In Spring 2010, I traveled to Cairo, Illinois to do research for my book, The Sears Homes of Illinois. In Cairo, I met up with a dear friend, Richard Kearney, who was kind enough to spend an entire day with the affable author (that’d be me).
Richard, a lifelong resident of Cairo, gave me the full tour of his city, and I learned so much from his colorful commentary and comprehensive knowledge. I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of local historians, and my day with Richard was one of the top five most enjoyable (and interesting) days.
I’ve asked Richard to write something for my blog, and below are his comments.
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Cairo is a historical river town and it’s also my home town. I’m a native of Cairo, and I’ve lived here in Cairo for more than five decades. It’s a puzzle to me how anyone can argue that we should let a city – filled with people and houses and history – be lost to the floodwaters, in order to spare open farmland.
The Birds Point Flood Way was established in 1928 to protect Cairo and other cities that sit along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Flooding has been a problem ever since Illinois was first settled, and these recurring floods are one of the reasons we have such rich soil for farming. The Flood Way is, by design and location, a safety valve created to drain away flood waters that would swamp our cities.
And right now, Cairo needs that safety valve.
Cairo holds many memories for me, but it’s also a treasure trove of national memories, and important events that should be preserved and protected and shared with people throughout this country.
For instance, how many people know that General Grant established his headquarters in Cairo? The Civil War’s most famous general stayed in Cairo’s Halliday Hotel from September 1861 to April 1862. In 1880, Grant returned to Cairo for a visit and stayed at the Magnolia Manor (built in 1869).
Another important historical location is our Customs House Museum which is filled with fascinating artifacts. This grand old structure was designed by Alfred B. Mullet and built in 1872 (on a site chosen by Stephen Douglas), and contains Civil War memorabilia (such as Grant’s desk and a Civil War era Fire Wagon) and local history items, too.
Cairo is also home to the Sears Mill that operated from 1911 to 1940. It was Sears largest mill, covering more than 40 acres. About 20 acres were “under roof.” Because of the mill, Cairo has more than three dozen Sears Homes within its borders.
In its early years, Cairo was thought to be the future “gateway to the west,” and as such, earned an honorable mention in James Michener’s novel, “Centennial.” The Illinois Central Railroad ran through Cairo, as did three other major rail lines. The very rivers that cause us so much heartache today once brought us commerce and industry. Cairo is located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, and for years, this country relied on shipping traffic to move goods and people from Point A to Point B. Cairo was the hub of much of that shipping activity.
There’s still much life left in this little city. It’s not dead yet, and I believe that – with visionary guidance and progressive ideas – Cairo could be resurrected and revived and again become a thriving river city.
Cairo may look a little rough around the edges to the unenlightened, but this is our home, and it’s also home to much of America’s earliest history. And it’s worthy of being spared the full-scale ruination of rising flood waters.