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Cairo, Illinois — Attractions

Magnolia Manor 2700 Washington Avenue

Magnolia Manor was constructed by the Cairo businessman Charles A. Galigher in 1869. The fourteen-room red brick house features double walls containing a ten-inch airspace to keep out the city's famous dampness. It also showcases many original, nineteenth-century furnishings.

Charles Galigher became a friend of Ulysses S. Grant during the General's tenure of command in Cairo. In 1880 Grant, then retired after two terms as President of the United States, visited Magnolia Manor for a lush reception in his honor.

Another large nineteenth-century home, Riverlore, is located across the street from Magnolia Manor. Featuring a Greek theatre, complete with pillars, on its roof, Riverlore is, unfortunately, not open to the public. But it stands as another testament to Cairo's brief heyday as a Mississippi River port.

For contact information and hours of operation, see Magnolia Manor.

The Cairo Custom House

The Cairo Custom House was constructed in 1872 to house the offices of the United States Customs Department officials charged with collecting duties and tariffs on international goods arriving on Cairo's wharves via the Mississippi River. These officials reported to their superiors at New Orleans, who supervised collections for the Mississippi Valley. Other federal agencies, including a United States Post Office, made their home in the Custom House as well. In the years immediately following the Civil War, Cairo's Post Office was the third-busiest in the United States, owing to the transfer of western mail arriving from river steamboats.

The Cairo Custom House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and began renovation shortly thereafter. Today it is a historical museum displaying artifacts from the Civil War era, the 1927 Mississippi River flood, an a nineteenth-century general store.

For an article on the Custom House, see The Cairo Custom House.

Fort Defiance State Park

Located on the point of land at the immediate confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, this park sits on the site of the large Civil War encampment used by the United States Army during the Civil War. A boatman's memorial, built to honor those who lost their lives on the Mississippi, provides a raised vantage point from which visitors may witness the grudging union of the Ohio's blue-green waters with the muddy Mississippi.

For more information, see Fort Defiance State Park.

Mound City

Mound City was the site of large naval shipyards providing vessels, including ironclad warships, to the Mississippi Squadron's efforts in the western theater of the Civil War. The Mississippi Squadron numbered some 80 vessels, including the famous Eads ironclads U.S.S. Cairo, U.S.S. Cincinnati, and the U.S.S. Mound City.

Mound City was also the site of a large Civil War hospital complex. Originally the city's hotel and foundry were converted to hospitals to house the Union and Confederate wounded pouring northward by river from the battles at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and elsewhere. In April of 1862 the gunboat Mound City captured a river steamer named the Red Rover that had been used as a floating barracks by Confederate forces. Union officials refitted the craft as a hospital ship for the western theater, and assigned it to the U.S. Navy Hospital at Mound City. The Red Rover sailed with the Mississippi Squadron in its engagements. Although the shipyards have largely vanished, a hospital building still stands near the Ohio River levee.

Mound City National Cemetery

This Civil War cemetery is located at the intersection of Routes 51 and 37, approximately three miles north of Cairo. It contains the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. Several significant monuments can be found in the cemetery, including that of the State of Illinois.

For more information, see Mound City National Cemetery, and
Confederate Burials in Mound City National Cemetery.

Cave-in-Rock

Cave-in-Rock is located some seventy miles northeast of Cairo, on the north bank of the Ohio River. Today it is a state park, but in the early decades of the nineteenth century the cave housed several groups of river bandits who preyed upon flatboats and travelers. In a time when turnpikes and other roads turned to seas of mud with a single rain and railroads were as yet undeveloped, water transportation drove the American economy. In this period the Ohio River served as the nation's major avenue to western settlement and link to international markets at New Orleans. But the flatboat crews and immigrant families traveling the Ohio found themselves the prey of a generation of river bandits. Taking advantage of the western frontier's general absence of law enforcement to, these pirates helped themselves to freight cargoes and personal belongings.

Cave-in-Rock's partially concealed entrance and excellent views up and down river provided outlaws with a commanding position from which to mount their raids. Three groups of river pirates operated there in this period: The Jim Wilson Gang, The Mason Gang, and the Harpe Brothers.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century Jim Wilson, who had discovered the cave while on a flat boat journey, opened a tavern there. From the gamblers and thieves who collected at his establishment Wilson formed a gang that preyed upon passing boats. The Wilson gang preferred to set upon unwary travelers as soon as they pulled in to the cave's mouth. After dispensing with the crew, Wilson's men sailed stolen boats down river to New Orleans, where they sold the freight for a profit. Ohio River shippers began to become suspicious when many of their valuable cargoes never reached market however. The resulting investigations broke up the Wilson gang; one of Wilson's own men killed him for a reward.

After Wilson's demise the Revolutionary War veteran Samuel Mason took over the Cave-in-Rock criminal enterprise. Opening a tavern and gambling parlor in the cave, Mason used whiskey, cards and prostitutes to attract weary boatmen. Many of these unfortunates found themselves beaten, robbed, and even killed by Mason's desperados. Mason's lieutenants often examined the contents of boats tied up at the cave while their crews amused themselves inside, then ambushed them the next day, a few miles down river. Mason was also killed by his fellow pirates, for a reward.

The final group of Cave-in-Rock pirates were the Harpe brothers, murderers escaped from a Tennessee prison. After a brief career of unprecedented violence and occasional robbery, the Harpes were driven from the cave by fellow pirates offended by their utter bloodthirstiness.

For more information, see the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Cave-in-Rock State Park site, and
River Pirates of Cave-in-Rock.