Alexander County

1968 Alexander County Profiles - Portion D



When I decided to write an essay on the history of Cairo, I knew right where to look for information - our attic! It's full of the histories of my family and Cairo starting from the first.

To begin with, my great great grandfather, Sanford Bennett, and his wife, Katherine McCallum Bennett (from Inverness, Scotland) came to Cairo in 1866. Two years later my great great grandfather, Alexander Johnston, and his wife, Katherine Stuart Johnston, came from Edinburg, Scotland to settle in Cairo. The original deeds to property here are still in our attic. They state that Alexander bought lots from a John Able in 1872. John Able had first purchased them in May of 1865 from Samuel Staats Taylor and Edwin Parsons, the Trustees of the Cairo City Property. The taxes on these two lots for 1873 were a grand total of $20.00. The tax statements and the deeds to the other three lots he purchased are still intact after about ninety-five years.

Alexander worked as an engineer for Green and Wood Mill Co., later to become Wood and Bennett. His son, William James Johnston, married Mamie Bennett, whose father was associated with Wood and Bennett. This was a wholesale grocery company in Cairo - one of the pioneer firms. W. J. and Mamie were my great grandfather and great grandmother. He became president of Woodward Hardware in 1902. This was an important and widely known business of Cairo at that time and for many years afterward. He was elected City Park Commissioner under Mayor Parsons and had the beautiful hard maple trees planted all along Washington Avenue. These trees are a famous part of Cairo even today. I don't remember my great grandparents, but I do remember my two great great aunts very well.

Frances Bennett, Sanford and Kate's daughter, was born February 8th, 1872. Aunt Frances (who didn't want us to call her Great Great Aunt) was a member of the First Presbyterian Church for over seventy-five years where she amazed me and many other people by never having to use a hymnal for either the songs or the responsive readings! She graduated from Safford School, my grade school but her high school, as valedictorian of the class of 1890. Her best friend, Effie Lansden, was salutatorian of this same class. This was the 15th high school commencement held in Cairo.

Aunt Frances taught in the Cairo public schools for over fifty years, was a charter member of the Cairo Business and Professional Women's Club, and also was one of their first directors. She passed away in 1963 lacking just four months of being ninety-two. She seemed just as active in her later years as she was when she was younger. She was always a dignified lady and when she died, it seemed as if it was the end of an era.

My other great great aunt, Mary Johnston, was just as amazing. Her parents were Alexander and Kate Johnston. She was born in 1864. When she was four, her family moved to Cairo. When she was fourteen, they moved into the home where she lived for over seventy-five years. She was very active in the First Presbyterian Church and was assistant treasurer to the Woodward Hardware Company. Although she wasn't as lively in later years as Aunt Frances, she lived to be ninety-six lacking only two months of being ninety-seven.

The house my family and I live in was built fifty-three years ago by W. J. Johnston and his son, Hugh R. Johnston Sr., who was also in Woodward Hardware and Cairo Hardware. He was a charter member of the Kiwanis Club and a past president of it. He was also in the Cairo Association of Commerce and other civic bodies.

My grandmother, Betty Johnston, was the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. C. C. Eldred of Joliet, Illinois. She lived in our present home since 1916 after coming here as a bride. She was active in the Red Cross for twenty-two years, a job she took after her husband, Hugh Sr., died in 1939. When she passed away in 1964, it was a great loss to all of us as well as to the town.


I have lived here in this house, in this town all my life and so have most of my ancestors for the last 100 years. I appreciate my heritage and am very proud of it and Cairo.



A dull thud was the unspectacular herald of the reincarnation of the U. S. S. Cairo, the seventh in a series of city class ironclads designed by James Buchanan Eads for the Union during the Civil War.

The muffled thud was the result of an iron bar about twenty feet long meeting the steel roof of the old warriors pilot house. This iron bar was held by one of three explorers - Edwin C. Bearss. Warren Grabau, or Don Jacks - who were moored near the left bank (facing downstream) of the Yazoo River.

This final discovery in 1956 was to be the beginning of a new life for a ship that had been a hard luck vessel from the day she was built. Her construction had taken place at Mound City, Ill., which is about twelve miles from Cairo, whose name she bears.

The ill-fated ironclad "Cairo" received her commission at Cairo January 15, 1862, and saw her first action at Eastport, Miss., April 1, 1862. She then joined the small fleet flotilla of the Mississippi squadron above Vicksburg, December 8, 1862, and this was the harbinger of the "Cairo's" destruction.

On that fateful day, the 12th, the "Cairo," the "Pittsburgh," and the tinclads "Marmora" and "Signal," and the Ellet ram, "Queen of the West," had been ordered up the Yazoo to research enemy positions and clear the area of torpedos (mines).

By eleven A. M. the "Marmora" had overhauled a skiff containing two men, a white and a negro. The former was Jonathan Williams. Williams reluctantly admitted full knowledge of the torpedoes' locations. After Getty, commander of the "Marmora," had wrung him dry, Williams was cast into irons. So much for the rights of civilians.

The fleet was proceeding onward when musket fire was heard by Selfridge, the "Cairo's" commander. Thinking the "Mormora" was under sniper fire, he hastened to throw the big ironclad into the fray. As the grim fund of firepower drew abreast of the little sternwheeler, Selfridge hailed Getty, demand to know why he had stopped. Getty answered, "Here is where the torpedoes are."

Selfridge ordered the "Marmora" to lower her cutter and investigate the object before her. An ensign aboard the cutter severed a line leading to the bank, and a second object bobbed into view and was destroyed.

Selfridge annoyed at the delay, now ordered the little "Marmora" forward. The "Marmora" hesitated to do so, and Selfridge became impatient. He again ordered Getty ahead, and started his own ship forward. Her wheel had made scarcely six revolutions when the two explosions in quick succession shook the area. One torpedo had exploded off the ironclad's port while the second had been directly beneath the bow.

Within several minutes, the water was cascading over her forecastle, and her only hope was to beach. The tenacious little river wasn't to be denied, however, the Yazoo's current swung the stern of the vessel downstream and brought the full weight of the ironclad against the hawser. The cable tightened and snapped like a guitar string as the majestic "Cairo" disappeared beneath twelve fathoms of water.

The smokestacks and flagstaffs, the only visible features of the old warrior, were removed and her location forgotten over the years.

She rested peacefully on the floor of the Yazoo for 94 years when that fateful iron rod struck her hull. After this pinpointing in '56, salvage operations were planned, and in 1964 her rebirth was made possible by Bisso and Company, a salvage crew.

During the operations to lift the "Cairo," cables were slipped under it, and once the entire ship broke the surface of the water. But, the Yazoo was destined to hold its prize a while longer; the cables sliced through the hull and severed the ship in three pieces. The three separate pieces were then raised on barges, and the Yazoo lost its entombed protectorate.

The "Cairo" is now at Vicksburg, swiftly becoming a tourist attraction and a unique musuem. The "Cairo" shall live on now - a symbol of the power of a nation and the unity of the United States of America.



Riverlore, a stately white mansion, was built at the beginning of an extravagant era. It was 1865; the Civil War was over. Reconstruction was beginning and Cairo was a mushrooming river town. The house was built by river-loving Captain William Parker Halliday to match the coming lavishness, the prosperity that was around the corner and the promise that was Cairo.

Even though Captain Halliday apparently built this beautiful home with the idea of settling down and becoming a substantial business man, at heart he obviously remained a steamboat captain. Winding from the third floor to the roof is a ship's stair. From the roof, Captain Halliday could look out over the city, and before the trees and homes sprang up to interrupt his view, could see his beloved rivers the Ohio and the Mississippi.

In November, 1900, Riverlore became the residence of Dr. John J. Rendleman, a practicing physician and surgeon for 67 years and Mrs. Rendleman, both of whom preserved and improved the house and grounds throughout the years. Their youngest daughter and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick J. Grieve, are the present owners and residents of Riverlore.

High above the river, in the finest residential part of Cairo, stands Riverlore, a 3-story, 11-room residence of solid brick, with stone foundation and full basement. Although there are but 11 rooms, each of them, from the first floor to the third, is high-ceilinged and spacious.

Riverlore's garden setting of 3/4 of an acre is landscaped with magnolias, flowering shrubs. Red brick walks of herringbone pattern surround the house. Charming accessories to this beautiful house are a fountain, a sundial, and a handsome weathervane atop the grape-arbor. This white painted Victorian has a slate mansard roof capped by ornamental iron railing. The roof is covered with slate set in geometric patterns.

Entrance into the house is through double doors elaborately carved. An old English hall clock in the entrance hall, which was bought in 1903, tells the phases of the moon. It has 2 sets of chimes, Westminster and Whittington.

Rooms of graceful design offer a charming environment and a good French type architectural plan. Characteristic of "the golden era" the luxury features of the house include ornate plaster moldings and ceiling medalions (cartouches), floor length windows, dormer windows, carved woodwork and tall doors of yellow poplar, stained glass and large elaborate mirrors, period chandeliers, and fireplaces decorated with ornamental ceramic tiles. A modern kitchen has a scenic mural of the Mississippi River.

The solid brick walls on the outside of the house are about 20" thick; brick partitions in the house are 12" thick. The hardwood floors ore laid over fire-resistant concrete.

Lying on the parlor floor is a beautiful rug that has the American motives, such as the Statue of Liberty, Wright airplane, Liberty Bell, Mayflower, Panama Canal, and the covered wagon. The parlor also has a fireplace, a large mirror on the mantle, ornamental plaster cornice, lovely stained glass, and a brass period chandelier. On the walls are the exquisite hand wrought lace fans which Mrs. Grieve brought back from Belgium and France.

The library is equipped with a built-in leaded glass door bookcase, and a large picture window with art glass fanlights. The door which leads to conservatory is a prize winning beveled leaded glass panel that was exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

The fireplace in the dining room has tiles depicting the 3 graces (mythological people). In this room is also a very handsome mirror which was the mate to the mirror in the lobby of the historic Halliday Hotel.

A wide oval cantilever stairway with a carved mahogany balustrade and 5 wall niches winds from the first floor hall to the "pilot house" on the roof some 40 feet above. An ornamental iron railing crowns the flat mansard roof. The third contains a small and complete theatre with a jewel of a stage, backdrops, curtains and footlights, a proscenium arch, and an auditorium to seat 50 people. The walls of the auditorium are decorated with the original French wallpaper with stylized figures to depict the four seasons.

This proud 100 year old manor house retains the dignified charm which is enhanced by painstaking care and skillful modernization And though the house which was once gay with receptions and parties is rather quiet now, in it are kept the gracious ways of living which stamp the flavor of southern hospitality.



Had almost everything else in the city been made to correspond with the Halliday Hotel, Cairo would have been a fine city of fifty to one hundred thousand people. If Cairo could "grow twenty feet high and swell out in proportion," in the language of Dickens, so as to correspond with the hotel, the Illinois Central Railroad bridge would be at the center of the city instead of being on its north boundary.

The Halliday Hotel, second and Ohio Streets, was a five-story L-shaped structure with stone quoins, an ornate cupola, and a mansard-like roof from which project dormer windows. Excepting the south half on Ohio Street, construction of this building began in the summer of 1857. Thirty tons of slate for its roof were lost on February 4, 1858, when the Colonel Crosman burst a boiler near New Madrid, Mo., and sank with twelve passengers aboard. A second set-back came in June, 1858, when a flood undermined the nearly completed building and caused parts of the walls to collapse.

Despite these reverses the structure was completed in 1859 and opened in January of that year as the St. Charles Hotel. It was conducted by different persons from time to time, under leases from its owners; and like almost everything else in Cairo, had a somewhat varied experience especially after "the war" closed. During "the war" its business was up to its full capacity all the time. Its name was changed to "The Halliday" and opened under the new management July 1, 1881. Of the hostelry the Guide Americana published in Paris, France, 1859, said that it was one "which would honor the finest cities of the world."

The Halliday was on a par with the best hotels in cities like St. Louis and Chicago, and under the management of Mr. L. P. Parker had done perhaps more than any single establishment or agency to sustain the claim of Cairo to Metropolitan proportions and importance.

Admirably situated, apart from other buildings, it could afford at one glance a view of three states and of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers at their point of meeting to form the mightiest waterway of the continent. Looking north the Ohio presents a great semicircle visible for seven miles, spanned at northern limits of the city by the Illinois Central railway bridge, one of the beautiful and perfect examples of civil engineering in the United States. Southernly the sweep of waters of the two great rivers is visible for ten miles, presenting a view that has no parallel on this continent.

In front was a beautiful little park affording a promenade, beneath the shade of whose trees, among birds and flowers, guests may sit at will in the spring, summer and fall months fanned by a cooling breeze, and watch the tide of commerce as it ebbs and flows on the bosom of "La Belle Ohio."

The hotel had commodious and handsomely equipped offices, large well lighted and perfectly furnished dining room and elegant and luxurious parlors. These were supplemented in every detail by modern appointments, first-class accommodations, agreeable surroundings, exceptional table service and perfect cuisine. So true was this that the Halliday was as well and favorably known to the public as any on the line of travel between Chicago and New Orleans.

Clean, elegantly furnished and perfectly lighted guest rooms, commodious writing and reading rooms, prompt service and that courteous treatment in the absence of which guests were never satisfied, were a few of the things which have won fame for the Halliday and a reputation as a hotel man for Mr. Parker.

An artesian well, 824 feet in depth, on the premises, supplied the hotel with an abundance of perfectly pure table water, as well as for other uses, such as laundry, kitchen and the bath. It was very palatable, of exceptional purity, as shown by chemical analysis, and highly recommended by capable physicians as a remedial agent in kidney and bladder troubles, many permanent cures having been effected from its use. The hotel was equipped with its own refrigerating and ice plant.

When Cairo became an army depot in 1861, a war correspondent for Harper's weekly reported that "the officers . . . - occupy the hotel from cellar to garret." Most important of its notable wartime guests was General Ulysses Simpson Grant who occupied Room 215. From the window at the south of this chamber the General could look on to Fort Defiance and the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi. This view had been obstructed by an addition made to the hotel in 1908. The furnishings of Room 215 remained as they were when Grant lodged there.

On the walls of the hotel lobby were pictures of Fort Defiance, Civil War, Cairo, gunboats of the Western Flotilla, and a photograph of General Grant and McClernand posed with fellow officers before the old post office at Sixth and Commercial Avenue. The taproom of the hotel contained a bar manufactured in 1859, known as "Grant's bar."

In the cellar of the hotel, under the east sidewalk, were 8 dungeon-like chambers which, according to a tradition sustained by hotel employees, were used to conceal fugitive slaves and later to quarter captured confederate troops. Research fails to substantiate either of these claims.

When the Halliday Hotel burned, it was a tremendous loss to the city of Cairo. Since it was one of the most historic sites, it has often been referred to as "the last great hotel of the period on the Mississippi River."

Today, only the most recently built part, "the annex" remains standing, its windows boarded up, looking sightlessly over the levee walls.



The old county courthouse at Thebes has acted as the county seat of Alexander county, a meeting hall for clubs, a library, and a polling place. At the present, it is being used as a tourist attraction in the form of a museum. Before I tell you about the museum, I shall give you a brief account of the history.

The county record books show that on February 26, 1845, George Sparhawk deeded sufficient land for a courthouse and buildings with consideration of locating the county set in Thebes, Illinois.

In September 1845, L. L. Lightner was appointed to draw plans and ascertain probable cost of a courthouse at Thebes. In December he was appointed agent for the erection of the building.

The first term of court was held in 1845 under a big elm tree with the courthouse being built the following year. In January, 1846, Lightener entered into a contract with Arnst Barkhausen for the erection of the building.

Frank Planert of Council, Idaho, was a great-grandson of the builder of the courthouse at Unity, Illinois, in 1842.

From Frank Planert came the following:

"The old courthouse at Thebes was built about 1844-1845. The architect was John Christian Henry Barkhausen, who planned and supervised the building. The outside plaster, after approximately one hundred years, shows little deterioration.

The price, as I was informed, by the son of the architect and builder, was $4,400.00."

From March 1848 to September 1854, the records show only payments of indebtedness on building and for various repairs. In September 1854, Lightner was ordered to secure plans for putting up Judges seats, bar, jury boxes, and a flight of steps from the road to the west door.

In March of 1860, the city council of Cairo offered the use of its city jail to be used as the county jail, and recorded fifteen chosen lots in block 48 for a proposed courthouse.

One prisoner of the Thebes courthouse was Dred Scott, a negro who made his flight to freedom in 1856. He escaped from the jail, traveled cross land to Jonesboro, and boarded an Illinois Central Railroad train.

In June 1860, the commissioners ordered William Yost to call on S. Staats Taylor for the lots chosen. He also accepted the offer of the city courtrooms to be used as a temporary courtroom.

This brought an end to a colorful period of history in the justice of Alexander county. It had all started in America, Ill., where the first county seat had been set up in the home of William Alexander in 1818. In 1831, the America courthouse was finally finished. Then in 1833, the county seat was moved to Unity, due to its more central location in the county. The Unity courthouse was finished in 1837. On March 2, 1843, the separation of Pulaski and Alexander counties was achieved. The county seat at Unity remained in Alexander county. Due to a fire that destroyed nearly all of the courthouse and its records in 1842, the county seat was moved to Thebes in March of 1845.

At present Alexander county courthouse is at Cairo. Since Cairo sent most of the prisoners to be tried at Thebes, the courthouse was moved to Cairo in 1860.

With the backing of the Thebes Woman's Club, Men's Club, and Town Board, the people of Thebes set out to make a museum out of the old county seat in 1966. Mrs. Leland Shafer, leader of Thebes Woman's Club, and Raymond Baugher, leader of the Men's Club, were the two main leaders in starting the project of making the courthouse a museum. Mrs. Shafer gathered as much information for historical purposes as she could. Documents and relics were hard to come by, for mostly only legends and family stories remained.

Due to the aid of the Green Finger project in the state of Illinois, under the Nelson Amendment, the task of restoration of the museum has been lightened somewhat. The main problem that holds back this project is finances. So far, with the help of the Youth Corp, the museum has been opened in the summer months. Through the youth and help of Green Finger, the area has been cleared of brush and trees, making it possible to set up a 7-acre park there. They have also repaired windows, restored original fire-places, and repaired a walk that leads from the top of the hill to the base.

Tom Booker, Associate Farm Advisor, said that the reason so much was being put into making the courthouse a museum was, "... the people of Thebes want the job and are willing to work for it, which is an important step in getting the job done."

The courthouse is open each afternoon and all day Saturday and Sunday. Mrs. Shafer reports that about 1,200 persons toured the building this summer, with no road sign. A sign has been designed and will soon be set in place on highway 3 at the Thebes Spur.



Captain John R. Thomas, our congressman in 1882, enacted a law appropriating sixty thousand dollars for the purchase of grounds and the erection of buildings for the United States Marine Hospital. In September of that year, Surgeon General Hamilton came to Cairo and he, together with Mr. George Fisher, the surveyor of the port, and General C. W. Pavey, the collector of internal revenue, looked over the city to choose a site for the hospital. The site was not definitely decided on until some time in 1883, when the present grounds between Tenth and Twelfth Streets and Cedar Street and Jefferson Avenue were chosen and purchased from the Trustees of the Cairo Trust Property for the sum of fourteen thousand dollars. The grounds included seventy-two lots. The buildings are now practically the same as they were when they were erected. Although it was finished in 1885, it was not formally opened until some time in February of 1886 at its dedication.

The United States Government built the United States Marine Hospital, as its name implies, for caring and nursing of sick and invalid sailors of our navy, all river men, and those in government service on the inland waters of the country. Up to this time, these patients were taken care of by the Sisters of the Holy Cross at St. Mary's Hospital and for a time the Sisters conducted the new hospital under the supervision of Doctor Duncan A. Carmichael.

In March of 1915, the Hospital, under the supervision of Dr. James M. Cassaway, surgeon in charge, began the care of morphine users, which totaled two hundred. The users had been unable to obtain the drug since March 1 of that year.

The hospital was closed in the latter part of 1915 and was moved to Kirkwood, Mo. The patients at that time were transferred to St. Mary's Hospital.

Today the buildings and grounds are being used as the Alexander County Tuberculosis Hospital and the Tri-County Health Department.

From Lansden's History of Cairo is taken the following list of surgeons and past assistant surgeons in charge:

Duncan A. Carmichael 1885; James M. Gassaway, 1888-1890: Rell M. Woodward, 1890-1894; Ezra K. Sprague, March-Nov. 1894; Gassaway, 1894-1897; Parker C. Kallock, 1897-1899; W. A. Sheeler, Jan.-May 1899; H. C. Russell, May-Dec. 1899.

John M. Holt, 1899-1901; James H. Oakley, 1901-1903; Gregario M. Guiteras, 1903-1907; Julius O. Cobb, 1907-1908; Robert L. Wilson, 1908-1910. Dr. James N. Gassaway, 1915, when Marine Hospital was closed.



She was five foot two, brown-eyed, pug-nosed and the belle of Cairo, Illinois, when that town numbered nine thousand inhabitants and fifty saloons. Her name - Isabella Maud Rittenhouse.

Maud, as she was commonly called, lived in Cairo, a thriving steamboat town on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, in the 1880's. At the age of twelve, Maud started a journal which she kept conscientiously until she was thirty. Later in her life she burned the first volume but kept the six others that followed. The six journals were all of the same size and were bound in red leather. Each volume contained at least 100,000 words; they covered the years from 1881 to 1895. In her very legible hand she told everything to her silent confidante. One amazing thing about her journals was that she wrote them all in purple ink!

This series of six journals was edited and published in 1939 by her son-in-law, Richard Lee Strout, in the book "Maud", which became a best seller. The book is an interesting and accurate account of the life of a well-to-do and well-bred young woman in a small mid-western town during the 1880's.

In her journals Maud told about her many love affairs. The young gentlemen of Cairo seemed always to be falling in love with her, although she led them all a merry chase.

Maud was a constant theater-goer. She was probably the most excited person in Cairo when the doors to the Opera House were first opened. She attended the opening night performance on December 15, 1881. Her love of footlights was too strong to let her remain just a spectator, and she soon became Cairo's favorite amateur actress.

In 1884 Maud was accepted at the School of Fine Arts in St. Louis. While in St. Louis she became a very good artist, but she was very homesick for "dear ugly Cairo."

Upon returnine to Cairo she set up her own art studio in the attic of the family's fifteen-room brick home on Seventh and Walnut Streets. Besides painting in the studio, she did all her writing there. Not only did she write her journal, but she also wrote for "Godey's Ladies' Book." She won a literary prize for a novel (about a place in North Carolina which she had never seen) called "A Candid Critic."

The hectic and happy days in which Maud wrote her journal ended when she wrote the last entry in her fourteen-year journal on June 6, 1895. At that time Maud was preparing to marry an engineer-turned-physician - Dr. Earl Hugh Mayne. Dr. Mayne had helped with the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad bridge, which was an international wonder and the longest bridge in the world when it was built.

After their marriage Dr. and Mrs. Mayne moved to Brooklyn, New York. They became the parents of three daughters. Maud lived in Brooklyn until her death on March 8, 1946.

Editor's Note: House purchased by the Cairo Historical Society in 1968 and is currently in the process of restoration.

Extracted 30 Dec 2017 by Norma Hass from Alexander County Profiles, published in 1968, pages 37-46.

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