Submitted by scott on

Cairo, Illinois is a significant location in Mark Twain’s book “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers is where Jim hopes to escape to freedom, abandoning their raft and taking a steamboat up into the free state of Ohio. Huck and Jim never reach Cairo.

We went drifting down into a big bend, and the night clouded up and got hot. The river was very wide and was walled with solid timber on both sides; you couldn’t see a break in it, hardly ever, or a light. We talked about Cairo, and wondered whether we would know it when we got to it. I said likely we wouldn’t, because I had heard say there warn’t but about a dozen houses there, and if they didn’t happen to have them lit up, how was we going to know we was passing a town? Jim said if the two big rivers joined together there, that would show. But I said maybe we might think we was passing the foot of an island and coming into the same old river again. That disturbed Jim—and me too.

Sure enough, they had floated past the confluence without noticing the town, most of which was on the banks of the Ohio River, not the Mississippi.

When it was daylight, here was the clear Ohio water in shore, sure enough, and outside was the old regular Muddy! So it was all up with Cairo.

(From chapter 16 of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)

Mark Twain places events at about the same time a second attempt at creating the city of Cairo was taking place. I’m sure Twain did not mean to place Huck’s adventures at any specific point in time but only to represent an era he remembered from his own youth in Hannibal or St, Petersburg if you will. Huck’s recognition of the reluctance of the muddy Mississippi to absorb the clear Ohio would likely have come from a later time in Twain’s life, possibly his first encounter with the confluence of the two rivers while aboard the John Paul. He noticed the same phenomena where the Missouri joins the Mississippi, possibly while under Horace Bixby’s tutelage. Much later in “Life on the Mississippi” he remarks on the muddy nature of the river originating with the confluence with the Missouri River. As well as the wholesomeness of the muddy water for drinking.

From chapter 22 of “Life on the Mississippi”:

'What is a person to do here when he wants a drink of water?—drink this slush?'

'Can't you drink it?'

'I could if I had some other water to wash it with.'

Here was a thing which had not changed; a score of years had not affected this water's mulatto complexion in the least; a score of centuries would succeed no better, perhaps. It comes out of the turbulent, bank-caving Missouri, and every tumblerful of it holds nearly an acre of land in solution. I got this fact from the bishop of the diocese. If you will let your glass stand half an hour, you can separate the land from the water as easy as Genesis; and then you will find them both good: the one good to eat, the other good to drink. The land is very nourishing, the water is thoroughly wholesome. The one appeases hunger; the other, thirst. But the natives do not take them separately, but together, as nature mixed them. When they find an inch of mud in the bottom of a glass, they stir it up, and then take the draught as they would gruel. It is difficult for a stranger to get used to this batter, but once used to it he will prefer it to water. This is really the case. It is good for steamboating, and good to drink; but it is worthless for all other purposes, except baptizing.

Twain also makes reference to both the efficacy of the mud and the reluctance of the Ohio and Mississipi Rivers to mix in his tale of the raftsmen, appearing both in Chapter 3 of “Life on the Missisippi” and chapter 16 of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (the most recent edition with the restored raftsmen passages).

They sung 'jolly, jolly raftman's the life for me,' with a rousing chorus, and then they got to talking …. and next about differences betwixt clear-water rivers and muddy-water ones. The man they called Ed said the muddy Mississippi water was wholesomer to drink than the clear water of the Ohio; he said if you let a pint of this yaller Mississippi water settle, you would have about a half to three-quarters of an inch of mud in the bottom, according to the stage of the river, and then it warn't no better than Ohio water—what you wanted to do was to keep it stirred up—and when the river was low, keep mud on hand to put in and thicken the water up the way it ought to be.

The Child of Calamity said that was so; he said there was nutritiousness in the mud, and a man that drunk Mississippi water could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to. He says—

'You look at the graveyards; that tells the tale. Trees won't grow worth chucks in a Cincinnati graveyard, but in a Sent Louis graveyard they grow upwards of eight hundred foot high. It's all on account of the water the people drunk before they laid up. A Cincinnati corpse don't richen a soil any.'

And they talked about how Ohio water didn't like to mix with Mississippi water. Ed said if you take the Mississippi on a rise when the Ohio is low, you'll find a wide band of clear water all the way down the east side of the Mississippi for a hundred mile or more, and the minute you get out a quarter of a mile from shore and pass the line, it is all thick and yaller the rest of the way across.

The information on Cairo presented here comes primarily from “A History Of The City Of Cairo, Illinois” by James M. Lansden., 1910. I have edited the text, modified the organization and interjected comments and material from other sources. Following the Civil War, Cairo was strickened with racial strife, not mentioned by Lansden, that effectively destroyed a town that was becoming obsolete as railroad bridges and river barges allowed shipping to by-pass this location.

The slow economic decline of Cairo can be traced to local and regional changes back to the early 20th century. In 1889 the Illinois Central Railroad bridge was completed over the Ohio River, which brought about a decline in ferry business. The immediate economic impact was not severe, as the railroad traffic still was directed through Cairo, and automobile and truck traffic increased in the early 20th century.

In 1905 a second bridge was constructed across the Mississippi River at Thebes, Illinois. The effects of the second bridge were more severe, as rail traffic through Cairo was now reduced and railroad ferry operations were no longer necessary. As the steamboat industry was replaced with barges, river traffic had less reason to stop in Cairo.

In 1929, the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge was completed, linking Missouri with Illinois to the south of Cairo. In 1937 the Cairo Ohio River Bridge was completed. Completion of the two bridges ended the ferry industry in Cairo, putting many people out of work. As the town was bypassed by two bridges to the south, it also lost the benefit of motorist travel and trade between the states. Motorists cross the southern tip of Illinois between Missouri and Kentucky, completely bypassing the city of Cairo.While the city was protected by its levees from destruction when the Ohio River rose to record heights during the 1937 flood, the city's economic decline continued.


The junction of the two rivers had long been looked upon as a geographical point of very great importance. Its commercial features, great as they were, were regarded as fully equaled by the advantages it possessed for a military post or center, commanding so fully a widely extended country eastward, westward, northward and southward. This was the view taken by the early explorers, ...

But while the geographical position fully justified all that was said of it, its topographical features were largely the reverse; so much so, indeed, that the local disadvantages seemed to outweigh the advantages of the geographical position. The difficulty was obvious enough; a great central position, great rivers coming together, draining an empire in extent, but almost annually claiming dominion over the intervening land they themselves had created.

Surveyed and platted early in the last eighteenth century, the Indian titles had to be extinguished before the lands could be offered for sale. Kaskaskia was made a land office by the act of March 26, 1804.

By the treaty of September 25, 1818, made by Governor Ninian Edwards and Augustus Chouteau, with the Kaskaskia tribe of Indians, and also the Peorias, all Indian rights and titles were relinquished ...

Before the formal and full extinguishment of the Indian titles, John G. Comegys, of Baltimore, purchased the site at the Kaskaskia land office, Contrary to what has often been claimed, Comegys and his associates never thought of an Illinois Central Railroad nor of any railroad at all. When they procured their charter January 9, 1818, there was not a railroad anywhere in the United States nor a charter for one.

So little had been done under the Comegys charter, the enterprise seemed so wholly abandoned, that public attention was withdrawn from the place as seemingly unworthy of further notice or attention. The great rivers came more and more into use, and the keelboats and flatboats were in a large degree superseded by steam vessels almost everywhere on the rivers; but as to Cairo, or what had been planned to be Cairo, it was a mere wood-yard, at which the steamboats would land to take on wood for their furnace fires, and then proceed on their journeys up or down the rivers.

Besides these, there were trading boats, which, while trading very little at the point, found it a convenient place to stop for a time; for while there was no town here, or anything resembling one, the point was a central one, a kind of half-way house, at which one would tarry a while before starting out on a long river journey northward, eastward, or southward.

The first attempt seems to have ended with the death of Comegys. The lands he and his associates had undertaken to purchase from the government and for which they failed to pay in full, had been forfeited, as provided by the act under which the purchases were made, and these being now gone or lost, the enterprise was wholly abandoned.

In the year of 1835 the same lands, and many others in the township, were entered and paid for as the law then required. Following these entries, came, first of all, the incorporation of the first Illinois Central Railroad Company, January 16, 1836. Two days afterward, the legislature incorporated the Illinois Exporting Company, followed by the incorporation of the Cairo City and Canal Company, March 4, 1837,.

This company had a short but a very active career. The purchasers of those lands and the incorporators of this Company saw clearly how the establishment of their proposed city depended upon a railroad connection with the great upper country of the state; and, had it not been for outside interference, their undertaking might have fared very much better. For the next ten years Darius Blake Holbrook of New York, whom we may call the successor of John G. Comegys, of Baltimore, was the man in charge and what was done and probably what was not done may be traced with a fair degree of safety and justice to him. I need not say more here, except to embrace it all in one comprehensive sentence, by saying that the Cairo City and Canal Company was D. B. Holbrook, or D. B. Holbrook was the Cairo City and Canal Company.

One railroad from the mouth of the Ohio River to the end of the proposed canal on the Illinois River was a very small part of what it was thought the state needed; and accordingly on the 27th day of February, 1837, the legislature passed "An Act to Establish a General System of Internal Improvements." On the 27th day of June, 1837, … the railroad company released to the state their rights and privileges … on the condition of the restoration of their rights, should the state repeal the act of February 27, 1837. The Board of Commissioners of Public Works, provided for in the act, entered upon their work, and the road was commenced at and built from Cairo and most of the grading was done for the distance of twenty-three or more miles. A bridge across Cache River was partly constructed; and so on, at many places along the line, all the way up to Galena. This work was begun in 1838 and continued until its suspension throughout the state and the final abandonment of the whole scheme of public improvements. The act was finally repealed February 1, 1840, at least so far as it related to every enterprise provided for therein except the Central Railroad.

The Cairo City and Canal Company, having been relieved of all its contemplated railroad work, had nothing to do but to devote its whole attention to work here at the site of the proposed city, which was little less than a dense forest between the rivers. Levee building was, of course, the first thing to receive attention. Their plan was to inclose a large district of country by earth embankments along the rivers and across the point, and leave the natural level of the ground just about as it was. At the outstart, they do not seem to have known much about what we now call seepage. None of them had ever seen any very high rivers. The flood of 1844 was out of the Mississippi and could not have been very high here. The small levees then existing and inclosing 778.70 acres kept out what has always been represented as a very great flood. The flood of 1849 broke through the Mississippi levee for the distance of 1625 feet, but the record of that flood does not show it to have been a very great one. The flood of June 12, 1858, was not so high; but the levee on the west was weak and badly constructed and for that reason gave way.

 It is one of those strange things of human experience and observation that large and lavish expenditures of money in almost any kind of an enterprise has the effect of impressing so many people with the belief that the matter in hand is one of great merit and promise. This is somewhat natural. People conclude that others know more about the matter than they do and that the expenditures would not be made were not the enterprise a very sure one.

The manufacturing establishments were started, and work carried on for two or three years. But it could never have been to much advantage or profit. The outgo was always more than the income. The business on the river and in the vicinity was not sufficient to sustain extensive operations. For a while there was great activity, such as is always found at the first in doubtful enterprises. All of the establishments, or what are now called plants, were put in operation. The sawmills turned out great quantities of lumber for all purposes, including the building of steamboats and other kinds of watercraft. One steamboat, at least, the "Tennessee Valley," was built in 1841. Its owners resided at Florence, Alabama, and it was registered at New Orleans April 23, 1842. It was equipped with machinery furnished by the foundry and machine and boiler shops near by, just as the lumber and timbers for it came from the sawmills there at hand. The two large brick-making plants in the upper part of the little city got under way with their improved machinery and would no doubt have done good work had there been good materials for brick and a good demand for the manufactured article. It has never been supposed, however, at least in these latter days, that the point here afforded a good quality of clay for brick making.

In regards to financing the Cairo City and Canal Company and the Trustees of the Cairo City Property … The capital stock of the Cairo City and Canal Company was two million dollars, divided into twenty thousand shares, of one hundred dollars each. The lands the company owned, as the sole basis of the value of the stock, amounted to about four thousand acres. These lands were mortgaged December 16, 1837, to the New York Life Insurance and Trust Company to secure the former company's bonds, from the sales of which it expected to obtain all the funds it needed for starting and establishing a city here. The four thousand acres would have to have been worth five hundred dollars per acre to justify a capitalization of two million dollars; but from that day to this the property, exclusive of the city proper, has never been worth any such sum.

May, 23, 1843, the Cairo City and Canal Company passed an ordinance providing for the collection of wharfage fees, though a wharf would not be built until 1857. Prior to that time and for thirty years, the flatboats, keelboats, and other like water-craft, and the steamboats, wharfboats, barges, & etc., had to land at and be tied up to the bank, and there were, therefore, the most primitive and temporary means for loading and unloading and caring for passengers and freights.

At this time the town had fully entered upon its decline. No more funds were to come from England, nor were they expected to come from American sources; and it may be that this ordinance had its origin in the hope that some small amounts might be obtained from water-craft, which would enable the landed proprietors to hold out a while longer, or until substantial aid came from other quarters, or until they could sell out the whole enterprise. So far as we know, the ordinance probably had little other effect than to prejudice still further the growing river interests against the town.

The day of adversity had come, and those who had given credit spared no effort to secure something that would somewhat prevent a total loss. The situation was peculiar indeed, one seldom seen in the world anywhere. Cairo had been started once before and failed in the shortest possible time. It existed just long enough to spread its failure everywhere abroad. This second attempt had promised much, but when it became evident that it too must fail, a kind of frenzied feeling took possession of the people or of the creditors, of whom there were many, and the thought became general that not only the Cairo City and Canal Company was to go down, but that the whole large enterprise of building a city here was also to come to an end. It meant loss of debts and loss of home and removal to other parts of the country to commence life anew. No wonder the people or many of them exhibited a kind of rapacity of conduct as the full view of the calamity of the situation came before them.

It was in April of 1842 that Charles Dickens visited Cairo, Illinois. (See American Notes for General Circulation, by Charles Dickens

Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number: their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet. No songs of birds were in the air, no pleasant scents, no moving lights and shadows from swift passing clouds. Hour after hour, the changeless glare of the hot, unwinking sky, shone upon the same monotonous objects. Hour after hour, the river rolled along, as wearily and slowly as the time itself. At length, upon the morning of the third day, we arrived at a spot so much more desolate than any we had yet beheld, that the forlornest places we had passed, were, in comparison with it, full of interest. At the junction of the two rivers, on ground so flat and low and marshy, that at certain seasons of the year it is inundated to the house-tops, lies a breeding- place of fever, ague, and death; vaunted in England as a mine of Golden Hope, and speculated in, on the faith of monstrous representations, to many people’s ruin. A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away: cleared here and there for the space of a few yards; and teeming, then, with rank unwholesome vegetation, in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who are tempted hither, droop, and die, and lay their bones; the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.

But what words shall describe the Mississippi, great father of rivers, who (praise be to Heaven) has no young children like him! An enormous ditch, sometimes two or three miles wide, running liquid mud, six miles an hour: its strong and frothy current choked and obstructed everywhere by huge logs and whole forest trees: now twining themselves together in great rafts, from the interstices of which a sedgy, lazy foam works up, to float upon the water’s top; now rolling past like monstrous bodies, their tangled roots showing like matted hair; now glancing singly by like giant leeches; and now writhing round and round in the vortex of some small whirlpool, like wounded snakes. The banks low, the trees dwarfish, the marshes swarming with frogs, the wretched cabins few and far apart, their inmates hollow-cheeked and pale, the weather very hot, mosquitoes penetrating into every crack and crevice of the boat, mud and slime on everything: nothing pleasant in its aspect, but the harmless lightning which flickers every night upon the dark horizon.

For two days we toiled up this foul stream, striking constantly against the floating timber, or stopping to avoid those more dangerous obstacles, the snags, or sawyers, which are the hidden trunks of trees that have their roots below the tide. When the nights are very dark, the look-out stationed in the head of the boat, knows by the ripple of the water if any great impediment be near at hand, and rings a bell beside him, which is the signal for the engine to be stopped: but always in the night this bell has work to do, and after every ring, there comes a blow which renders it no easy matter to remain in bed. The decline of day here was very gorgeous; tingeing the firmament deeply with red and gold, up to the very keystone of the arch above us. As the sun went down behind the bank, the slightest blades of grass upon it seemed to become as distinctly visible as the arteries in the skeleton of a leaf; and when, as it slowly sank, the red and golden bars upon the water grew dimmer, and dimmer yet, as if they were sinking too; and all the glowing colours of departing day paled, inch by inch, before the sombre night; the scene became a thousand times more lonesome and more dreary than before, and all its influences darkened with the sky.

We drank the muddy water of this river while we were upon it. It is considered wholesome by the natives, and is something more opaque than gruel. I have seen water like it at the Filter-shops, but nowhere else.

Twain responds to Dickens’comments 40 years after the fact, from his final visit to the city in 1882.

Cairo is a brisk town now; and is substantially built, and has a city look about it which is in noticeable contrast to its former estate, as per Mr. Dickens's portrait of it. However, it was already building with bricks when I had seen it last—which was when Colonel (now General) Grant was drilling his first command there. Uncle Mumford says the libraries and Sunday-schools have done a good work in Cairo, as well as the brick masons. Cairo has a heavy railroad and river trade, and her situation at the junction of the two great rivers is so advantageous that she cannot well help prospering.

We have before remarked that no city in the country has been so identified with a land trust and a corporation as has been the City of Cairo with the Trustees of the Cairo City Property and Illinois Central Railroad Company. The first of the two bought all of the lands here between the rivers, and the other having had this point made the southern terminus of its railroad, the two very properly undertook the task of building the city. The land company owned nearly ten thousand acres of land, and depended chiefly upon the sales of the same in city lots for the profits of their investment. The railroad company could not deal in lands, but to have a prosperous city at its southern terminus in Illinois meant large profits in the transportation business.

The first thing done, in pursuance of the new arrangement, was the conveyance, June 13, 1846, by the Cairo City and Canal Company of all of its property and estate to Thomas S. Taylor, of Philadelphia, and Charles Davis, of New York City, preparatory to the formation of the Cairo City Property Trust to take charge of the property and the enterprise… Thomas S. Taylor, of Philadelphia, was Trustee from September 29, 1846, to April 6, 1859, when he was succeeded by Mr. John H. Wright. Charles Davis was Trustee from September 29, 1846, to September 29, 1860, when he and Wright were succeeded by Samuel Staats Taylor

It was in 1850 that Emerson visited Cairo. ( See The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 4)

To Lidian Emerson, St. Louis, June 16 and 17, 1850   Planters’ Hotel — St Louis, Missouri, 16 June, 1850. Sunday.

Dear Lidian,

I left a hasty note for you at an inn at Russellville, Ky. which, I hope, went to the Post-Office, as it was then already more than a week, I believe, since you could have any tidings of my journey. From Russellville, I went on by stage to Hopkinsville, slept there a few hours, thence took the stage for Eddyville, 40 miles; there, after five or six hours, took a steamboat and went down the Cumberland River to Paducah, 72 miles. At Paducah, I took the steamboat Gen 1 Washington (from Louisville) to this place, 220 miles, and arrived here last night about 9 o’clock.

The Ohio, which I had left at the mouth of Green River was now a broad & noble stream at Smithland & Paducah, full of boats loaded to the waters edge, to & from New Orleans. Thence to Cairo, the mouth of the Ohio 45 miles; and here, at last, I saw the Father of the Waters.

Cairo, you know, is a tongue of low land which separates the Ohio & Missisippi. Many years ago it was seized upon by speculators as a point that must necessarily be a depot of immense importance. The land for ten miles from the point was bought & lots were laid out & the biggest city of the world was to be here. The Rothschilds are or have been owners or mortgagees of the property.

But the river during a large part of the year keeps the whole of it under water, and the houses that were built by the Companies are now wide open to every pedlar & boatman to enter & take possession, if he will. The only habitable place seemed to be (what is often seen in these rivers,) an old steamboat whose engine has been taken out & the boat moored & fitted up into the dirtiest of Ann-street boarding-houses.

Here we took in wood, & tinkered at our engine, an operation — this last, almost as frequent in my recent experience as the first. The boats are very cheaply & poorly built, no “ palaces ” at all, just made to keep above water from port to port, & generally disabled of one wheel.

Well we got away from Cairo, its sailor shops tenpin-alleys and faro-tables, still on the green & almost transparent Ohio, which now seemed so broad that the yellow line in front for which we were steering, looked hopelessly narrow; but yellow line widened as we drew nigh, and, at last, we reached & crossed the perfectly-marked line of green on one side, & mud-hue on the other, & entered the Missisippi.

It is one of the great river landscapes of the world, wide wide eddying waters, low shores, The great river takes in the Ohio which had grown so large, turns it all to its own mud colour, & does not become perceptibly larger.

The great sweeps of the Missisippi the number of its large islands made & unmade in short periods, your distance from either shore, and the unvarying character of the green wilderness on either side from hour to hour, from day to day, — the loneliest river — no towns, no houses, no dents in the forest, no boats almost, — we met I believe but one steam-boat in the first hundred miles; — now & then we notice a flat wood boat lying under the shore blow our whistle, ring our bell, & near the land then out of some log-shed appear black or white men, & hastily put out their boat, a large mud-scow, loaded with corded wood. How do you sell your wood? ” cries the captain. “ A dollar & a half ” " Well, Uncle, you’ll help the men.” So the scow is made fast to the boat, which immediately puts on steam again, & both go up the river amicably, till the negroes & sailors have got all the wood on board; then the scow is let go, & floats down stream home again.

Very soon after Col. Taylor's arrival here in 1851, the matter of collecting wharfage dues was again taken up; and the Trustees, whom he represented, were proceeding to make these dues an important source of their needed revenues. Many of the leading people of the town believed the Ohio River shore or wharf, such as it was, belonged to the public and that the Trustees had no legal right to claim the same or to charge or to collect wharfage dues thereat. They seem to have claimed, first, that the title of the Trustees did not extend further than high-water mark, and, second, that the Trustees and their predecessors had dedicated the wharf and landing to the public by doing this and that, and especially by the making of maps and plats showing the river front and other places in the city to be public grounds and property.

The city, or that which we have called a city all the time, became incorporated as a town in March, 1855; and on the 27th day of March and the 2d day of April, 1855, the trustees of the town passed two ordinances, the one imposing a fine of $50.00 a day for maintaining at the landing any wharfboat, flatboat, storeboat, floating dock, flat, barge, keelboat, or other water-craft, without license or permission from the city, and the other, a fine of $75.00 for making sales on such boats or keeping hotels thereon.

On the 16th day of April, 1855, Solomon Littlefield and Samuel Wilson, ... filed their bill in chancery in the circuit court of the county at Thebes against the said town trustees, who were Samuel Staats Taylor, Bryan Shannessy, Peter Stapleton, Louis W. Young, Moses B. Harrell, and Robert Baird, constable, to enjoin them from enforcing the said ordinances.

The injunction was issued, and the case came up for a hearing on demurrer by the trustees, before Judge William H. Parrish, the circuit judge of our county at that time, and said to have been a very able man and judge.

Judge Parrish seems to have disposed of the suit in rather short order, and held that Littlefield and Wilson had not stated a case entitling them to any relief, and dismissed their bill.

It was in 1855 that Melville visited Cairo. (From Chapter 23 of The Confidence Man):

At Cairo, the old established firm of Fever & Ague is still settling up its unfinished business; that Creole grave-digger, Yellow Jack— his hand at the mattock and spade has not lost its cunning; while Don Saturninus Typhus taking his constitutional with Death, Calvin Edson and three undertakers, in the morass, snuffs up the mephitic breeze with zest.

In the dank twilight, fanned with mosquitoes, and sparkling with fire-flies, the boat now lies before Cairo. She has landed certain passengers, and tarries for the coming of expected ones. Leaning over the rail on the inshore side, the Missourian eyes through the dubious medium that swampy and squalid domain; and over it audibly mumbles his cynical mind to himself, as Apermantus’ dog may have mumbled his bone. He bethinks him that the man with the brass-plate was to land on this villainous bank, and for that cause, if no other, begins to suspect him. Like one beginning to rouse himself from a dose of chloroform treacherously given, he half divines, too, that he, the philosopher, had unwittingly been betrayed into being an unphilosophical dupe. To what vicissitudes of light and shade is man subject! He ponders the mystery of human subjectivity in general. He thinks he perceives with Crossbones, his favorite author, that, as one may wake up well in the morning, very well, indeed, and brisk as a buck, I thank you, but ere bed-time get under the weather, there is no telling how—so one may wake up wise, and slow of assent, very wise and very slow, I assure you, and for all that, before night, by like trick in the atmosphere, be left in the lurch a ninny. Health and wisdom equally precious, and equally little as unfluctuating possessions to be relied on.

The town trustees elected March 10, 1856, seem to have differed widely from those of the preceding year. The election was by ballot and not by viva voce votes, and hence there was probably more freedom in voting than at the election the year before. The issue seems to have been the same as that made in the Littlefield and Wilson suit, and the election must have gone in favor of what they represented, although they had lost in the circuit court. This new board of trustees had a strange habit, as Col. Taylor says, of frequently holding meetings without notifying him.

In March, 1856, fourteen years after the fact and well into the third attempt to create the city of Cairo, Illinos, the Trustees published and circulated extensively an interesting pamphlet of twenty pages of large letter sheet size, printed on blue paper, Here is a portion of that pamphlet:

HEALTH OF CAIRO.—So much has been written on the unhealthiness of the Western cities; so many terrible pictures have been painted of the fever-stricken and ague-suffering inhabitants; so many fancy sketches have been drawn of the fearful mortality which has attended the pioneers of civilization on the banks of the Mississippi,—that truth has a hard battle with misrepresentation and prejudice in her efforts to establish the facts. Yet we can scarcely wonder at this, when we see a writer like Charles Dickens, who, in his descriptions of the springs which actuate the lower strata of English society, is unequaled and unapproachable,—deliberately, to gain the applause of the bigoted portion of his countrymen, misapply his talents by seeking to vilify and abuse our rising cities of the West. From the personal testimony of all who have resided there, and who, by their connection with the city, are the best qualified to judge, we unhesitatingly assert that not only is this point one of the healthiest in the valley of the Mississippi, but that Cairo is as healthy as New York. The salubrity of the climate will compare favorably with the healthiest cities of the West. This is proved by the testimony of residents, whose families present a picture of robust health, not exceeded by the inhabitants of any other district, West or East; and a short acquaintance with the locality will not fail to satisfy every one of the fact.

To continue Lansden’s history of Cairo, Illinois, in regards to the third attempt to create a city at this location:

As before stated, this company [Cairo City and Canal Company] was succeeded in 1846 by the Cairo City Property Trust, which purchased more land, and issued stock to the amount of three million, five hundred thousand dollars, half of which Holbrook agreed to take in behalf of the Illinois Exporting Company. On November 21, 1850, ten thousand additional shares were authorized, thus making forty- five thousand shares in all, thirty thousand shares of which were to be received at par to extinguish the liabilities of the Cairo City and Canal Company and to clear off all incumbrances; and the remaining fifteen thousand shares were to be used for the benefit of the trust and for the improvement and protection of the property. Just what the circumstances were that seemed to require or justify this increase in the stock we do not know. It seems to have been a mere matter of more water; and yet the outlook in 1850 may have been very promising. One is almost amazed at the extravagant language used by the proprietors in 1818 and again in 1836 and 1837; but that of the proprietors of 1846 seems to have been of the same tenor and effect. One would suppose that twenty or more years of experience here with the low site and the ever threatening rivers would have tended to some moderation in the description of the situation. This capitalization in 1846 and 1850 of four million, five hundred thousand dollars was at the rate of four to five hundred dollars per acre for the 9743 acres.

Regarding the flood of 1849, we give here an extract from the "Cairo Delta," of March 20, 1849, entitled "High Water":

The rivers have been higher during the past week at this point than they have been since the construction of our levee. Had several hundred dollars been expended last winter in repairing a break in the Mississippi levee, repairing the sewers and elevating slightly portions of the Ohio levee, the spectacle would have been presented of this being the only point in this region of country on the rivers, not more or less inundated. The public would have beheld a place, which for years back has been ridiculed above all others, through unfair prejudices, as a point subject to frequent inundations—standing alone and singular, almost the only dry and perfectly protected town on the Ohio or Lower Mississippi rivers. But through the negligence or inattention of the company owning this valuable property—or probably from their ignorance of the real want of such expenditure—these trifling repairs and improvements were not made, and Cairo, like almost every other place above and below on the rivers, has suffered from the floods. The flood first poured through the old break in the Mississippi levee till the waters inside the levees became higher than the Ohio river, and finally reached such a height as to overflow the Ohio levee in different places. Our stores and the Delta office have not been much discommoded by the flood.
We trust and hope that the repairs so much needed will no longer be postponed. We are satisfied that if the company were fully aware of the injury inflicted upon their interests here, by this deferred expenditure, it would no longer be withheld. The expense of making repairs is now much increased. The immense value of this property, and the high prices lots would undoubtedly bring if offered for sale, might warrant any expenditure for its protection.
We hear of immense destruction of property on almost every western river. The coast below is suffering severely, and the prospects of many extensive sugar planters are blasted for two seasons to come. Never before have we heard of so great a rise in all our rivers taking place at one time. The noted floods of 1844 cannot compare with the memorable floods of 1849.

1857 is the first noted year for Sam Clemens to have been at Cairo, aboard the Paul Jones. I have speculated that he first visited the city in 1854 on returning to the Mississippi River Valley from New York, but I have no evidence of this. His arrival in Cairo is not noted in the Day By Day entries.

The high water of 1858, which broke through the Mississippi levee on the afternoon of Saturday, June 12, 1858, was not of extraordinary height. It is said the levee had been badly constructed, at least in places; that those persons having that part of the levee in their immediate charge left stumps and logs in the line of the levee and had used the same so far as they would go instead of well selected earth. Col. Taylor was here on the ground and this was his statement both to the public generally and to the committee of shareholders sent here to investigate the calamity. Col. Taylor and Mr. H. C. Long were here all the time during the construction of the levees by the Illinois Central Railroad Company. The contracts of June 11, 1851, and May 31, 1855, provided that the engineers of each party should co-operate with each other in carrying forward that great and most important work of levee construction. Who used the logs and stumps as a part of the levee construction and whose duty it was to know what was being done and prevent the wrong, need not at this distant day be considered. But if there was more than a grain of truth in what Col. Taylor said was the cause of the inundation of the city, it should have aroused the indignation of the twenty-five hundred people then in Cairo. It no doubt led to a better supervision of the work; for since that day we have never heard of anything like it occurring again.

Twain as river boat pilot : Entries in David Fears’ Day By Day

February 19, 1858

March 9, 1858

September 16, 1858

December 29, 1859

June 28, 1860

August 4, 1860

August 11, 1860

December 11, 1860

January 8, 1861

February 5, 1861

February 6, 1861

February 8, 1861

I have not yet added the Day By Day dates for Sam’s return trip to the Mississippi in 1882.

Prior to the Civil War, the city also became an important transfer station on the Underground Railroad. After the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad, fugitives were shipped north on the river before being transferred to railroad lines headed toward Chicago. More than a century and a half later, In June 1998, Cairo city workers discovered what appeared to be storage bins under the sidewalk along the 600 block of Levee Street. The Illinois Central Railroad originally ran down the street and the structures date back to the late 1850s. Physical evidence suggests that the rooms and an adjoining tunnel ran for five or six blocks along the street and were utilized to hide and move fugitive slaves.

See Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism

Lansden writes of another English author that visited Cairo, Anthony Trollope, during the time of the Civil War.

In saying much about Cairo during the war one would likely say much more about the war than about Cairo. The Cairo of that time could be disposed of in a few pages more than Dickens used in 1842, although its population in April, 1861, was just about ten times what it was in April, 1842. Anthony Trollope was here two or three days in February, 1862, and he wrote much more and much more painfully about the town than did his facile penned countryman. (Trollope's "North America," vol. 2, chapter 6.) This much, however, can be said in palliation of Trollope's description of Cairo, and that is, it must have looked even worse in 1862 than in 1842. Cairo during the war was hardly Cairo at all. It was a great military camp, set down in a low flat plain and surrounded by high levees from which you descended to the town's level by long flights of wooden steps at the intersection of the unimproved and often very muddy streets. Trollope never tired of talking of the mud. The town was, as now, in a basin, whose rim was a high earth embankment, seven or eight miles in circuit, and over which one could not see either river unless upon a building or other elevation. Inside of these levees and along the same were the camps or barracks of the soldiers. At the junction of the rivers they constructed Fort Defiance. It was not of great extent. It was simply a large flat-topped mound, on which the cannons were placed, so as to command effectually the junction of the two great streams. Two or three miles lower down and on the Kentucky side of the Ohio and at a point very near where the waters of the Mississippi first push over to the Kentucky shore, Fort Holt was erected. It was named for the judge advocate general of the United States army, General Joseph Holt, of Kentucky. This point or place was subsequently called Fillmore. Fort Holt commanded not only the mouth of the Mississippi but commanded also the approach from the south on that river. Fort Defiance was also well situated to defend against vessels coming up the Mississippi and entering the Ohio. There was also a fort, for a time, at Bird's Point or rather at the site of Ohio City, somewhat east or further down the river. These three forts were intended to protect Cairo by commanding the adjacent parts of Kentucky and Missouri.

The Civil War dramatically changed the city’s social, cultural and demographic landscape with the arrival of thousands of runaway slaves, which the government referred to as “contrabands.” Additionally, in 1862, the Union Army deposited large numbers of African-Americans in Cairo until government officials could decide their fate. These many black men, women, and children lived in a “Contraband Camp” established by the Army. The camp was later abandoned when the African-Americans found little work and having no money to buy farms, many returned to the South and became sharecroppers.

When the war was over, the city became a staging area for many of the freed slaves arriving from the South. Many of these people also returned to the South or moved elsewhere, but, more than 3,000 decided to remain in Cairo. The decidedly southern influence of most of the white residents and the large influx of African-Americans would spawn racial tension that would last for well over a century. During the next two decades, Cairo’s African-Americans banded together to form a new society complete with their own institutions and culture, especially as they found themselves facing prejudice and hatred from white citizens.

(see Death by Racism)

THE FLOOD OF 1862.—On the 20th and 21st days of July, 1863, two large public meetings of the citizens of Cairo were held at the court house to consider the condition of the levees. The proceedings of the meetings were published in the Cairo Daily News of July 27, 1863. The resolutions adopted were long and wide in scope and ladened with severe complaints against the Trustees. Portions of the speeches are given. I quote two or three of the preambles and a sentence or two from one of the speeches to show their references to the floods of 1858 and 1862.

And whereas, this said temporary levee did, in the year 1858, give way, and the city was thereby submerged to an average depth of twelve feet, causing a loss of life and the destruction of property to the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars, besides a vast deterioration in the value of real estate, and a loss of confidence in the practicability of building a city at this unrivalled commercial point;
And whereas, the rivers did, in the year 1862, rise to a height of fourteen inches above the present levees, and the city property was greatly endangered, and was only saved by the industry of the citizens by turning out and erecting and guarding temporary levees on the top of the present Ohio river levee;
And whereas, the levee on the Ohio river, between the graded part thereof and the Illinois Central freight depot, has caved and is still caving to an alarming extent, and to the great detriment of property holders; In 1862, the levee was again found to be insufficient. You all remember the consternation that spread among the inhabitants, and how all packed up and fled to the levee for safety. You also remember how the people took the matter of defense into their own hands, and worked almost day and night at the false levees that finally saved us. Had it not been for these efforts we would have been overflowed, and worse disasters and a greater destruction of property would have taken place than in 1858.


One of Col. Taylor's reasons for his contract with the Illinois Central Railroad Company of July 18, 1872, by which that company was released from the obligations of its contracts of February 11, 1851, and of May 31, 1855, was that he expected to obtain from the Cairo & St. Louis Railroad Company a contract binding it to keep up and maintain not only the Mississippi levee, upon which its track was laid, but to protect the levee against the abrasion of the river. He failed to obtain such a contract or a contract upon which such construction could be placed; and that company, having wholly failed and all of its property having been sold in a foreclosure proceeding and transferred to the new company, the St. Louis & Cairo Railroad Company, stripped of all objections of any kind, that source of help or protection, whatever it might have been, has long since passed away.

... why he or his Trustees found it best to let out the Illinois Central, one of the strongest companies in the United States, and take in its place one of the weakest therein, is scarcely conceivable, excepting on the theory that the Trustees were in great need of the $80,000 they got from the railroad company. Those contracts were as levees to the city. They were plain enough as to all essential and vital features. The levees the railroad company was to build and maintain in perpetuity were to encompass the city or the site thereof and were to be of the width of 80 feet on the top and sufficiently high to keep out the highest waters known.

To say that the railroad company overreached the Trustees would not be correct. The latter knew what they were doing as well as the former; and these contracts, which the two made at the very outstart of their existence and which both believed to be of the utmost importance to their city, were mutually annulled to the mutual satisfaction of both of them, but to the never-ending damage and injury to the City of Cairo and its people. About the only answer the Trustees ever made to this charge was that the affair was a matter of their own business and of nobody else.

Thomas W. Halliday was the mayor then, and friendly to Col. Taylor, the resident Trustee, his father-in-law, and also to the railroad company…..

These three parties took hold of the embarrassing situation, and no doubt did the best they could. They did nothing to the river or to the shore line or its slope. They simply constructed a stone wall at the east line or margin of Ohio Street and extended it to the height of four or five feet above the street level. It was to serve the double purpose of stopping the cutting at or near the upper line of the bank when the river was high, and to keep the water from coming over the levee should it rise above the same. It has no doubt prevented the cutting caused by high water, but it could serve no good purpose where there was under-cutting in times of low water. Fortunately there has been little of that for many years. How long the high stone wall will stand on the sloping shoulders of the river bank, no one can tell. The ever-existing danger is that its great weight, coupled with a softening bank in high water times, may carry it down. In those contracts above mentioned will be found provisions which, had they been enforced, would have saved the city its share of the expense of the stone wall and have stopped the cutting, which made the wall necessary or something else in its stead.

Returning to the Ohio River abrasion between Eighth and Fourteenth Streets, we remark that the stone wall would never have become necessary had the Trustees done what they often promised and what they started once or twice to do, and that was to extend the wharf from 8th Street to 14th Street. Many years ago they did a large amount of work along there to stop the cutting during low water, but they never undertook to do any systematic work in the way of filling the slope and protecting it by some system of revetment. They owned the premises and denied the right of the city to have anything to do with the river banks or the levees. They were private property to be kept up or let go, regardless of who suffered by the inroads of the rivers. In the place of an extension of the wharf and the improved state of things that its extension would have brought about, we now have that unsightly gap in the river bank and the perpendicular stone wall as a perpetual reminder of the needy condition in which the city was placed and of the parsimony of the Trustees and the Illinois Central Railroad Company. The one owned the river bank to low-water mark, and the other for all practical purposes owned Ohio Street, and the river was destroying both subjects of ownership; but the two parties knew very well who was in most danger, they or the people of the city, and hence it was easy to get the latter to compromise.

In the year 1874, the river seemed to have entered upon a season of unusual voracity, which it maintained steadily during the years 1875 and 1876. It pushed the rock piles out of its way or rather worked in behind them and soon undermined the levee for a long distance northward from a point where the present Thirty-Third Street, if extended westward, would intersect the present Mississippi shore. The Cairo & St. Louis Railroad, then very recently finished and extending along the Mississippi levee, had to be moved back from time to time, thus encroaching upon adjacent cornfields and other private premises. That company, like the Trustees, was too weak financially to resist the river's advances. Many of us will remember what a time it was and how the city in 1876 set about building what is now called the new levee on New Levee Street. We all then thought it was very bad; but the further we get away from it, the discouraging and dangerous situation seems to grow upon us and to impress more and more upon us the vital importance of not allowing, under any circumstances, that treacherous river to get the start of us again. It was at this time that government aid was sought, and it is due to our congressmen and a few of our leading citizens here, who worked hard and incessantly and obtained that government aid which was so greatly needed and which has had the effect of allaying, perhaps too much, all of our fears. We must not depend too much upon others. Congressional aid comes very slowly and sometimes in small quantities, and sometimes not at all. This western side of the city is its vital point. It has been that, so far as the site is oncerned, for seventy years. It is time for that feature of our situation to pass away or so to change that we shall cease to have any apprehension. The government policy is not well established—not up to this time. It has to do only with the interest of navigation, it is often said, and the land-owners and others must take care of themselves.

We do not get down to anything like actual values for safe capitalizing purposes until we reach the year of 1876, when the present trust was created and which since June 30, 1876, has been known as the Cairo Trust Property. While a large number of city lots had been sold by the Trustees of the Cairo City Property, very small quantities of its lands above town had been disposed of at the time of the foreclosure of the Ketchum mortgages. There was then on hand almost all of the lands, probably nearly seven thousand acres, and also the wharf property and almost every foot of the river frontage on both rivers; and at the time of the sale, in the foreclosure suit in May, 1876, there was due upon the first mortgage of two hundred thousand dollars the sum of $39,305.00; upon the second mortgage of fifty thousand dollars the sum of $58,375.00, and there was also due to the Trustees about $27,831.00. These sums made the whole amount of the indebtedness for which the remaining real estate was sold $125,511. At the sale May 10, 1876, Charles Parsons, as Trustee for the mortgage bond holders, bought the property for $80,000.00 free and clear of all rights of redemption. The whole proceeding from beginning to end must have been in the nature of a friendly suit by and for the immediate parties in interest, otherwise it is hard to account for the absolute sale for $80,000.00, and the immediate capitalization of the property at many times that amount.

For all practical purposes, the foundation of all our real estate titles. No one now seeks to trace his title beyond this instrument or rather that of June 13, 1846.

It will be remembered that on the 13th day of June, 1846, the Cairo City and Canal Company conveyed its property to Thomas S. Taylor and Charles Davis, Trustees as above stated, and that in the following September the latter made the declaration of trust above referred to. It will therefore be seen that from the formation of the trust of the Cairo City Property September 29, 1846, to the formation of the trust of the Cairo Trust Property of June 20, 1876, we have the period of about thirty years and that from the formation of the last named trust, namely, the trust of the Cairo Trust Property, to the present time we have the period of thirty-four years. To the public the change in the trust has been wholly personal. The trust has been continuous from September 29, 1846, to the present time, a period of sixty-four years. At the outset it owned the whole country here, except one or two small lots or tracts of land. It sold nothing until December, 1853, since which time it has from year to year sold more or less of its property. For the first few years after 1853 many sales were made and generally for good, not to say high, prices. Much of the property on the levee and in other parts of the town in 1856 and 1857 sold for very high prices. The most desirable lots and property having been sold within the first few years, the sales thereafter became fewer in number and the prices very much lower. Prices advanced from time to time as the outlook for the city became now and then brighter, but as a general thing, the situation was not encouraging if we except the stimulus which war times gave the town. Many years ago it became evident that the growth and prosperity of the town had ceased largely to depend upon the Trustees and that the people must look to themselves and make the most out of the growth which the city had attained. The trust still owns a large amount of property, the most valuable being, we suppose, the levee and frontage along the two rivers, carrying an exclusive right to wharfage charges. It seems somewhat remarkable, if not unfortunate, that the city nowhere owns a foot of river frontage. This is a fair representation of the city's environment, a cramped one indeed; but it has been that so long, that were enlargement or freedom to come to it now, it would feel that somehow or other something strange had happened to it, and that it was not in its natural and proper position.

The City as it stood at the time Lansden’s book was written

As mentioned previously, Twain ‘s final visit to the city was in 1882.

Cairo is a brisk town now; and is substantially built, and has a city look about it which is in noticeable contrast to its former estate, as per Mr. Dickens's portrait of it. However, it was already building with bricks when I had seen it last—which was when Colonel (now General) Grant was drilling his first command there. Uncle Mumford says the libraries and Sunday-schools have done a good work in Cairo, as well as the brick masons. Cairo has a heavy railroad and river trade, and her situation at the junction of the two great rivers is so advantageous that she cannot well help prospering.

Cairo, Illinois – Death by Racism 

In 1890, Cairo’s population had reached some 6,300 people and not only was a popular river town but, also boasted seven railroad lines branching through Cairo. Unfortunately, by this time, the city was also experiencing increased racial polarization, tension, and violence, which inhibited black activism until the Great Depression.

In the meantime, Cairo was still growing. Though steamboat traffic was dropping, more efficient barges were being utilized and the overall traffic dramatically increased on the Ohio River. In 1900 alone, the Ohio River transported more than 14 million tons of goods and people, a number that would not be surpassed until 1925.

Though the vast majority of the cargo traveling along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was not being delivered to Cairo; but, rather, headed for other large cities, the town was thriving as it exported considerable products from its lumber mills, furniture factories, and other businesses.

Though Cairo wouldn’t reach its peak population until 1907, at over 15,000 residents, the turn of the century was forecasting the signs of decline. One of its biggest businesses in the city was the many ferries that crossed the both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, which transported hundreds of thousands of railroad cars each year. Until 1889, there was no railroad bridge crossing either the Ohio or the Mississippi River at or near Cairo. That changed; however in 1905, when a railroad bridge was completed across the Mississippi River at Thebes, a small town northwest of Cairo. This dealt a heavy blow to Cairo’s status as a railroad hub. Traffic soon shifted to the new bridge at Thebes, decreasing the traffic through Cairo and completely eliminating the ferry operations.

Before long, the railroads began to bypass the city and severe problems were created by water seepage on the low-lying land. The problem was so severe that one of Cairo’s mayors claimed it was the most serious obstacle preventing prosperity for the town. Many citizens began to consider their community as an economic failure and even newspaper editorialists commented on how businessmen preferred to rent homes as opposed to buying them: “They preferred to rent because they regard their stay in Cairo as temporary.”

I won’t follow the history of Cairo past this point as it does not involve Mark Twain except to provide this summary from Wikipedia:

With the decline in river trade, as has been the case in many other cities on the Mississippi, Cairo has suffered a marked decline in its economy and population. Its highest population was 15,203 in 1920, in 2020 it had 1,733 residents, about an 89% loss of population from its peak a century earlier. The city faces many significant socio-economic challenges for the remaining population, including poverty, crime, issues in education, unemployment and rebuilding its tax base. The community and region are working to stop abandonment of the city. They are restoring some architectural landmarks, and plan to develop heritage tourism focusing on the city's history and relationship to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.




37.013056, -89.180278
Site Category