A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy shares her thoughts and images from an unlikely ghost town in Southwestern Illinois.
I found out about the existence of Cairo, the southernmost city in Illinois by chance. Street photographer Chuck Jines did a YouTube blog post about two towns across the Mississippi River that had gone opposite ways: prosperous Cape Girardeau in Missouri, with a charming historic downtown, and the mysterious Cairo in Illinois, which had become, for all practical purposes, a ghost town. I was intrigued by the sights Jines showed and mentally filed the information for the future. During my road trip this past September and October, I had the opportunity to drive through Cairo, due to a last-minute change of plans.
As you drive south from Chicago to Memphis, (or from central Illinois as was my case) there is a definite change in the landscape of dark soil and corn and soybean fields as far as the eye can see. The soil turns red, the landscape rolls with hills covered with dark green vegetation, the air feels a lot more humid, people’s speech take on the soft cadences of the Southern United States. Right on the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, where the states of Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky meet, is where you find Cairo—which got its name to go with Memphis, Tennessee, mirroring the original Egyptian cities connected by a powerful river.
Being at the center of two such great waterways, Cairo was a powerhouse of commerce and transportation from the end of the Civil War until the dawn of the 20th century. Charles Dickens visited (he was not greatly impressed, but, then again, he was hardly impressed with anything in this country); Mark Twain made it the place where Huck Finn and Jim aspire to get to, as a way to get Jim away from the clutch of slavery (they miss the mark and end up in Arkansas, but never mind). In its heyday, Cairo’s ferry and steamboat traffic created thousands of jobs and significant fortunes, which led to the building of very fine mansions.
But first a bridge across the Ohio and then a bridge across the Mississippi, along with the replacement of steamboats and ferries by barges and the advent of the automobile, made Cairo increasingly less relevant in the regional economy. Its population plunged from over 15,000 people in 1920 to barely a couple of thousand in the latest census. Racial tensions and discord added to the city’s decline. As you drive the long mile from the main highway to the historical district, you see the remnants of restaurants, mechanic garages, with a few places barely getting by.
The historical district, which has had blocks and blocks of buildings entirely demolished, is a place where any photographer can simultaneously go crazy with the shooting opportunities and feel heartbroken at the sheer sadness of a place that is no more. In my case, it was the ruins of the old movie theater, the “Gem,” where I experienced that paradoxical pull of not wanting to stop photographing its miraculously intact marquee while staring through the broken windows into its vandalized interior. I come across a surprising amount of ghost towns on my journeys, but none has been as striking to me as Cairo, Illinois. I guess the distance between what it used to be and the reality of it now is the greatest I have seen, a place once prosperous and vital now utterly without a hope. What could bring a place like Cairo back to its former glory?
As you exit Cairo, you can get back on the main highway or follow the course of the Mississippi River as close as possible through Route 77 which feels like a country road. Guess which way I took? Only, I did not read the map right and, all of a sudden, the tarmac ended right by the river, at a place called “Tootsie’s Landing.” I would have turned back and driven back miles to where I could get on the main road to Memphis, if it had not been for two other cars already waiting by a pole with a bell which sported the sign “RING HERE FOR FERRY.” I had no idea I had literally stumbled on the very last remaining ferry service on the Mississippi River! A small barge with a little tug attached came (the ferry), the few cars waiting got on, and off we all went across the “Mighty Mississip’ “ to Northern Kentucky. A couple of hours meandering through a mix of small town and suburbia, and there was Memphis, Tennessee.
I apologize for not being able to give you the link to Chuck Jines’ blog where I first read about Cairo, Illinois. I have not been able to retrace my steps and cannot find it online anywhere! However, there are many other resources about this place, including trailers for the documentary “Between Two Rivers” by director Nick Jordan, which traces the history that led Cairo to its current state.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.