Cairo, Illinois is an abandoned town that sits at the tri-state with Kentucky and Missouri . Basically, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places, and history is hidden everywhere. This abandoned town in Illinois is one of the most fascinating spots you can visit in the whole state. You don’t want to sleep on this unique experience. So, come with me for this history lesson and let’s discover what’s left of this historical town in our state.
Like many towns in America, here is one that began with prejudice and racism, and it is one that was swallowed up by it as well. A town named after greed itself, this once beautiful place is now a shell of its former glory. How did it all happen? Read on to learn more about the true story behind this Cairo,
Illinois ghost town.
Also known as "Egypt," southern Illinois' abandoned town of Cairo, Illinois sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and is on a peninsula with water on three of its four sides.
Being surrounded by water already gives this town an eerie and isolated feel. Europeans first came across it in the late 1600s, but it was not settled until 1702 when French pioneers pushed Native Americans off of their land and built a fort and tannery. The Cherokee eventually revolted by killing most of the 30 or so men and taking the furs they were collecting to sell. As you can see, the town was founded on blood. This unique town in Illinois was perhaps cursed from the start because it was born from violence between the Native Americans and the colonizing settlers.
About 100 years later, in 1818, which is the same year Illinois became a state, a man from Baltimore bought 1,800 acres of land on the peninsula and gave the town its infamous name.
Several attempts to survey the land were made throughout the 1800s. A hotel was built as well as a shipyard, warehouses, sawmills, an ironworks, and several residential cottages. Eventually, a railroad was completed in 1853 that connected Cairo all the way to Galena. There was a time when people believed this town should be the capital of the United States as it was such a hub for steamboats and other activities. In some ways the name Cairo seems glamorous. It conjures up images of riches and finery, an empire of the ancient world. But the name was cursed.
Prior to and during the Civil War, this historic town was an important stop along the Underground Railroad. At this port, fugitives would actually use rail lines to escape further north to Chicago.
In the late 1990s, tunnels believed to have been used during the Underground Railroad were discovered beneath the streets near the tracks in Cairo. They run for about five or six blocks and were likely used to hide people. This discovery reveals a lot about the underlying social tension of the town during the Civil War.
When the Civil War began in 1861, the population of the city was about 2,200 people, and it was being used as a training base for the Union army. Thousands of troops and artillery were sent to the camps there.
This influx of soldiers into the town changed the dynamic entirely. Camp Defiance was a prominent facility located in Cairo. General Ulysses S. Grant used it as a naval base and supply camp. It was dismantled after the war and has since become the location of a state park. But for a time while the trainings were going on, Cairo was flooded with more people than it had ever seen.
The end of the Civil War brought many African Americans to Cairo. Some were runaways and others were deposited there by the Union Army. These individuals were considered contraband and kept in "Contraband Camp," which was maintained by the army.
Most African Americans left these camps to become sharecroppers in the south as no one would give them work in the north. Only about 3,000 remained in the area, but without money to buy land, people felt desolate. This town named for riches and wealth was doing nothing to improve the wallets and lives of the African Americans who had landed there one way or another.
By 1890, the population had reached 6,300 residents. There were seven rail lines and the place was growing into a popular river town, but several blows to the town's economy, culture, and structure quickly tanked its reputation.
In 1905, a new railroad bridge was built which crossed the Mississippi River, except this one stopped in a town just north of Cairo. No longer did cargo need to be passed on ferries. The town also began to encounter flooding so bad that many people would only rent properties rather than buy because they knew their time there was not permanent. Already, the light from Cairo was beggining to dim. With fewer jobs, less commerce, and huge infrastructure issues, the town couldn't maintain residents the way they once did.
The most horrific event that destroyed this abandoned town was the November 1909 lynching of Will James, who was accused of raping and murdering a 22-year-old white woman. A mob of angry townsfolk took him from police custody and murdered him.
People in the town were upset because they wanted a speedy trial, and it was being delayed. The sheriff of the town was hiding James in the woods about 30 miles north of Cairo for his protection. People in town were spreading rumors that James had not only committed the crime but confessed to it. The angry mob that formed hunted James down and removed him from police custody to take him back to Cairo where they hung him in the town square. When the rope broke, mobsters shot his still breathing body and then dragged it through the town before setting it on fire. They beheaded him and stuck his head on a pole placed in the ground.
The mob attempted to find a man they believed was an accomplice to James' crime. Unable to locate him, they found a man who had allegedly murdered his wife a few months prior and lynched him instead. The mob remained in a state of riot throughout the night until the governor called in the National Guard to disperse them. That was the nail in Cairo's coffin. Who would want to go anywhere near a town known for violence, racism, and straight up murder?
Cairo, Illinois's peak population was about 15,200 residents in 1907. The decline began to occur with violence and flooding.
Unfortunately the incident with Will James was not the last time a horrific moment of violence occurred in Cairo Illinois. In 1910, a police officer was shot while trying to prevent a lynching, and the National Guard had to be called in once again. In 1917, there were times when nearly 15 percent of the population was locked up in jail, and the town was beginning to gain a new reputation. The 1930s brought the Great Depression, wiping out more of the population, and in 1937, a great flood forced the town to evacuate. Heavy winter storms caused the Ohio River to swell to record levels that year and wipe out towns big and small. That same year, though, the town had the highest murder rate in the state. Not the way to invite tourists into town.
Just after World War II, the town became a prime hub for organized crime and bootlegging operations. In the 1960s, it faced similar race tensions as other towns around America and saw waves of violence and discrimination, prejudice, and segregation.
African American Wily Anderson was shot by sniper bullets, and a few weeks later, a white police officer was shot. Yet again, mobs began to form, and the governor had to call in the National Guard to break them up. Marches, protests, the bombing of buildings, and even 150 nights of gunfire took place in the 1970s. By this time, the population was less than half what it had been 50 years prior.
Want more zombie towns in Illinois? Watch this YouTube video by Midwest Ghost Town with detailed history on 5 well-known ghost towns in Illinois.
Today, there are about 2,000 residents left, most of whom live in Cairo because they have no place else to go. This near-ghost town offers an inexpensive place to live, but there are not many businesses left for people to utilize. However, there was some positive news for Cairo. Recently, the town opened up its first grocery store in seven years. Rise Community Market has been serving the folks of Cairo and it was well-received and has been getting great reviews. I am hopeful for the future of this historic town, especially after such a terrible and violent past. Let’s hope the ghosts of horrors past have been put to rest for this historical town in Illinois.
If you’ve ever been to this abandoned town, we’d love to hear from you. Please share your experiences and photos with us below in the comments. For more like this, check out these 11 abandoned places in Illinois before they wither away. Or if you love paranormal adventure, check out these top-rated ghost tours in Illinois that will give you nightmares.
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More to Explore
Abandoned Towns In Illinois
Are there other abandoned towns in Illinois?
If the history of Cairo Illinois is too chilling, consider visiting one of these other abandoned towns in our state.
Cardiff, Livingston County
Griggsville Landing, Pike County
Brownsville, White County
Vishnu Springs, McDonough County
Wilson, Lake County
Midway, Fulton County
Milton, Brown County
Old Shawneetown, Gallatin County
Clayville, Sangamon County
Be sure to read our previous article with more information about these zombie towns in Illinois .