MARK TWAIN AND HIS PROMISED LAND
“It was like a ghost town. No one made any noises.”
The Land of Lincoln, Illinois is state of wild natural beauty, the best Midwest Vacation destination and the hidden pearl of attractions. If there is a winter, you will not miss the charm of snowy owls, ice skating rink, jingle-bells sleigh ride in the little town of Galena and snow sculptures. If it is summer, you will be amazed by the never-ending list of must visit sites. From Rustic Steakhouse in Mascoutah, through the Boo Castle Park in Carbondale to the best Lino´s pizza ever in Rockford, the enchanting portrait of The Prairie State is unforgettable. But, there are some corners of the Illinois that have been forgotten and sent to the book of urban legends.
Have you ever heard about Mark Twain´s promised town, Cairo? Everyone who has enjoyed the adventures of Huckleberry Finn must be familiar with the God´s town located on the meeting place of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers that had glorious perspective back in the boom years of riverboats traffic. Once upon a time, that was a busy town with bright future. The ordinary people built houses, the business people built the industrial quarters. The picture of Cairo that feeds itself on ferry industry and water trade of goods is now an archaic memory in the ugly frame. The town is broken through the deep social and racial tensions based on the lack of prosperity and equal chances for all. The community has never been liberal and opened for African Americans and the violent conflicts have colored the history of Cairo with despair, tears and blood. The economic crisis and the breakdown of riverboat and ferry activities shut down many job opportunities and influenced the decline of the town population. The financial impact of this kind has caused the rise of racial hatred and failure of tolerance. The civil unrest and the incidents between white and black residents have been imprinted in every single brick of Cairo. After the white formed White Hats or civilian’s militia, it was obvious why many African American families have moved to other cities with friendlier atmosphere. According to some evidence from 2014, there are about 2,500 people in Cairo and the number is dropping as the time goes and the local government does nothing to stop the ruination of the town. They promise they will work on the recovery of this historical city but all they can really do is to attract tourists based on the appetite for the dark tourism and to enable the experience of old ferry boat trips.
The sunset over Twain´s golden town is more like one setting from the movie “I am a legend” as it is a promised piece of land. The facilities are abandoned as well as the private building and some houses. The windows are closed with the plywood that reminds us on the horror scenario with zombies. It is just a matter of time when the bad boys will come out and eat up the good boys. The town is still under the shadows of demolished future, dangerous present and vibrant past. Cairo, pronounced as Care-oh, has been known as bustling shipping port but after the explosion of railway system, the need for river trade has been gone. In 1978, the Interstate 57 Bridge opened over the Mississippi has killed the Cairo´s gastronomy and hospitality. The legendary Downtown has been abandoned like a wrong project and the wave of fortune seekers decided to leave the city and challenge the luck in some happy place.
It is a tragedy to follow the line of the town when we are aware of its historical importance. One tourist has written that he felt himself like an actor in “Walking Dead” trying to experience the forgotten Cairo. The life itself is an adventure over there since the town is falling more and more into oblivion due to the lack of taxpayer’s money and empowerment from the local business. The Cairo Public Library and Victorian manors have made it to survive but for how long? What could be done? Everything and nothing. The government needs an urgent action plan for Cairo´s recovery before the town is lost for eternity and one economic expert gave very well the diagnosis of Cairo: „Cairo just happens to be the most prolific example I know of our inability to dig down inside of us and consider who we really are as a country.”
Cairo is not the only case of near-abandoned town. There is a long list of small American towns ready to be closed and forsaken. The process of this kind does not happen overnight, the warnings are there many years before collapse but the local and the federal government does not take them seriously. They ignore the local prosperity and they passively support the urban migrations. The people leave small towns for a bigger and the job opportunity in small towns are dying out with the moving of capital. This does not affect positively the big cities as well because the rise of population in overcrowded habitats endanger the economic chances and reduce the wage. So if someone thinks that tiny fast-ghost town of Care-oh does not influence the final destiny of New York City, that one must study more the web of micro and macro economy.
I find so sad that the disease of global economy has destroyed many towns on the American country roads. Instead of enhancing the local chances and development, the political decision makers close eyes on the forced migrations to the bigger cities. Once when the critical point is reached, the financial situation in metropoles will be ruined as the sand castle. There is no mercy for the small towns but the fact is that even the big glorious cities can be fallen kingdoms. It is enough to think of Detroit and to know that the curse of ghost town is not only reserved for rural places in the middle of nowhere.
We have to accept responsibility for the country we live in and to feel every cell of it like our own. Only then we will be able to save the future of our children.
There are no ghost towns; there are only people who left those towns. Take a Route 51 and you will see.
5 thoughts on “THE GHOSTS OF ILLINOIS: WHY CAIRO IS A FORGOTTEN TOWN?”
Incredible article, Sarah !
Just awesome !
I will be back with more comments !
Sarah’s brilliant article reminded me of the travelogue ‘American Notes for General Circulation’ (1842), by Charles Dickens: he visited Cairo, Illinois, in 1842, and was unimpressed. The city would serve as his prototype for the fictional nightmare ‘City of Eden’ in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1844).
The novel was seen by some to contain socio-political attacks against US-society as a whole; although, Charles Dickens himself saw it as satire, similar in spirit to his depictions of people and institutions of England, in novels such as Oliver Twist (1839). In Martin Chuzzlewit, fraud is shown as a common feature in The United States of America; although, the insurance scheme practised in England in this novel is equally fraudulent.
In the novel, US-society is described as ‘so maimed and lame, so full of sores and ulcers, foul to the eye and almost hopeless to the sense, that her best friends turn from the loathsome creature with disgust’. Also, Charles Dickens criticised the institution of slavery in The United States of America.
In spite of the Abolitionist sentiments gleaned from his trip to North America, some modern commentators have pointed out inconsistencies in his views on racial inequality. For instance, he has been criticised for his subsequent acquiescence in Governor Eyre’s harsh crackdown during the 1860s Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica and his failure to join other British progressives in condemning it.
Cairo’s turbulent history of race relations is traced back to the lynching of black resident William James, in 1909. The legal and cultural antecedents of North American lynching were carried across The Atlantic Ocean by migrants from The British Isles to colonial British North America.
During the decades before the American Civil War, assertive free Blacks, Latinos in the South West and runaways were the objects of racial lynching; which occurred in places like Cairo, Illinois. However, lynching of ‘freed Blacks’ (especially, in The South) increased dramatically in the aftermath of the American Civil War, after slavery had been abolished and recently freed black men gained the right to vote. Even more violence occurred at the end of the 19th century, after southern white Democrats regained their political power in The South in the 1870s. Those Southern States passed new constitutions or legislation which effectively disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites, established segregation of public facilities by race, and separated blacks from common public life and facilities. Nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched in The United States of America, between 1882 and 1968.
Cairo has a dark history…
What a lovely and educational article, Sarah !
You have made us, the readers, live that experience and feel nostalgic for those small cities and the past !
This is not only the result of some economic impacts, such as trains instead of boats, but also of some political ones. In addition to local government, the Federal government has the responsibility to preserve our heritage by protecting such small cities and keeping them afloat !
As you said, Sarah, this not only affects small cities such as Cairo, Illinois, but also big cities such as Detroit, Michigan !
Detroit and Flint, Michigan, were left to sink due to limitless “human” greed, as all the CEO’s of the big three, namely, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, moved their business to Mexico and other countries overseas in order to make more and more profit with no end in sight !
“Human” greed has to stop before it’s too late !
Thank you so much for this beautiful article which has filled me with sweet and melancholic nostalgia for the past !
Great view of the changes and evolution of small town America
It is as if you have lived there !!!
Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you writing this article plus the rest of the site is extremely good.