When most people think of ghost towns, they think of dusty Western towns that were abandoned two centuries ago in the wake of a dried up gold rush. Mostly, they imagine them to be in California or Nevada. However, the United States has countless ghost towns in virtually every state. One of America’s most haunting abandoned cities is a once prosperous port town called Cairo, Illinois. A prolonged economic downturn and sustained racial unrest, reduced this city of 15,000 people to a nearly vacant town of a little over 2,000.
When trains and steamboats ruled the transit world, Cairo was poised to become one of the most prized transit hubs in the United States. Cairo is located near the point, where the Ohio River and Mississippi River converge. Cairo’s heyday was in the late 1920s. Ship builders, railroad workers, and boat captains lived a comfortable life in the up-and-coming town. Then the Great Depression came to Cairo, and never left. In the 1940s when the rest of the nation began to recover, Cairo’s boat and rail dependent economy failed to adapt to the increasing popularity of the automobile.
Cairo has a long and painful history of racial discord. After the Civil War, many formerly enslaved Black people migrated to Cairo to find work and build new lives. Unfortunately, many bigoted white residents did not take kindly to the influx of Black people. Racial tensions remained constantly inflamed well into the 1960s. Then, a vigilante white militia group: the White Hats, was intimidating Black residents in the wake of the death of a Black solider, who was murdered by Cairo police while on leave in the town.
Cairo features desolate rows of decaying, abandoned homes and businesses. The sinister specter of the bigoted attitudes of decades past still haunt the streets. Thankfully, current Cairo town leaders are doing their best to confront Cairo’s racist past. Despite efforts to revive and repopulate Cairo, the once bustling port town remains mostly dormant. Cairo’s rotting, shuttered main drag is a cautionary time capsule that demonstrates what racial intolerance and an inability to adapt economically can do to a place.
Any lover of abandoned buildings will tell you that one of the reasons why abandoned spaces are so captivating is because they offer invaluable insight into outmoded ways of being. The ruins of Cairo have much to teach us about certain troubling chapters of American history that many would rather forget.