The announcement that the state of Illinois is releasing $40 million to the Alexander-Cairo Port District to build a new riverport near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, after years of preparation and efforts by local and state leaders, is inspiring and welcome news. An immediate $4 million will fund final engineering, permitting and site preparation.
The story of Cairo, Ill., has been one of sad decline from a proud past. Its prime location at the confluence of the two major rivers suggested development to every visitor who saw the spot, beginning with French explorers who set up an early fur-trading post there. In 1803, Lewis and Clark performed geographic studies on the site with an eye to future development. Fifteen years later, Baltimore businessman John Comegys bought 1,800 acres on the peninsula and named it Cairo, thinking it resembled Cairo in Egypt.
The town wasn’t finally built up until 1837, when the Illinois Legislature incorporated the Cairo City & Canal Company. Shops and businesses served passing steamboats until the arrival of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1856 spurred more growth. By 1858 its population exceeded 2,000. In 1859, the city shipped 6 million pounds of cotton and wool, 7,000 barrels of molasses and 15,000 casks of sugar. In 1860, it became the seat of Alexander County. Readers of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain will remember that Cairo was the great goal of Huck and Jim.
During the Civil War, its location made it Gen. Ulysses Grant’s headquarters during his campaign to seize control of the Lower Mississippi River. It was then that 15-foot-high levees were first built around the peninsula.
After the war, expanding river traffic grew the town, leading to the building of many mansions along “Millionaire’s Row,” some surviving today as National Historic Landmarks. The town reached its peak of prosperity at around the turn of the century, with multiple ferry businesses and seven rail junctions.
The bridge built across the Mississippi River in Thebes, Ill., killed many of the ferries. The mid-20th century saw a rocky period for the river town, marked by organized crime involvement and persistent racial tensions that led many downtown businesses to close.
By 2010, a travel website described the town when its poor population still numbered 2,100: “Commercial Avenue was empty of people and lined with buildings in various stages of decay. Doors stood wide open on commercial buildings that displayed rubble-filled interiors, windows were broken or boarded up, kudzu crawled up brick walls, street signs were faded and rusty, and the streets and sidewalks were cracked and choked with weeds. … Churches were boarded up, and restored mansions sat next to abandoned and crumbling large homes.”
In May 2011, the Corps of Engineers breached the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway during record floods on both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Cairo was protected by flooding a 130,000-acre floodway made up of farmland in central Missouri. The condition of Cairo led some to question this decision, even though it was mandated and deeds and leases to farms in the affected area included easements specifying the conditions under which the levee could be breached.
But those 500-year floodplain levees are one of the key factors that kept interest alive in reviving the riverport. The handful of visionary local leaders and supporters who have championed the rebirth of this storied river town include Illinois Sen. Dale Fowler; businessman and former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose family foundation contributed money for initial studies at a key moment; and Larry Klein, who heads the Alexander-Cairo Port District.
This is only the opening chapter of efforts that need further investment of up to $200 million, but there is little doubt that the resurrection of a historic riverport is on its way.