Cairo, Ill. | Southern Illinois University Special Collections Research Center
Cairo is a city in Alexander County, Illinois in the United States. The population was 3,632 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Alexander County. Cairo is located at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Ohio River and is the southernmost town in the state of Illinois. Cairo is one of the few towns in Illinois protected by a levee. The rivers converge at what is the southernmost point in Illinois at Fort Defiance State Park, an American Civil War fort that was commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant.
Cairo was founded by the Cairo City and Canal Company in 1837, and incorporated as a city in 1858. For 15 years the town grew slowly, but the sale of lots (commencing in 1853), and the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad, attracted settlers. By 1860, the population exceeded 2,000. It was an important steamboat port in the 19th century, with its own Customs House designed by Alfred B. Mullet, the Supervising Architect during Reconstruction.
During the Civil War, Cairo was a strategically important supply base and training center for the Union army. For several months, both General U. S. Grant and Admiral Foote had headquarters here.
With the decline in river trade, like many other river cities, the population of Cairo has declined from a 1920 high of 15,203 to 3,632 in 2000. There is a movement to stop this gradual abandonment, restore Cairo's architectural landmarks, develop tourism focusing on its history, and bring new opportunities back to the community.
In 1969, Cairo was the site of an intense civil rights struggle to end segregation and create job opportunities. The threat of violence resulted in the National Guard being called in to restore order. The United Front civil rights organization led a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses -- meaning all of them. Its economy crippled, Cairo has emerged slowly from the contention.