South of New Grand Chain to Cairo. 19.8 miles/567.3 total
Monday, November 2, 2009.
Leaving from the side of the road south of New Grand Chain, heading for Cairo. It’s a bright sunny day, promising to get up into the 60s. Today is my last full day in Illinois. Most of tomorrow will be in Missouri.
Cairo (pronounced like Karo Syrup), is built on a peninsula at the confluence of the Ohio River and the Mississippi River. It's at the bottom tip—the nadir—of Little Egypt. Such a boarded-up and desolate place is Cairo that it instantly brings to mind the east side of Detroit, except that it is much smaller, only 3600 population. As I drove around last night looking for a place to park the motor home for the night, I was struck at once by how many places there were—the city is full of empty parking lots—and how few of them looked the least bit safe or inviting. I ended up going out by the expressway exit, a few miles north of town, to see if there was a truck stop. But there was only a Days Inn motel, so I decided to spend the night there instead of in the motor home. I was out of water in the motor home anyway, and had taken only about half a shower in the morning, and I figured that a night in a real room with a TV with lots of channels would be a welcome change. The motel was pretty cheap, but clean and adequate. Tonight I’ll look for a truck stop in Missouri. No way am I spending another night in or near Cairo.
In the light of day Cairo doesn’t look quite as bad as it did in the dark, but it’s still a pretty depressed place. I found a spot for the motor home in a grocery store parking lot this morning. But more on Cairo later.
The topography has changed again, going from hilly to flat and low and alluvial, with lots of water on both sides of the road, from the recent rains and from the wetlands and flood plains inland from the Ohio River, which lies a mile or so to the east. Lots of soybean fields, many half under water.
Out in the middle of nowhere, I pass the modern-looking prefabricated Bethel Temple Church of God in Christ, sporting a slick newer bus—not a used school bus, but a city bus--as well as a smaller one that looks like the buses you see at senior citizen homes.
Whether in the midst of rural or urban poverty, churches proliferate. They’re parasitic, like rats, looking for places to establish themselves where things are less than ideal for people. In times of wealth, people tend to worship wealth, and are pretty happy with that. When they are destitute, they must turn to the worship of things that are unseen--the lick and promise of something later on. That’s the most obvious and simple explanation for why dinky churches are everywhere in blighted cities and the flea-bitten countryside. Another factor is that a church is one of the few business enterprises that can thrive just about anywhere, and particularly where nothing else can.
The church would say, of course, that it is supplying a necessity of life, like a grocery store is. Food for the soul, in a hungry land. Something to mitigate the awful sameness of the lives of poor folks. But from the standpoint of the practitioners of religion—the clergy—there’s no greater opportunity to make money, if you're reasonably glib and articulate, even if you don’t possess a formal education, than to go into business as a preacher. People will pay you money to tell them what they want to hear on Sunday mornings, provide you with a living out of their own meager funds, and raise the money for a decent church and home for you. Nice deal, if you’re just a bit swifter than the rest of the folks. And you never have to worry about a crash or a crisis in faith, like the stock market. In fact, the worse things get in the rest of the world, the more people seem to turn to religion. That’s why the airwaves are filled with preachers, on TV and radio. And their message is always the same, ultimately—send money.
I enter Olmsted, population 300. A good half mile after I pass the sign, past fields and nothing more, I finally arrive at what must be the commercial nexus of the village. The place was laid out by E.B. Olmstead in 1872, and later the name was misspelled, becoming Olmsted. This is absolutely appropriate. Olmsted was a much more thriving place even half a century ago, with passenger rail service, several factories (including one that made Kitty Litter), mussel fishing, as well as banks and stores. Today from the looks of it there’s not much left.
Tomorrow is election day here in Pulaski County, and they’re electing a sheriff, among other county officers. They seem to be nonpartisan here. Candidates for sheriff include Dean Hamilton, Anthony “Tony” Neeley, Gene Adams, Lloyd A. “Bo” Bosecker, and Randy Kern is running for re-election. The sheriff’s race looks like it’s wide open.
A couple of guys sitting in front of a closed watermelon stand call out to me, “Keep on walkin’.” I tell them what I’m doing and they say, “Well, then, you in good shape.”
The road is running on a levee now, and above the road is an older dirt road at the top. I climb up to that and walk along for a mile or two, free from traffic.
I enter Mound City, population 750, the county seat of Pulaski County. Mound City was established in 1854. But back in 1812 or 1813, something happened here called the Mound City Massacre. There were only a few dozen settlers in the whole area from New Grand Chain down to Cairo (then known as Bird’s Point), most or all of whom had come from Tennessee because of an earthquake in 1811. One day some Creek Indians, traveling through, visited the settlers in the area and killed most of seven families. The Indians got away into Kentucky and were never seen again. One or two people lived to tell the story.
During the Civil War, Mound City shipyards produced a number of ironclad vessels. Also during the Civil War the first Navy nurses, who were African American women, working along with Catholic nuns, cared for soldiers at a nearby military hospital.
The only businesses worth mentioning downtown are the Cut Mart gas station and convenience store and a drug store. But there is a very large and thriving grain elevator.
I pass an elaborate three-story Queen Anne style house, newly painted in white, grey, and pink. Down the street from that is St. Mary’s church, which has a window above the front door commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1892.
I have a conversation with a guy who saw me back in Olmsted as I was walking past his driveway. He offers me a ride, and I tell him what I'm doing. He says he was born and raised New Grand Chain. He introduces himself as Robert something.
There’s a National Cemetery outside Mound City, where almost 5000 Civil War dead are buried, and thousands of more recent veterans. As soon as I go into the cemetery I am beset by ladybugs, who swarm around me, land on me, and try to go into my pockets. One bites me on the back of the neck.
I leave Pulaski County and enter Alexander County. It was named for William Alexander, who became speaker of the Illinois house in 1822. Cairo is the county seat. To the southeast are the wide alluvial floodlands of the Ohio River. Illinois Route 37 is running out in less than two miles. It ends at U.S. 51 a couple of miles north of Cairo. For now it goes straight and flat, with telephone poles on one side and bald cypresses on the other, looking like dying evergreens.
A historical marker tells a little about the history of Cairo. Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, a French Jesuit, reported in 1721 that the land at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers would be a good place for a settlement and fortification. In 1818 the Illinois Territorial legislature started Cairo, and a few years later there were plans for levees and canals. Things didn’t take off until 1854, when the railroad came through. Right after the start of the Civil War, in April of 1861, Union troops arrived at Cairo to secure the rivers for the north. The city thrived as a troop and supply center for Ulysses Grant’s army. And that was close to the high point for Cairo.
I go through the village of Urbandale. One of the jewels in the commercial crown of Urbandale is a large auto graveyard. At 17 miles I finally leave Route 37. I have walked just under 170 miles on Route 37, which is the longest I‘ve been on any one road so far.
A little north of Cairo I enter Future City. The people who named this place either had a sense of humor or they were hoping for something that never materialized. It has no future, and it’s not a city. It looks like only a grim sad past. There’s a long-abandoned honky-tonk, with only a Budweiser sign on the front and a second story, maybe a whorehouse. The awnings on the windows face the rising sun. Next to that is a trailer, and a church, and a few more trailers, some of which are fighting with brown weeds and small trees for ownership of the land they sit on. Nature is trying to take back Future City, to undo the mistake that someone made.
Immediately after this I enter Cairo. In the past it was a thriving steamboat port with its own customhouse. Cairo was the southernmost point in the north, the nearest place in a non-slave state for slaves who were running away. We’ve already seen how it prospered during the Civil War. The population reached a high of 20,000 in 1907, and it’s been downhill ever since. Cairo was declining dramatically by the 1960s. It was filled with bigoted, segregationist whites—descendants of the early southern settlers—and a high percentage of African Americans, dating back to its days as an important spot on the Underground Railroad. In 1969 a decade-long civil rights boycott of the white-owned businesses (virtually all of them) began, which took the city down even more.
Of course, people are wringing their hands and trying to do something about the poverty and blight. But what can they do? They need bulldozers and money. Well, lucky for me I find urban blight fascinating.
Just inside the city limits my buddy Robert is driving his pickup truck back up to Olmsted. He honks and waves. Nice to have a friend, if only for the afternoon.
As I walk down Sycamore, which is what the main drag is called, I pass mostly closed businesses and vacant lots. Empty store fronts, one with a poster of the Indigo Girls covering smashed out places in the glass front door. A VFW hall, closed. The offices of Robert Flummer, Attorney, closed. More vacant lots. Mack’s Barbecue Restaurant, closed. What used to be a supermarket, now the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, open for business. The sign in the front window says, “Always Pray.”
At 28th and Sycamore I turn west and go under a wrought iron archway into Cairo’s Historic Park District, a reasonably well kept up residential enclave. At Washington and 28th is a huge mansion called Magnolia Manor, built in 1869. I go in and take the tour. It was owned by the Gallagher family. He was a hard tack and biscuit maker, and made a fortune selling his stuff to the Union army. So he built this place. He became a friend of Grant’s when he was here, and Grant came and visited him after he had been president. He also knew Grover Cleveland. Lots of nice Victorian furniture inside.
Now I'm out of the mansion district and back amid the decay. I look for the Super Valu market, next to the Alexander County Courthouse, a one-story modern building that looks like an office. That’s where the motor home is parked, in the back.