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Cairo Custom House

The Custom House in Cairo was built in 1872 to collect tariffs from the once-heavy import trade that passed by Cairo via the Illinois and Ohio rivers.

The Cairo Custom House

Les Fields
Anna-Jonesboro Community High School, Anna

The Alexander County city of Cairo, in southern Illinois, is home to many historical buildings. One of these famous buildings is the Cairo Custom House. Constructed in 1872 this historic building once housed a post office, a courtroom, and other government agencies. Today the building contains a museum exhibiting local memorabilia. Since 1984 the Custom House has been undergoing renovations.

What exactly is a custom house? Customs, also known as tariffs, are "duties or taxes imposed by a government on imported and, occasionally, exported goods." The Cairo Custom House collected customs for all of the imports traveling past Cairo by river. Imports were sent through New Orleans to Cairo, which was part of the collection district of New Orleans.

Stephen A. Douglas picked the site for the building in 1859 but postponed construction of the Custom House until after the Civil War. In 1866 John A. Logan returned to Congress and lobbied successfully for fifty thousand dollars to start construction, with fifty thousand dollars each following year until construction was completed. Construction began in 1867, and the building opened to the public on the evening of June 16, 1872.

Alfred B. Mullett, the architect for the Custom House, was considered to be "extravagant" in his buildings. Mullett is famous for the buildings he designed, including the U.S. Treasury Department, an addition to the White House, the St. Louis Post


Office, and the San Francisco Mint. The floors of the custom house were made of black slate and white marble square tiles arranged like a checkerboard. Alternating strips of black and white walnut wood were also used for flooring. Cast iron was used instead of steel because Mullett did not trust the strength or quality of steel. The fireplaces installed throughout the building were not used for heating, but were designed for ventilation. Italian marble was used for the fireplaces, an example of the extravagance of the architect. The slate used for roofing and other features was brought from Vermont. Most of the stone, however, came from nearby Shawneetown. The building was lighted with gas light fixtures until the 1890s. Electricity was added to the building at this time, and included the chandelier in the third-floor court room. In 1892 Elisha Graves Otis added an elevator. (In 1852 Otis invented a safety elevator in which the elevator cage was secured if the cable broke.) Electricity was added to the elevator in the 1920s.

The Custom House has been used for many purposes over the years. These uses include a post office, a court room, a police headquarters, a department of agriculture office, a weather bureau, and the circuit clerk and county treasurer offices. The post office housed in this building was once the third busiest post office in the country. Russell Ogg, a member of the staff at the Custom House, explained that the post office was busy because the Mississippi River was once a major transportation route. The river drains sixty percent of the water from twenty-five states in the United States. Many people and objects passed by Cairo, situated where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet.

The building that once housed the great Custom House was last used in 1975, and restoration began in 1984. The Custom House Restoration Commission has been set up to preserve this once-magnificent building. Local people have worked on the restoration, and state grants have provided much money. The first floor is complete and open to the public, but more work needs to be completed on the second and third floors before the public can visit those areas. Ogg estimates that about $75, 000 is needed for work to be completed.

Many interesting displays are shown in the museum. Displays on the first floor include Civil War memorabilia, a replica of the U.S.S. Cairo gunboat, an 1865 Cairo Fire Department hand-operated pumper, and an exhibit on the 1937 flood in Cairo. Information regarding the Custom House architect and a Civil War-era desk used by Ulysses S. Grant when he was in Cairo are displayed on the first floor. Displays on the second floor show early optometrist and surgeon offices and tools, an old-time country general store filled with antiques, and a drug store with early prescription medicines and pill-making devices. The Custom House's pride and joy, according to Ogg, is found in the drug store. This object is a whiskey prescription from 1920. During Prohibition, a prescription was needed to purchase alcohol, and one of these rarities can be found at the Custom House.

The Custom House's exterior shows off some of its larger displays. On the southwest corner of Washington and 14th Streets is a cannon from the Civil War. The Rodman cannon was used in Fort Morgan near Mobile, Alabama. The cannon stood in Duncan Park in Cairo before it was moved to the Custom House in 1965. Located on the southeast corner is an anchor from a Civil War gunboat. The anchor was given as a gift in 1994 from the Louisiana Dock Company. The side facing 14th Street, which used to be the front entrance of the building, now has a fountain, designed by Ira Shuemaker. It was added to the John G. Holland Plaza on the south side of the building.

The Cairo Custom House, with its rich history and painstaking renovation, is an interesting place to visit. The magnificent architecture inside and outside of the building is one of its strongest points, but wonderful displays and a friendly staff also contribute to the quality of this museum.[From: The Cairo Custom House Museum; student historian's interview with Russel Ogg, Oct. 30, 1998.]


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