This day was critical to us making our timeline. It was a long day–60 miles. It was a three state day, with miles in Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. And we did our major river crossings as well. When we were still heading into Arkansas, we had planned to take the Hickman ferry across the Mississippi. But our reroute north to meet my car had up traveling up the east side of the Mississippi river valley, offering us additional places to cross. We left the park and headed north on rolling, scenic country roads.
The roads became quite flat on the floodplains. It was quite gusty, and there was almost nothing to stop the wind. Fortunately, it came mostly from the side, and though it was difficult to keep straight at times, leaning against the gusts was much better than the times the wind was blowing from the north, which brought us to a crawl.
Google actually sent us on the levee roads for a number of miles. The roads were not trafficked (we saw one truck) and it was fun to be able to view the landscape from the top of the barrier. However, it was also a loose gravel surface, which slowed us down considerably. Iowa had just received tons of rain and we knew the water was still north of Saint Louis. And while midwest was due for more storms, we could see signs of previous flooding and places where the river was already high.
Riding north before crossing the river meant we had to also cross a major tributary–the Ohio River. We were able to take a minor highway, Great River Road, across the river. The bridge had a low speed limit, but it had a surprising amount of traffic. The shoulders were also kind of narrow. On a calm day, crossing would have been less stressful, but the wind was so strong, and large trucks weren’t slowing down enough to prevent us from getting hit with large drafts. I felt unsafe, but we didn’t have other options, so I put my head down and pedaled on. When I was about 2/3s of the way across, a particularly large gust combined with a draft ripped the visor off my helmet. Fortunately, a corner held on long enough and I reacted quick enough to catch it and hold it in my hand against the handle bars. Otherwise, it would have ended up in the river or in traffic.
After crossing the Ohio, it was just a short distance into Cairo, Illinois. I didn’t know what to expect from Cairo, since it looked sizable on a map. However, from our visits with locals, we’d gathered that there wasn’t a motel there. But once we rode into town, we understood why.
Cairo is kind of a tragic place–huge historical buildings abandoned or falling down. Empty, burned out lots in the heart of downtown. Wide streets with hardly and cars and hardly any people. Of all the desolate, isolated, and run-down places we saw on the trip, Cairo was by far the worst off. At its peak in 1920, it had 15,200 residents. It now has 2,800.
Afterward, I looked up information about Cairo’s past. Early in its history, it was a major city–an important port where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet. Even though its location was highly fortunate, it was also unfortunate, as it is flat and prone to flooding. Though Cairo was a railroad hub as well, the railroads and the automobile made river commerce less important. When steamboats were replaced with barges and additional railroad bridges directed traffic further and further away from Cairo, the city fell on harder times. But the real nail in the coffin for Cairo was good old American racism.
Cairo is the Southern-most town in the north, and racial tensions were high there before and after the Civil War, as the town had an unusually sizable black population, while many of the white residents believed in segregation. The town was markedly violent during the early 20th century, with some notable lynchings and mob violence. It became violent again during the Civil Rights Era, as local African Americans demanded better treatment and were met with extreme retaliation by the local police. Almost all public and private offices employed only whites. City facilities were completely segregated, including public housing, local parks, and seating in the courthouse. The public pool was closed in 1963 to prevent it from being integrated. Despite more than fifteen years of effort and litigation, separate schools were kept until 1967.
One catalyzing event was the death of Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black soldier home on leave, who was found hanged in the Cairo police station in 1967. The FBI did not investigate, as they thought it might inflame the situation, but there were riots anyway, and the perpetrators, if there were any, were never brought to justice. Instead, the riots brought intimidation, patrols, and violent reprisals by the “White Hats”, a local white vigilante group who wore white construction hats and were deputized by the sheriff. If you want to read more about this incident, here is a good summary.
The unrest continued from 1967 through 1970. The refusal of local whites to end segregation and treat black citizens with equality led to a boycott of local businesses by black citizens. Business owners chose to close up shop or go out of business rather than hire black workers. Most those who were able to afford to leave left–primarily well-off whites. By 1970 the population had dropped to a little over 6,000 people. This completely eroded what was left of the town’s economic foundation, and the boycott turned into a decade long affair, as the business owners who remained refused to concede. Only in 1980 was a black person elected to Cairo’s city government, and it was only after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the city was violating voting rights laws.
Today, the town is basically a ghost town, and the community that’s left faces a series of challenges–including poverty, crime, distrust of government and outsiders, inadequate education, lack of employment opportunities and rebuilding its tax base. Cairo school district has the highest percentage in Illinois of children in poverty, 60.6%, which ranks fifteenth highest in the United States.
All in all, it was an interesting place to ride through. We looked for a place to stop for lunch, but only saw about three options, so we chose Subway. After Cairo, we had a long but altogether unremarkable ride through Illinois. The only town of any note we passed through was Thebes, and there wasn’t much there, just a few blocks and a campground with trailers that looked precariously close to the river. If the weather forecast were more promising, we might have stopped. But it wasn’t promising, and we wanted to get across the river. The wind continued to blow strongly, and as we headed north, we noticed a dark storm heading our way, which fortunately passed to the north, as we headed west to cross the river at Cape Girardeau.
Cape Girardeau is where the Adventure Cycling Association’s route (that we had been on for a short time in Virginia) crosses the Mississippi, and we could see why. The crossing was still windy, but the bridge there is a modern bridge with ample shoulders, and it was scenic rather than stressful. It felt wonderful to have bicycled from the Atlantic coast all the way across the Mississippi!
We had done our 60 miles and arrived in town, but we didn’t know where to stay, and it took us a little while to find the hotels on the far side of town, near the mall. We ended up finding a fairly reasonably price room at the Auburn Place, which had an indoor courtyard. We appreciated the tough brick exterior and a room on the interior, as weather looked like it might be severe that evening. We ate a nice dinner at Panera and slept soundly.