Cairo is the southernmost city in the U.S. state of Illinois, and is the county seat of Alexander County. Cairo is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The rivers converge at Fort Defiance State Park, a Civil War fort that was commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant. Cairo has the lowest elevation of any location within Illinois and is the only city in the state surrounded by levees. Several blocks in the town comprise the Cairo Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The Old Customs House is also on the NRHP. It is part of the Cape Girardeau–Jackson, MO-IL Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population at the 2010 census was 2,831, a significant decline from its peak population of 15,203 in 1920.
With the decline in river trade, as has been the case in many other cities on the Mississippi, Cairo has experienced a marked decline in its economy and population. Its highest population was 15,203 in 1920; in 2010 it had 2,831 residents. The community and region are working to stop abandonment of the city, restore its architectural landmarks, and develop heritage tourism focusing on its history and relationship to the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, to bring new opportunities to the community. The city faces many significant socio-economic challenges for the remaining population, including poverty, crime, issues in education, employment and rebuilding its tax base. A community clinic offers medical and dental care, and also several mental health services.
The city is served by Cairo Unified School District 1. Based on census estimates, the Cairo school district has the highest percentage in Illinois of children in poverty, 60.6%, which ranks fifteenth highest in the United States. The district has two elementary schools, Bennett Elementary School and Emerson Elementary School. Middle and high school students attend Cairo Junior/Senior High School.
Cairo's location on a spit of land that lies between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers made multiplexing US 60 and 62 briefly through Illinois more practical than directly connecting Missouri and Kentucky. The result of Cairo's position as a critical highway junction is that Missouri and Kentucky are the only states to border each other with only a ferry (the Dorena-Hickman Ferry) connecting their mainlands directly. Amtrak service to Cairo ended on October 25, 1987 when the City of New Orleans began bypassing the city. The nearest stops are Carbondale, Illinois (53 miles (85 km)) and Fulton, Kentucky (43 miles (69 km)).
Magnolia Manor is a postbellum manor located in Cairo, Illinois, located in Alexander County. The manor was built by the Cairo businessman Charles A. Galigher in 1869. It is a 14 room red brick house which features double walls intended to keep out the city's famous dampness with their ten inch airspaces. Inside the home are many original, 19th century furnishings. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since December 17, 1969. The house is operated as a Victorian period historic house museum by the Cairo Historical Association.
Sites of interest:
- Fort Defiance State Park
- Gem Theatre
- The Hewer, a 1902 public sculpture by George Gray Barnard
- Cairo Custom House & Post Office
- Magnolia Manor
- The Riverlore
- A. B. Safford Memorial Library