in America

There are a lot of towns down here in Southern Illinois (south of I-70 by my definition) that have deteriorated because of loss of jobs and capital... Lawrenceville, Centralia, Mt. Vernon all come to mind... but none of them are as bad as Cairo... the race riots killed the town (not that the waning importance of the town along the river helped much)

the "little egypt" counties around the tip of the state are the poorest in Illinois... populations aging in place, no jobs, limited social services, no mobility for residents... its not a pretty situation.
 

rsh

Member
Messages
1
Points
0
Cairo Illinois visit

My husband and I drove through Cairo Illinois today. The desolation of this river town is unbelievable--it reminds one of an old abandon movie set.

However, what did surprise me were the infrastructure improvements made to the historic downtown area. Lining the streets filled with condemned buildings and closed businesses are modern gas lights that appear to be 5 - 10 years old. The intersections also have newer brick pavers. Additionally, the riverfront has recently undergone an restoration, complete with a brand new parking lot.

It would be interesting to know where the dollars came from for the improvements, as the improvements seem to be a too little and a little too late. It will take much more than street lights and brick pavers to bring back this sad town.

I found a plan on the Internet to spend an additional $10 million in Cairo for a Civil War park. Does anyone know of any other plans for improvement? I could find nothing that spoke to improving the historic downtown other than a few college summer programs at UI.
 

JNA

Cyburbian Plus
Messages
26,024
Points
64
BUMP -
Be careful if you drive through area -
HEADLINE: Layoffs, lost cruisers: Sheriff's headaches mount
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-ap-il-sheriff-brokecoun,0,5054562.story

This article was printed in my fair city's newspaper's sunday edition.

HIGHLIGHTS:
this month laid off three-fourths of his staff, leaving just four deputies to help cover the county that spans more than 250 square miles in far southern Illinois. Just days later, he surrendered five patrol cars to the local bank for nonpayment, leaving his department just one county-owned vehicle

And by midweek, Barkett's prisoners may be turned away from the regional jail because the county hasn't kept up paying for the upkeep of its inmates there.

Would you be afraid if that was your county's budget circumstance ?
 

Rygor

Cyburbian
Messages
2,760
Points
19
BUMP -
Be careful if you drive through area -
HEADLINE: Layoffs, lost cruisers: Sheriff's headaches mount
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-ap-il-sheriff-brokecoun,0,5054562.story

This article was printed in my fair city's newspaper's sunday edition.

HIGHLIGHTS:


Would you be afraid if that was your county's budget circumstance ?
I just saw on the news the other night that a department in or near Rockford was donating 5 squad cars to Alexander County so they could continue to police Cairo and surrounding areas. SOME good news, at least.
 

mgk920

Cyburbian
Messages
4,202
Points
26
Could there be a push forthcoming to 'rationalize' some of the local-level government in that area, such as dissolving cities/villages, (force?) merging counties and school and other special-use districts, etc?

Mike
 

Sublarry

Member
Messages
1
Points
0
Thanks all! I think I'm going to make a stop there, but since I'll be arriving after sundown, it'll probably go something like this:

1) Stay in Charleston, MO for the night
2) Early in the morning, check out Cairo for a couple of hours.
3) Drive back to the hotel and check out.
4) Throwed rolls at Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston, MO.
5) Back on the road.
Dexter Missouri is not far from Charleston and has great bbq ribs at a couple different places.
 

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
18,814
Points
69
Dexter Missouri is not far from Charleston and has great bbq ribs at a couple different places.
Memphis or St. Louis style? (I'm more of a fan of Kansas City style myself.)

I regret not stopping at Shemwell's BBQ in Cairo. I doubt I'll have the chance to return to Cairo -- I've been at my current job for nearly 10 years, and I don't see any cross-country moves or drives through southern Illinois anytime soon.
 
Top