Cairo, Illinois: Once a Camelot
Each evening from December to December
Before you drift to sleep upon your cot,
Think back on all the tales that you remember,
Ask every person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory,
Called Camelot. Alan J. Lerner
Why do I keep coming back to a place you’ve never heard of and will probably never see, unless you are passing through on your way to somewhere else? Because I want you to know about Cairo. I want you to know that this little river town in southern Illinois was once a Camelot which many believed would surpass St. Louis and Chicago in size and importance. That was before the trouble came. But let’s not go there yet.
The Two Faces of Cairo
In the dying days of the nineteenth century Cairo had two faces. It was both a rough and tumble river and railroad town and a bastion of civility. As many as 500 steamboats a month came through Cairo from St. Louis and Cincinnati on their way to New Orleans, bringing cash-spending passengers, grain, cotton, lumber, and other commodities that were a great boon to the town’s economy. Merchants, showboat folks, travelers, roustabouts, and steamboatmen came together down on the levee to ply their trades and give Cairo its distinct personality.
Cairo was the southern terminus of the New York Central and the Cairo/Thebes lines. The Iron Mountain and the Cotton Belt Railroads had their cars ferried across the Mississippi from Missouri. The Illinois Central and the Mobile and Ohio passed through, crossing Cairo on the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge. In 1889, it was the longest metallic bridge across a river anywhere in the world.
Two electric railways ran in Cairo in 1892. The cars on one of the trains were so long they had trouble rounding the curves and frequently ran off the track. Gangs of boys were hired to lift them back on the rails.
The other side of Cairo was displayed in the town itself where wealthy citizens were busy paving streets and building mansions on Washington Avenue, a grand street that came to be known as Millionaires Row.
In My Home Town Were Many Mansions
Magnolia Manor (2700 Washington Avenue) was built in 1869 by businessman Charles Galigher, who made a fortune selling flour to the government during the Civil War. The four-story brick structure had 14 rooms with 10-inch thick airspaces. Its furnishings were opulent, even by the standards of Cairo’s millionaires. Galigher, a friend of Ulysses S. Grant, threw a lavish celebration for him in the Manor after he left the presidency. The cream of Cairo society and dignitaries from all over the country attended. On a personal note, we held my mother's final farewell party there. All of her friends came to feast on Cairo barbecue, drink Coca Cola, and remember her good times.
Surpassing Magnolia Manor in size and splendor was Riverlore, (2723 Washington Avenue) a mansion built in 1865 by Captain William Parker Halliday, owner of the famed Halliday Hotel and also a good friend of Ulysses S. Grant.
Riverlore was surrounded by magnolia trees, ginkos, and flowering shrubs. Inside, an oval central stairway ascended three floors to a slate mansard roof called the “Captain’s Walk”. Captain Halliday loved to walk up there to look out Cairo’s two rivers. (Years later, as a Girl Scout, I climbed those same stairs with a tray of refreshments to serve at a tea given by the house's later owners, the Rendlemans. The pot accidentally tipped over, and scalding tea poured down 38 feet to unsuspecting guests below. I think it cooled on the way down, but I didn’t wait to find out.) In addition to luxurious bedrooms, a bathroom with a sunken tub, sitting rooms, and a library, there was an 18-seat theater where Halliday presented entertainments for friends and relatives. As I said, Cairo had refinement.
Riverlore was only one of the many treasures the Hallidays bequeathed to Cairo. In 1906, Mary Halliday, the Captain's daughter, presented the city with a magnificent bronze sculpture, “The Hewer” by George Grey Barnard, in memory of her father who passed away in 1899. “The Hewer”, depicts a nude man hewing and dragging wood to save the people from a flood. It sits in the middle of Halliday Park at the south end of—where else—Washington Avenue.
The Business of Cairo Was Business
Cairo had a number of industries, including flour mills, grain elevators, and lumber mills. Ohio Street, which ran parallel with the Ohio River, was filled with wholesale produce and commission houses, saloons, cafes, and second-rate hotels. At one end of the street was the Illinois Central depot where passengers departed from the trains to spend some time (and money) in Cairo. At the other end was the Halliday House, owned by Captain William Parker Halliday and billed as one of the finest hotels in the country. Ulysses S. Grant had used the Halliday as his headquarters during the Civil War. No surprise that he was also a regular at the establishment’s bar and had his own room there.
Cairo’s citizens built magnificent public buildings, none grander than the United States Custom House. The Cairo Custom House, (1400 Washington Avenue) completed in 1872, was designed by one of the foremost architects in America, Alfred B. Mullett—who also designed the U. S. Treasury Department and an addition to the White House. Italian marble was used for the fireplaces, and slate was brought from Vermont for the roof. Originally lit by gas light fixtures, electricity was added in the 1890s and an elevator in 1892.
A fitting companion to the Custom House was the A. B. Safford Memorial Library (1609 Washington Avenue). The Library was constructed in 1883, a gift of Mrs. Safford as a memorial to her husband who died in 1877. The interior of the library was filled with old Cairo artifacts and priceless treasures: a round oak gambling table from an old steamboat, an Italian marble fireplace mantel carved in 1867; and a rare Tiffany clock. The two niches on the outside of the building hold statues of Clio, the Greek Muse of History and Concordia, a Roman goddess of peace. (I love this old library. As a young girl, I spent hours in its stacks, reading dusty volumes no one had opened in years.)
The jewel in Cairo’s crown was its opera house. Built in 1881, the theater held nearly 1,300 people. The opening production was “The Mascotte”, starring Faye Templeton, a bright star of the American stage who had sung in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and co-starred with George M. Cohan in “45 Minutes From Broadway” in which she sang the classic, “Mary Is a Grand Old Name.”
Through the years, the Opera House brought many well-known productions to Cairo, some of them directly from Broadway. Admission ranged from 25 cents (gallery) to $1.00 (parquet circle). Audience members sat beneath blazing chandeliers and gazed upon an enormous stage that was the equal of any in New York or Chicago.
Cairo At Home
I am always filled with happiness upon reaching home. Every rickety old house looks familiar and sweet—every tree an old friend. I was born here and have lived here and can never do ought but love our dear ugly Cairo. Isabella Maud Rittenhouse, 1881
Nineteenth century Cairo was more than just a collection of buildings and business enterprises. It was a place where families lived, mostly in harmony with each other. A Cairo where young men took their best girls out on moonlight excursions, proclaimed undying love, and sealed the proclamation with their class rings. Where women baked cakes for church socials, cared for their husbands and children, and sang in the choir on Sunday mornings.
One of its most popular young belles was Isabella Maud Rittenhouse, whose father was a prominent commission grain merchant. She lived in a 15-room house that was one of Cairo’s finest, though it had no indoor plumbing.
Maud was an exceptional young woman. She sang, she acted in local theater productions, and she made diary entries in lilac ink. She entertained gentlemen callers in her parlor. (They all fell in love with her, even when she tried to reform them.) She advocated for temperance and sold lemonade to counter the interest in beer. She painted on china and won a thousand dollar literary prize for writing about a mountain in North Carolina she had never seen. In 1939, when her diary was published (Maud, New York, the MacMillan Company), scholars hailed it as an invaluable original source on life in small town America. Just as I have a connection to practically everything in Cairo, I have a special connection to Isabella Maud, and it has to do with this painting. I will tell you all about in my next Cairo article .
Nineteenth century Cairo, Illinois was a good town--a really a good town, a Camelot. And then, the trouble came.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times