Alexander County

1940 It Happened in Cairo

Arranged for Publication by Anne West 1940

Chapter I


Excitement reached fever-pitch in Cairo on Oct 3, 1907. For on that mild autumn day the Steamer Mississippi pulled up at the riverfront with President Theodore Roosevelt aboard. A booming of 21 guns from the Danville battery heralded his arrival, and a fleet of more than a dozen famous river steamboats hung beside as a convoy. Aboard were 23 governors, a good half a hundred congressmen, and the members of the Inland Waterways Commission. Almost the whole town had moved out on the Ohio levee for a welcome.

When the giant parade was formed, however, the citizenry tagged right back in and beat its gala way to the speaking in the park. There "Teddy" addressed the thousands with words of praise that helped blot out the ugly picture Charles Dickens had penned 65 years earlier in his American Notes.

Cairo had come a long way since 1842. She has come a longer way since 1907. The same two rivers hug her banks today that hugged them when Maud dashed purple ink across the pages of her diary in the 1880's. But the area between the banks has grown up - become a lady - even as did Maud.

In the dying decades of the nineteenth century the river traffic at Cairo was heavy, with ten or more packets arriving and departing daily. These fine river steamers usually ran between Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New Orleans. The levee was stamping ground for merchants, showboat folks, travelers, roustabouts and steamboatmen.

It was only natural that Edna Ferber should go there for much of the material she was to use in Showboat, ride on the Steamboat Kiwanis with Capt. J. S. Hacker (who, at 87, lives graciously on Washington Avenue as the "dean" of Cairo's river men), and draw her characterization of "Hard Harry" from one Harry Schumaker, captain of the Three States.

In 1940 those days are a colorful memory. The struggle between rail and water at the junction of the rivers was as dramatic as it was long. The railroads won ... to the extent that the double-decked steamboats are gone. But the water still pleads its case too, for stubborn tugs push long steel barges up and down the riverfront, and Cairo still maintains its position as the year-around head of navigation on the two rivers. Three barge line companies maintain terminals, and more than 600,000 tons of freight are transferred annually between barge and boxcar.

In turn, the town has bid goodby to the ferryboats ... as picturesque in their way as the big packets. Ferry service across the Mississippi to Missouri was interrupted in 1929 by the completion of the Mississippi River Highway Bridge. Nov. 11, 1938, the opening date of its sister bridge across the Ohio to Kentucky, marked the end of the historical ferry service between these two states. Today only a sentimental sightseer would ask for ferry accommodations across the rivers.

Then, as now, Cairo boasted of many railroads. It was the southern terminus of the New York Central and the Cairo and Thebes road. The Illinois Central and the Mobile & Ohio passed through, crossing the Ohio on the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge (the one responsible for bringing Earl Mayne to Cairo) which was finished in 1889. At that time it was the longest metallic structure across a river anywhere in the world. With 10,556 feet of steel spans, its total length (including approaches) reached 20,461 feet or 3.875 miles. Entering Cairo also were the "Iron Mountain" and the "Cotton Belt." These two roads had their cars ferried across the Mississippi from Missouri.

There were two large flour mills, several grain elevators, and many lumber mills. Between its own industries and the river and rail traffic, Cairo was a lively place. Ohio Street, the street running parallel with the Ohio river, was the scene of greatest activity. For here were located many wholesale produce and commission houses, saloons, cafes and second rate hotels. At one end of the street was the Illinois Central Railroad depot. Trains arrived on both the Illinois Central and the Mobile & Ohio at the noon hour. Passengers alighting from these trains were invariably greeted with dinner bells and gongs, and above the din could be heard the voices of negro barkers ballyhooing for their particular cafes. The old darky at the "Blue Front" usually shouted, "Best meals in the city only 25c - nice place to wash and brush up." A few doors away was the "K. C," where meals were also "the best in the city at only 15c." Today these places are all gone. The commercial life of the city has moved back a street to Commercial Avenue. The Illinois Central depot now stands at North Cairo (with bus service from the downtown district). Only the historic old Halliday House (once the St. Charles hotel) stands its same ground on the riverfront.

On Sept. 27, 1881, Maud wrote of missing the grand reception at the opening of Halliday House because she was without escort for the evening. Today the Halliday, still in operation, is a "must" on every Southern Illinois tourist's list. He may wander into "Grant's Bar" and have a drink at the same spot where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stood and drank in the Civil War days when the Halliday was his headquarters. He may go up to Room 215 where the furniture presumes to be as it was when Grant put his key in the lock each night. Or he may descend to the dungeons where, guides will tell him, runaway slaves were hidden and Confederate soldiers held captive during the 60's. One of the most popular theatre managers in New York City today was in his youth a bellhop at the Halliday when it wore the name "St. Charles."

The business and the flavor which the river activity brought to Cairo made the place known far and near as a hustling, wide-awake, wide-open town. While Maud and her mother were working so hard for the W. C. T. U., Cairo enjoyed the questionable distinction of having over 50 saloons within its confines. When a new one opened it is said that the owner threw the key in the river or the gutter and that after that the door was never locked.

Each saloon paid a license fee of $1,000 a year, and when funds were sought for churches or civic projects the solicitors always called upon the saloon keepers first, as their donations could be counted on to be most generous. Uncle Joe Steagala was usually called upon to head such lists as his donations were always exceptionally large. Uncle Joe ran two saloons - one, "Uncle Joe's"; the other, "The Glad Hand," later called "My Brother's Place."

Another organization to which charity looked regularly for help was the K. M. K. C. (Knights of the Mystic Krew of Comus). This organization was the ingenious invention of a group of Cairo men, and presumably existed nowhere else in the world. The aim was purely that of pleasurable relaxation, and the pleasure of the members never reached greater heights than on those nights when they initiated a new member.

Although a Cairo man might suspect that he had been singled out as a prospective member, he never knew just when the Knights might claim him. On nights when they decided to initiate, the men garbed themselves in long white robes and hoods (similar to those of the Ku Klux Klan), each hood being decorated with skull and crossbones. Thus attired, they set out to march the streets until they found their man - in bed at home, or over the card table at a saloon. The front men in the line of march led a goat; the middle section clanked along with blindfold, handcuffs, and a long heavy chain; the end man beat a sullen boom-boom-boom on a drum. Citizens, roused from their slumber, would turn over and murmur, "The K. M. K. C.'s are on the march tonight."

The K. M. K. C. hall was only a half block away from Hank Goettel's saloon, which stood next to the site of the present Rodgers theatre on Eighth Street. Behind Goettel's was a beer garden. After the initiate had been taken to the hall and put through a strenuous initiation, he was placed, still with blindfold, in a basket with wheels which ran down a tight wire from the upstairs hall window to the beer garden a half block away. With their man securely fastened, the members beat a retreat to the garden, released the hold on the basket, and were on hand to welcome the gentleman when he rode a rapid descent to their feet. When the blindfold was removed he found a fancy "spread" waiting to be devoured.

The K. M. K. C. is only a memory now, but a decidedly bold one. And many of the former members are still on hand to tell brisk stories of the nights when they went "on the march." Undoubtedly many of Maud's friends belonged to the organization.

Another hardy group of early Cairoites was made up of the volunteer fire fighters, who pitted their strength and that of hand pumps against the city's blazes. There were five competitive companies in the 1880's - the Arab, the Rough and Ready, the Delta, the Hibernian, and the Anchor. When a fire broke out the custom was to ring a bell in the tower of these companies and so call the fighters forth to action. On New Year's Eve these bells were always used by merrymakers to join the whistles of the riverboats and tugs in welcoming the New Year.

In the early 1890's the New Year was ushered in with zero weather and the streets were deserted at midnight. When the bells and whistles started their usual din the natives, including the volunteer firemen, were in bed trying to sleep. Bells rang and whistles blew for fully one hour. The people grumbled and turned over. Next morning they learned that precisely at midnight fire had started in Aaron Stiefel's European Hotel on the Ohio levee. Beside it had been the City National Bank building. These, with several smaller structures, lay in blackened ruins. The following New Year's Eve a ban was placed on the ringing of fire bells for celebration purposes.

In 1893 a municipal fire department replaced the volunteer companies, and today Cairo is protected by several up-to-date stations fully manned by paid firemen. In 1938, when a long parade was a part of the Ohio River Highway Bridge dedication, members of the local fire department dug up what remained of two of the old hand pumpers (stored for nearly fifty years in an ancient Cairo warehouse) and put them in working order for a float.

Two electric railways, one of which Maud writes about in her Journal, were put in operation on the Cairo streets in 1892. Wood Rittenhouse (Maud's brother) helped build the power plant for one of these railways. The cars on one of the roads were unusually long. Consequently, there was considerable trouble in rounding curves. Often the cars ran off the track, and usually they were placed back on the rails by a gang of boys. The present general manager of one of New York's subway systems got his first railroad experience in Cairo as a member of one of these gangs. A little more than 40 years later, on the last night of the year 1933, the last car made its final run. The rails have been removed in recent years and modern busses put into service.

Fire, water, and fever have plagued Cairo's history. But water has been the most persistent. In February, 1882, Maud writes of floods along the rivers, and again in 1883 she records that the Ohio stood at 52 feet 3 inches on the gauge. Both after and during these flood periods most of the streets in Cairo would be covered with sipe (pronounced "seep") water. At one time Maud claims to have taken a skiff ride from the Halliday House at the south end of Ohio Street to Thirty-fourth Street on the north fringes of town. This is disputed by several of the older residents at the present time, who claim that the ride would have been impossible unless she went over the levee and rode upon the rivers themselves.

That part of town which Maud describes as "Lake Edwards" (the scene of many a moonlight skiff ride in those days) was a low area of approximately 24 blocks which filled annually with sipe water. In 1906 sand, silt and mud was pumped from the bed of the Mississippi River to fill the area. But the machinery broke down and, as the enterprise was a private one, other low areas in town remained unfilled. Later the city installed pumps with which to drive out the water. Today there are five pumping stations in the town, capable of taking hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from the city in an hour.

From year to year the levees were raised until today Cairo is protected by a stone and concrete seawall which rises 60 feet above the river bed and is said to be the strongest seawall in the world. The wall itself is a series of 10-foot square concrete boxes filled with tamped earth. The base width of 16 feet narrows to ten at the top, allowing sufficient footage for men to construct additional height in times of flood. This great seawall extends from its junction point with the earthwork of the M. & 0. levee, south of the city, northward to Thirty-second Street where it joins the earth levee system which completely rings the city of Cairo and the Cairo Drainage District. Some 6500 acres of land lie within this system, 1500 of these being within the Cairo city limits. Added protection is given this lesser area by a secondary levee system (likewise 60 feet in height) - a ring within a ring. The main highway north from town can be cut like a ribbon by the lowering of massive flood gates under the approach to the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge. In the early months of 1937, when Cincinnati, Louisville, Evansville - cities all up and down the Ohio Valley - fell victims to the flood - when water reached the second stories of buildings in Paducah, Ky., only 35 miles away - when the Ohio swished against the top inches of the great seawall - Cairo sat dry behind her levee system, the only town in the lower Ohio Valley to escape. No floodwater has ever topped Cairo's levees. As this is being written the Ohio stands at seven feet six inches.

Cairo's latest triumph over odds was the completion of the Ohio River Highway Bridge in the fall of 1938. Just 50 feet from its approach is the approach to the Mississippi River Highway Bridge, completed in 1929. With its $14,000,000 worth of bridges, its intricate levee system, and its network of highways and railroads, Cairo has made giant strides forward . . . from then . . , to now. The modern Cairo is Maud's Cairo re-styled for 1940.

Continue to Next chapter

Extracted 25 Aug 2018 by Norma Hass from It Happened in Cairo, arranged by Anne West, published in 1940.

Visit Our Neighbors
Scott MO Mississippi MO Ballard KY
Search the Archives