The Cairo Project: A Report by the Students of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale

By Brunner, Edward | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Cairo Project: A Report by the Students of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale


Brunner, Edward, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Cairo Project: A Report by the Students of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007. Illus. Pp. 76) Blue Front. Martha Collins. (Graywolf Press, 2006. Pp 84).

What distinguishes the southern Illinois town of Cairo from other Midwestern places that now exist mostly in ruins is its ability to evoke lost opportunities on a grand scale, including the reconciliation of racial divisions that still haunt the nation. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers that meet at Cairo were not only major transportation corridors for a developing nation, they were also boundaries that marked regions separated by distinct ideologies. The Mississippi River was the gateway from the East to the West; the Ohio River was a tangible Mason-Dixon line separating the South from the North. If you stand in downtown Cairo and look in any compass direction, you will be gazing into cultural territory marked by a distinct set of historical, political, and racial values. Cairo's largest fate was to be in every sense a crossroads where everyone was in some sense a traveler from somewhere else.

Even before there was a Cairo, Thomas Jefferson anticipated its problems. When he proposed charting the land mass between Virginia and the Mississippi River that then existed mostly as a mix of legend, rumor, and fantasy, he marked off twelve regional-states according to longitude and latitude lines. State number nine, "Polypotamia" ("many rivers"), bounded on the west by the Mississippi and bisected diagonally by the Ohio, would have housed Cairo. Jefferson's abstract and grid-like scheme avoided boundaries that followed natural landmarks such as the rivers over which European nation-states perennially battled. It was a cartography designed to offset the malign influence of geographical borders that, because they were immutable, became absolute boundaries for warring factions.

Even if the U.S. Congress had appreciated Jefferson's theory of rational apportioning and accepted his 1784 plan, Cairo might not have escaped its larger fate, lodged as it was at the intersection of America's earliest major systems of transportation. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842, all he found was a moribund settlement whose inhabitants were decimated by the chronic fever of the ague: "A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away...teeming, then, with rank, unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones." Less than twenty years later, however, the railroad that the state had authorized to build down the length of Illinois arrived in Cairo, spiking the town's population to three-thousand. That increase only continued as Union troops turned Cairo into a strategic Civil War military site and as dispossessed civilians, including fugitive slaves, used it for a haven.

But the close of the Civil War brought economic reversals. National unity led to standardized rail gauges that meant shipments between north and south no longer required labor-intensive transfers of cargo. Engineering and metallurgical advances soon made continuousspan bridges feasible over extensive stretches. When the Illinois Central railroad completed its Ohio River bridge at Cairo in 1889 at a cost of $60 million, the bypass struck at the heart of the town's economy, built around transfers and exchanges. Other railroads that had followed the Illinois Central to Cairo built copycat bridges at Metropolis and Thebes with alternate routes for funneling traffic south and west. Cairo's population would reach 15,000 in the 1920s, and the town's infrastructure would boast such innovations as electric lighting and a transit system of trolleys to outlying villages, but its economic decline had begun thirty years earlier. During World War II, Cairo's vulnerability to natural disasters must have discouraged any expansion of its military resources. Its bypassing would only continue when interstates supplanted Route 51 as a Chicago to Memphis throughway. …

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