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Cairo, Illinois

Transportation and Commerce in 1900

Kyle Bass
Anna-Jonesboro Community High School, Anna

In 1818 Cairo, Illinois, was founded with great expectations. Its location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers attracted early businessmen such as John Comegys, a Baltimore merchant who was granted the charter for the city, and Shadrach Bond, who was the first governor of Illinois. These men and other speculators invested and tried to develop Cairo into one of the nation's great cities. Expectations were still running high in 1856 when Cairo was predicted to surpass St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati as an urban center. Some even recommended that the city should become the capitol of the United States. Of course, despite these boasts, the city did not prosper to such extents. As of the 1990 U.S. Census, Cairo's population was only 6,300 people. In 1900, though, Cairo was a busy transportation center in the Midwest. It was not only a river town, but also had multiple railroad lines. A combination of these two chief factors resulted in the city's growth by the year 1900.

Steamboat travel first affected Cairo. Between 1896 and 1900, the number of steamboats produced in the nation was 59,184. While this is still a large number, the numbers had been steadily decreasing: between 1851 and 1855, for example, 160,154 steamboats were produced. One reason for the drop in steamboat production was the implementation of more efficient boats, like barges. Regardless of what was on the river, the year 1900 was marked by an overall traffic increase on the Ohio River. In 1900 the Ohio transported more than fourteen million tons of goods and people. This number was not surpassed until 1925, when nearly sixteen million tons were transported. With all of the movement on the Ohio River and on the Mississippi River as well, Cairo certainly saw its share of cargo, but most of it went right by. Barges were most often headed for large cities and needed to make few stops along the way.

While Cairo did not receive much of the goods passing by on the rivers, it did share in a considerable export business. Lumber mills, furniture factories, and the cabinet works from the Singer Sewing Machine Company all had brisk businesses

A parade of steamboats line the docks at Cairo, still a major port when this photo was taken in 1907. Trains that stopped next to the river supplemented transportation routes and eventually rendered steamboats obsolete.



requiring shipment. Those products headed to other ports like Paducah, Memphis, Cincinnati, and Louisville. Cairo businessmen, however, eventually realized that it would take more than the rivers to increase the commerce and cash flow within the city.

By themselves, the rivers did not propel Cairo into prosperity. It was not until the railroad came to Cairo that it enjoyed greater economic growth. Connecting Cairo to the north by railroad was first attempted in 1837, but this bid was not successful due to the repeal of state funding in 1840. In 1850, however, a federal land grant was given to Illinois, and within a year the Illinois Central Railroad was incorporated. By 1856 the line connecting Cairo north was completed.

By 1900 there were seven railroad lines branching to and from Cairo. Until 1889 there was no railroad bridge crossing either the Ohio or the Mississippi Rivers at or near Cairo. Therefore, the ferry was very important in getting goods and people across the rivers. Before Cairo had any bridges, 379,138 railroad cars were ferried across the rivers. This number rose in 1887, when 259,232 cars were ferried in the first six months of the year. The ferry business began to decrease after the Illinois Central Railroad bridge was completed in 1889. The fatal blow to this industry in Cairo occurred in 1905, when a railroad bridge was completed across the Mississippi River at Thebes, a small town northwest of Cairo. This bridge affected the ferry business as well as dealing a heavy blow to Cairo's status as a railroad hub. Traffic soon shifted to the new bridge at Thebes, decreasing the traffic through Cairo and completely eliminating the ferry operations at Cairo.

Overall, 1900 was not such a great year for Cairo, even though the population was up to 12,566, which was 2,000 more than in 1890. The river trade had not revived to the extent needed for increased growth. Railroads were beginning to bypass the city, and other problems, such as water seepage, ravaged the city. In 1890 seep water was so bad that among all of Cairo's obstacles preventing prosperity, the mayor proclaimed seep water to be the most serious. In 1889 seep water closed the sewers for two weeks, and the city was nearly completely isolated. It again invaded Cairo in 1900 and caused extensive damage to the city. The problem of seep water and flooding resulted from the lack of physical advantages at Cairo's site. The main problem was that Cairo is located on ground that is low relative to flooding. This caused much water to seep into the city. These factors caused the citizens to consider their community as an economic failure. Newspaper editorialists commented on how businessmen preferred to rent homes as opposed to buying them: "They preferred to rent because they regard their stay in Cairo as temporary."

From its founding in 1818, to the turn of the century in 1900, Cairo had seen many things come and go. From Cairo's steamboats and barges to its seven railroad lines in 1900, Cairo often seemed to appear to have the necessary lifelines to success. The apparent reason for Cairo's failure is that it suffered too much from the high waters of the rivers, which were once the chief hopes for creating a major city. However, in the year 1900, there was good reason to hope Cairo might yet be a mighty city on two of the mightiest rivers in the state of Illinois.[From Malcolm L. Comeaux, "Impact of Transportation Activities Upon the Historical Development of Cairo, Illinois"; Federal Writers' Project, "Cairo Guide"; John M. Lansden, The History of the City of Cairo, Illinois; Herman R. Lantz, A Community in Search of Itself; Ron Powers, Far From Home.]


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