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Illinois is Home to an Abandoned Town Most People Don’t Know

Illinois is home to many famous sites and landmarks, such as Starved Rock State Park, the Lincoln Home, and Chicago. But in the southernmost point of the state, tucked away at the meeting point of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, is an undiscovered treasure: the abandoned town of Cairo. How did this formerly prosperous town fade into the background?

The Rise and Fall of Cairo

In 1818, Cairo was established concurrently with Illinois’s statehood. It was a significant place for trade and transit because of its location at the confluence of two important rivers. Cairo functioned as a Union base and a troop supply hub during the Civil War. The steamboat business, which drew products and people from throughout the nation, helped the town flourish. Cairo developed into a cosmopolitan city with a thriving downtown, a varied population, and a rich musical history.

However, when railroads and highways diminished Cairo’s significance as a port town, the city’s prosperity started to wane in the 20th century. Along with racial tensions, the community has experienced acts of violence and unrest caused by discrimination and segregation. A black soldier was shot and killed by a white police officer in 1967, sparking a racial conflict. Many buildings were destroyed and plundered during the few days that the disturbance continued. Following the incident, a large number of companies and citizens fled Cairo, and the town never recovered.

The Ghost Town of Today

Cairo is hardly the same city as it was. From more than 15,000 in 1920 to less than 2,000 in 2020, the population has decreased. A lot of structures have been demolished, boarded up, or abandoned. The local economy is stagnating, and the town’s infrastructure is in disrepair. Because the town is located in a low-lying area that is vulnerable to water damage, flooding is another ongoing hazard. When the Mississippi River rose to record levels in 2011, the town was evacuated, and many of its citizens never came back.

Cairo is in a dire state, but there are glimmers of hope and vitality. A few historical sites have been conserved and renovated, including the Custom House and Magnolia Manor. The town is still served by a few neighborhood establishments, including the Cairo Public Library and the Nu Diner. A few locals are still working to promote and develop the town, such as the Cairo Vision 2020 and the Cairo Citizens Committee. Historians, photographers, and urban explorers are among the tourists who still come to witness and value the town’s distinct past and personality.


Although most people are unaware of Cairo, it is a town that merits awareness. From the American Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, this community has seen the highs and lows of the country’s history. This hamlet embodies the difficulties and possibilities found in rural America, encompassing both environmental preservation and economic growth. This community presents both a picture of the future and a window into the past. Cairo is a town full with potential and stories, not one that is dead.

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