Cairo: The Little Illinois Town That Couldn’t

To read a more updated version of this story, click here.

Cairo, Illinois is in the news today, due to all the flooding around the Mississippi.

Politicians are debating a procedure that would blow the levees and allow the flooding of 132,000 acres of farmland in order to save Cairo (which is currently being flooded by the rising Mississippi). Illinois democrat Dick Durbin (one of my least favorite people) is quoted as saying, “most of us believe that this city is worth saving.”

If that is an honest statement (and that’s a big if considering the source), then where has Dick Durbin been for the last 40 years, as Cairo has been slip-sliding away? A casual visitor dropped into Cairo, Illinois would think he’s in a third-world country. The city is awash in burned-out hulls of buildings, abandoned churches and hospitals and schools. If Durbin cares so much about Cairo, he’s sure doing a good job of keeping it a secret.

Cairo is Illinois’ own mini-version of Detroit, Michigan.

In its heyday, Cairo was a bustling river town and was home to captains of industry, shipping magnates, wealthy business people and other “people of note.” It’s even mentioned in James A Michener’s epic miniseries, “Centennial, because in the late 1800s, Cairo was the gateway to the west.

In the mid-1960s, racial unrest and riots were a sad part of the American landscape, but in Cairo, things went especially badly. African-Americans, weary of Jim Crow laws and disparate treatment, threatened to boycott businesses that employed only whites. White business owners responded by closing their stores. Large numbers of families left the area and never returned. Industry left. Businesses closed. Wealthy people took their capital and moved away.

Today, downtown Cairo is a ghost town – an incredible time capsule – frozen in the 1960s. The city that once boasted of 14,000 citizens now has about 3000 people living within its borders.

Outside of downtown, things aren’t much better. The burnt out hull of old buildings remain, the architectural victims of bored miscreants. There’s no money in the state or local budget to raze the remnants of these destroyed homes. Folks often say California is on the cusp of bankruptcy. Illinois can’t be far behind, and Cairo is the poster-child for an American city that went from princely to pauper.

In the early 1900s, Cairo was the site of a 40-acre Sears Mill, where Sears kit homes were milled and shipped out to all 48 states. It was a vibrant business, in an important southern town. Cairo’s location at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers made it a natural for shipping and distribution. At the turn of the last century, Cairo (pronounced “Care-Roe”) could boast of having four major rail lines, enabling it to become a centralized shipping point for lumber harvested from the South and sent to the North.

In Spring 2010, I returned to Cairo and visited the town again. More burned out buildings, more desolation, more depressing sites. What’s happening to our once-great land that we now have cities that are in collapse, and states that are in bankruptcy?

I’ve nothing pithy to add to this sad story. Pictures tell the story far better than I could.

Entrance to Cairo
Entrance to Cairo. The old flood dates are no longer in working, but the old rivers still work really, really well.


Part of the charm of the downtown is it really is a step back in time. Notice the vintage cat in the foreground.

Spearmint “Pepsin Gum” surely got their money’s worth out of this old advertisement.
Hospital in Cairo

Is there a doctor in the house?


School's out for summer. And for the rest of time.

Throughout the city, there are many such houses, burned out and left to fall down. Note, this shot shows three houses in a row.

Throughout the city, there are many such houses, burned out and left to fall down. Note, this shot shows three burned out houses in a row.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Most are in marginal condition.

What remain in Cairo, Illinois are many Sears Homes. Many of these Sears Homes are no longer "pretty little homes."

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

Sears House - The Rodessa - in Cairo.

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL

An old Sears Homart (prefab house) sits on the edges of the city, not far from the Sears Mill in Cairo, IL. Homart Homes were post-WW2 Sears Homes that were shipped out in sections, which were then bolted together at the building site. These were radically different from "Sears Modern Homes" which were pre-cut kit homes.


A glorious billboard at the city's entrance offers such promise.

To learn more about Cairo, click here.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

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1 Comment

  1. Nancy

    I feel the same way about Port Jervis, NY, the town nearest where I grew up, and where we did our grocery and other shopping. Visited it last fall and was so sad at its state of disrepair. But all of the cities in NY are littered with fine old homes fallen into disrepair. The taxes in the state are so burdensome that people can’t own property, or afford to keep it up if they do own it, and everything is over-regulated to the point that if you want to tile your own bathroom you have to get a building permit.

    It’s sad to see all the fine homes going away. We are losing a legacy we don’t even realize we have. Once gone, the workmanship and detail in those homes will never be recaptured. Very sad the state we are in.