The Way, Way Back to Cairo, Illinois
Goin' back to Cairo, goodbye and a goodbye.
Goin' back to Cairo, goodbye Liza Jane.
Way back when, at the Southern end of Illinois, where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers come together to wend their wedded way down to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, there was a town. It was a lively town, where the river ruled. In its heyday, ten or more steamboats arrived and departed every day carrying as many as six million pounds of cotton and wool and 15,000 casks of sugar to their eventual destinations. It had one of the nation’s grandest hotels. Its levee was a stomping ground for merchants, performers, travelers, roustabouts, card sharks, and riverboat crews. Showboats stopped there to entertain the locals. (Edna Ferber used the town as a model for her novel, Showboat.) Mark Twain sent Huckleberry Finn and Jim on a raft to Cairo where they planned to get on a steamboat and ride to the free states so that Jim would not be sold into slavery. It was a major railroad center, and the site of flour mills, grain elevators, and lumber mills. It even boasted an opera house where musicals and light operas were performed by and for the residents.
It was also a mean town, filled with bars, gaming rooms, card sharks, brothels, and crime. The paper reported at least a murder a week. Owners of gambling houses boasted that boatmen who frequented their establishments were “picked clean as a scalded chicken,” and no patron was allowed to leave with unspent cash. When they walked out, the men were given a free drink, sent back to their boats to earn another stake, and told to return and belly up to the bar. They did. But more of this in the next installment!
It was a town that lived its moment of glory in the late nineteenth century and has been dying a lingering death ever since. It was my town. Cairo, Illinois. Let me take you there.
Goin' Back to Cairo
Cairo's history goes very far back. Back to 1660, when Father Louis Hennepin, a French missionary priest visited there and explored the land. He didn’t settle, but he did leave a record of his stay. In 1702, the Sun King Louis XIV sponsored a group of French explorers led by Charles Juchereau de St. Denis who did settle. They made a very successful living trapping buffalo and sending thousands of skins back to France. Their success was short-lived, however. Local Cherokee and other tribes, who relied on buffalo for survival, attacked the settlement, confiscated the skins and killed most of the men.
After that, the land sat empty for a hundred years, until Lewis and Clark arrived in 1803. In their party was a man from Baltimore named John G. Comegys, who saw such great promise in this land at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers that he purchased 1,800 acres there and got authorization from the territorial legislature to incorporate a town. Ol' Johnny Boy, as he was called, had a thing for Egypt--a lot of people did at that time. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign had inspired a big Egyptomania movement. Comegys saw a resemblance between the Mississippi River Valley and Nile Delta, so he named his piece of land Cairo, which he pronounced Cay-ro. He fully expected his Cay-ro to become the Ki-ro of the Midwest.
It didn’t happen. When Comegys died in 1820, he still owed a lot of money for his Cay-ro land. His family defaulted on the payments, and the federal government took over, sold the lots, and put the money in the Bank of Cairo—not entirely a bad thing, as it turned out.
In the meantime, poor Cay-ro was still waiting for a permanent settlement to take hold. It finally did in 1837 when the Illinois State Legislature incorporated the Cairo City and Canal Company and made a shrewd Boston businessman, Darius B. Holbrook, its president. Holbrook dreamed of turning Cairo into the World’s Greatest Manufacturing Mart and Emporium. He would build a levee system, shipyards, a dry dock, sawmills, iron works, hotels, businesses, a warehouse, and residences. Of course, such a daring enterprise would take money--a lot of money ; so Holbrook turned to the London-based banking house of John Wright & Company. The company sold bonds to finance the Cairo City and Canal Company construction, and Londoners fell all over themselves to invest in what seemed like a sure thing. Among the investors was the great British author Charles Dickens.
When money from the bond sales began pouring in, Holbrook hired several hundred workmen to transform Cairo. By 1839, the population had soared to 1,000. It got even better when the Illinois Central Railroad laid track around the town, bringing in more workmen. Things were finally going Cairo’s way.
But – and isn’t there always a “but”—the good times came to an abrupt end when the great bankers of London turned against Wright & Company and forced them into bankruptcy. Cairo’s bonds became worthless, development stalled, and Holbrook was left holding the bag. With no cash to pay the workmen or for building materials, he watched his Elysium vanish. Worse, with no militia to maintain order, disgruntled workmen rioted and took everything of value. What they couldn’t carry away, they destroyed. One steamboat crew narrowly escaped when a mob tried to seize their boat and take it to the Gulf. In less than a month, the population dropped to 200. Most businesses failed. The only ones left were a few shops and taverns that catered to steamboat travelers.
Knowing that there was nothing he could do for anyone, and that people would blame him for the town’s failure, Holbrook did not stay to see the total destruction of Cairo. But someone else did see it, and wrote about it in scathing terms. Charles Dickens was seething over the loss of the money he had invested in the Cairo enterprise. To make matters worse, he had been victimized by American publishers who pirated his books and refused to pay him royalties. Dickens came to America to work for international copyright protection. In April 1842, he decided to have a look at the place that had swallowed up his hard-earned money. This is what he had to say about Cairo in his “American Notes”:
At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld…At the junction of the two rivers lies a breeding place of fever, ague, and death—vaunted in England as a mine of golden hope and speculated in on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people’s ruin. A dismal swamp on which half-built houses rot away, teeming with rank, unwholesome vegetation in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who area tempted thither droop and die and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, …a slimy monster, hideous to behold, a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any promise; a placer without a single quality in earth or air or water to commend it; such is the dismal Cairo.
Cairo did not die, as Dickens prophesized. Instead, within twenty years, it was resurrected as the steamboat mecca of the Middle West and enjoyed a few halcyon days before its painful, final demise.
Next: Steamboat’s a Comin’: Waitin’ for the Robert E. Lee
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times