The Cairo Project -- a report by the students of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Cairo's first half century, part 1 Cairo's first half century, part 2 Download PDF
Cairo's First Half Century
An old map of Cairo

An old map of Cairo shows the city nestled at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Story by Shane Hanson

Part One

What Charles Dickens wrote in Tale of Two Cities about London and Paris, he could have written about Cairo, Illinois: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…"

Dickens actually wrote about Cairo several years earlier in his American Notes, following his trip across the country in 1842. He was focused on the worst of times. He complained that Cairo was "a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo."

But the best of times was yet to come. Because of its location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Cairo was a place of promise.

Before the Civil War, Cairo was the southern tip of free soil. For Jim, in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, it was the Promised Land. "There weren't nothing to do now but to look sharp for the town, and not pass it without seeing it," wrote Twain. "He (Jim) said he would be mighty sure to see it, because he would be a free man the minute he seen it, but if he missed it he'd be in slave country again and no more show for freedom."

The arrival of the railroad, followed three years later by the Civil War, gave the town its biggest boost in population and wealth. Camp Defiance, quickly built by Union troops at the confluence of the rivers at the start of the Civil War, became a vital strategic point for control of the rivers for both the Union army and inland navy. Ulysses Grant launched attacks into Kentucky and the South from Cairo.

The Civil War provided trade and wealth, exemplified by Riverlore Mansion, a plantation-style house built by Captain William Parker Halliday in 1865. Magnolia Manor, constructed in 1872, also embodies the wealth of this era. However, the demographics of Cairo had changed during the war. The population tripled to about 6,000 in 1870, with the black population of escaped and then freed slaves jumping from 50 to 3,000.

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