River Entertainment Illuminated Cairo in Desolate Delta

Fifteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Sunday, November 19, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

A century before rock ’n’ roll broke out in delta flatland, the riverine wilderness of southern Illinois and southeast Missouri stood covered in primeval swamp and timber. Bears, wolves, coyotes, panthers and snakes prowled the bottoms, among wildlife, along with humans of hardened soul, including woodcutters and boatmen, many societal outcasts. Thieves trolled the Mississippi River, pirate bands darting from the Missouri bush to attack boats and travelers.

Prior to the Civil War, development was far flung in the valley south from Cape Girardeau to New Orleans. Only two delta spots above Memphis were dry enough and accessible for sustaining a thousand inhabitants—New Madrid, Mo., renowned for earthquakes, and Cairo, Ill., infamous river outpost at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio.

“Cairo had a hard name,” observed local historian John McMurray Lansden. “It had a hard name because it was a hard place. On the rivers were and always have been many hard characters. The central location of the place drew many of them here.”

“The failures of land companies to overcome the natural obstacles in the way of establishing a town or city added to the unfavorable reputation the place bore. It was a low and decidingly uninviting point, and the travelers upon the rivers never spoke well of it. They could not.”

Cairo occupied the southern tip of Illinois, a washed-over peninsula pressed between forceful waters entering the delta. Developers had once talked big, promising rise of a commercial metropolis with impregnable levees, but settlement attempts failed repeatedly. The place was known by various terms for decades after a town was platted in 1818, including “Mouth of the Ohio.” The panoramic view from Cairo was nothing inspirational, griped a visitor, amounting to “low muddy bottom lands, and the unrelieved, unvaried gloom of the forest.”

Charles Dickens arrived in April 1842, landing aboard a steam packet at Cairo shoreline strewn with timber wads and flatboat wrecks. Dickens would label Cairo “dismal” in his subsequent writing, noting little but a silted wood lot and “half-built houses” suffering mold and rot. Floodwater had recently swept the timbered peninsula, with Cairo on about 30 cleared acres, and Dickens would remember “rank unwholesome vegetation” for “baleful shade.”

The famed British author dismissed Cairo as disease-laden and headed north by steamer on the Mississippi, which bothered Dickens too, for muddy, slimy water. Dickens’ disgust rekindled on return to mouth of the Ohio, “again in sight of the detestable morass called Cairo,” he recalled in the book American Notes. The steamer crew loaded wood at the landing while Dickens peered at a rickety flat barge of loosened timbers.

“It was moored to the bank, and on its side was painted ‘Coffee House’; that being, I suppose, the floating paradise to which the people fly for shelter when they lose their houses for a month or two beneath the hideous waters of the Mississippi.” Indeed, much the local populace of a few hundred occupied floating platforms permanently, living on boats and further structures lashed to the bank. Dickens’ refueled steamer left Cairo bound eastward on the Ohio, removing him from the Mississippi Valley of “troubled dreams and nightmares,” he wrote.

English writer William Oliver corroborated Dickens on Cairo, without the melodrama, after Oliver’s experience of being stranded by winter icing. Cairo scared Oliver, for the “vagabond-looking boatmen who were strolling about its desolate shores.” OIiver felt better during dinner in a riverside establishment, despite “two or three strange outlandish-looking gentry sitting around the stove.” Then the tavern owner perceived an insult from some Kentuckians—whom Oliver characterized as “choppers of wood”—and got mad.

Hairy men rushed to the dispute, gathering round, cursing and touching Bowie knives at their hips. The Kentuckians backed out from the saloon, threatening the barkeep and locals. Oliver watched wide-eyed; surely he’d heard American legend of half-man, half-alligator characters in the woolly West. Oliver recounted: “The Kentucks, having been joined by their companions, at the boat, now commenced shouting and firing guns in bravado, to see, as I understand, if they could induce their opponents to come out and have a regular battle; our landlord, however, merely went to the door and fired off a pistol, to let them know that he was prepared for them. Nothing more took place, and in a short time all was quiet.”

Mose B. Harrell would’ve sympathized with Dickens and Oliver, arriving at Cairo a few years later. It was unsettling, definitely, “to be set down… in poor unattractive Cairo,” wrote Harrell, who relocated to the town circa 1845. “The wharf was covered with drift and rubbish, the buildings were in decay… The ruin and desolation that brooded over the place filled me with a sinking, heavy-heartedness… I was full of the very erroneous notion that I had gained nothing by leaving Lawrenceburg, Indiana.”

Young Harrell’s perspective changed within hours, meeting folks and getting tipsy among “the largest crowd of reasonably intoxicated individuals I had ever seen,” wrote the future newspaperman. But the river town needed constructive entertainment, quality “amusement,” Harrell observed, along with, he indicated, a brightening touch of eligible females.

A male vocalist arrived from Missouri, singing and teaching from a hymnbook, only to get laughed out of town. The gospel man “left Cairo hugely disgusted at the people’s want of appreciation of the fine arts,” Harrell wrote.

Popular entertainment caught on, however, if not old religion. Circus spectacles touring the great rivers set up at Cairo, for example, drawing crowds led by youths from Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky. “Young folks, go,” commanded promotional copy for the Spaulding & Rogers Circus, appearing frequently at Cairo. “The old folks will tell you that it is throwing money away, but [they] went to shows in the early time, and old as they are, still frequently find themselves in the ring, laughing with the rest.”

“The veriest cynic of them all must admit that the soul of the town receives some real benefit…,” reminded the circus promo, “from the glimmer of sunshine in the moment of pleasure.”


American entertainment set anchor along the Mississippi River prior to the Civil War, particularly at mouth of the Ohio. “Cairo, with its large floating population, was a good show town and soon attracted entertainers of every sort,” historian Harold E. Briggs observed in “Entertainment and Amusement in Cairo, 1848-1958,” for Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

“The inhabitants craved recreation and amusement, and flocked in large numbers to see [traveling] circuses, menageries, museums, minstrel and variety troupes, tight-rope walkers, magicians, phrenologists and all types of musical programs. They welcomed theatrical troupes and were interested in their own lyceum organizations… Both the permanent residents and the transient population of this border settlement were much interested in all types of entertainment and as a rule furnished good audiences for the traveling companies and individuals.”

In April 1858 Cairo citizens watched a domed wonder approach on water, the famed Floating Circus Palace, rounding the river bend south of town. Arriving from New Orleans, the mammoth barn-like barge was painted shiny gold and white, boasting seating of 3,400 for the extravagant Spaulding & Rogers Circus. The triple-deck Palace was nudged along by the showboat James Raymond, pushing from behind, its steam calliope blasting music over the flatland. The circus flotilla docked across from Cairo at Missouri, landing with some hundred performers and exotic animals like elephants, for a period of performances and maintenance work. Show bills, printed fresh aboard The Palace, were posted throughout the tri-state vicinity of Cairo.

At sundown preceding a circus performance, bright lights and sounds attracted folks from everywhere. “The whole affair was so brilliantly lighted with gas…,” noted showboat historian Philip Graham, “it was worth a trip to The Palace at night merely for the effect of the unusual illumination, visible for a great distance on the bank.”

“The two boats were well provided with music. A large pipe organ supplied the rousing tunes for the main circus performance, and a chime of bells across the hurricane deck provided free concerts for the crowds that invariably collected on the river bank. On the steam towboat a twelve-piece brass band gave the concerts and played the interludes for dramatic performances.”

The Palace and James Raymond staged sold-out shows around Cairo until early May, when the steamer left for other locales while the giant flat barge was “laid up” in repair, according to Missouri reports. But it was rainy season in America’s vast interior basin, and water came quickly down the Mississippi, pooling in the northern delta.

Marshes filled out from Cairo in every direction, into Kentucky across the Ohio River, and particularly on other side of the Mississippi, through bottoms spanning southeast Missouri for a hundred miles. At high flood stage the shorelines and state borders became indecipherable, rendering Cairo Township a soggy wooded patch within fragile dikes, surrounded by sudden seas.

Disaster was pending with Cairo marooned amidst water 40 miles wide by hundreds of miles in length. Newspapers reported a tide speeding south from the foothills of Illinois and Missouri, around Cairo, and still rolling 160 miles farther, at the rocky bluffs holding Memphis aloft. Levees ringed Cairo but a break occurred about 5 p.m. on June 12, two miles north along the Mississippi. The community barely heard warning from men who sprinted in from the trees.

“Soon the water came rushing a mighty torrent, with a roar almost as loud as the cataract of Niagara,” an observer recorded. “Never have I witnessed such a scene as the awful night that followed. Sleep was out of the question, and by eight o’clock in the morning, Cairo, from having been an island, had become a vast lake…”

“The scene of distress was indescribable. High piles of lumber, all kinds of drift mixed with cattle, horses, hogs and domestic animals, were floating and swimming around in a mass together. Some 2,000 people, with what little of their effects they could save, were crowded on a narrow strip of the Ohio river levee, not over fifty feet wide… with cattle, horses, hogs, [etc.], which had reached dry land.”

“Cairo is ruined,” proclaimed a correspondent for The New York Tribune. “The water is from nine to sixteen feet deep throughout the town…. For miles on either side of both rivers, this low land extends and is all overflown… A splendid, large six-story brick hotel, recently enclosed but yet unoccupied, facing the Ohio levee, is cracking and settling, and will fall.”

But Cairo wasn’t a goner yet. The mayor announced flood damage was exaggerated, in his letter to The Chicago Times. “Cairo is far from being destroyed,” he declared. “A considerable portion of our town is inundated, but… loss as yet is inconsiderable, and will soon be repaired.” The mayor didn’t clarify whether he communicated from floating facilities, such as the Circus Palace, provided to Cairo for the emergency.

The large majority of citizens didn’t leave Cairo, taking shelter on floating decks, on the levee in rail cars and tents, and on higher floors of structures, until the water receded as always. The damaged new hotel was repaired and soon opened as the St. Charles, a beautiful building fronting the Ohio River, signifying community restoration.

The hotel quartered Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War, when Cairo boomed as Union command post of the Mississippi, finally  cashing in on location. “It was soon seen… that to carry on war much money was needed, and Cairo having become a great military station and depot, money soon began to make its appearance in a way never dreamed of by anyone in the town,” Landsden wrote.

“Rents went up higher and higher, new but rather temporary buildings rose in great numbers and in every quarter. Prices of all kinds of goods advanced beyond precedent, and it was supposed that the future of Cairo was now well assured…”

Dickens had called this place “ill-fated,” a prophecy to become manifest in the 20th century. But until then Cairo would thrive, particularly as entertainment showcase at mouth of the Ohio, offering great artists and performances in the desolate delta.

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.