Panel #65 Mississippi Riverwalk
—Mile 954.0 AHP —
Cairo's position at the confluence of the Upper Mississippi and Ohio made it an important river and rail junction in the steamboat era. Changes in America's shipping patterns reduced its role in the 20th Century but it remains an active port and industrial area.
This area's importance was recognized by the French explorer LaSalle in the late 17th Century. He foresaw Illinois' future as the link between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system, but flooded lowlands long discouraged settlers.
Named for the venerable Egyptian City on the Nile, the first settlement failed in 1818.
Another attempt at town-building was more successful in 1837. Levees were built to keep the land dry, but the British company backing the project went bankrupt after three years. A group of eastern investors involved in the Illinois Central Railroad bought the town in 1846, and its luck changed. The 705-mile rail line between Cairo and Chicago was the world's longest when it opened in 1855, and the town prospered as the rail and river link for north-south trade.
The Civil War was a period of growth and prosperity for Cairo, which became the Union Army's western headquarters and supply depot. But the war also cut off its river connection to the South. The region's grain and stock began to bypass
Cairo, moving directly to Chicago by rail. When the steamboat era resumed after the war, Cairo continued to prosper, and its population grew to 20,000. But railroads replaced river shipping by the turn of the 20th Century and Chicago became the focus of Mid-America trade. Cairo's prosperity and population diminished.
Today, Cairo is a shipping center for Southern Illinois and bridges over both rivers connect the town with Kentucky and Missouri. Lumber, woodworking and agricultural processing have become major industries.
Photo of confluence of Upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers