Travel with fine art photographer Keith Dotson to the fading city of Cairo, Illinois to make black and white photographs of abandoned buildings
Black and white photographs of abandoned buildings in Cairo, Illinois
I recently made my second road trip to Cairo, Illinois — once a prosperous river town near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. I was in Cairo the first time back in 2017, but the light was very harsh on that trip, so I returned on an overcast day to get more images and to see how the crumbling city has fared.
An important river town with a troubling history
Cairo was an important river town in its past, but has spiraled downward to the point of becoming nearly a ghost town. Now, it has a reputation as one of America’s destinations for people who like to shoot urban decay and ruins.
How did the city of Cairo degrade to this sad condition? While I normally love digging into the history of abandoned places, I prefer not to delve too deeply into the history here. To be honest, the town experienced some pretty ugly, troubling events that I prefer to just leave alone for purposes of this blog post. The city began going downhill after many, repeated episodes of people treating other people very badly. There’s a lot of information on the Internet if you’re curious to know more.
None of that toxic history is the fault of the current residents, who are left to live in a city filled with abandoned neighborhoods and long stretches of downtown blocks that are either vacant, or demolished.
Cairo’s abandoned buildings are vanishing rapidly
Sadly but understandably, the abandoned structures are systematically being erased from the landscape here. Some are also being lost to fire.
I’ve said many times that I view photographs of abandoned places as a form of architectural preservation and in Cairo it’s very appropriate. The town is already a mere shadow of its former self, architecturally speaking. A lot of the old buildings are gone.
Ayer’s Pills for the Liver historic wall ad in Cairo, Illinois
This peeling advertisement for “Ayer’s Pills for the Liver” has not only outlived the product, but it has almost outlived the city.
Ayer’s Pills for the Liver was a “miracle cure” that promised to aid in numerous ailments, including constipation, indigestion, dyspepsia, heartburn and disorders of the liver. Ayer’s Pills were called the best remedy for gout, dropsy, and kidney complaints. They even promised to open pores, allowing release of inflammatory secretions. It seems to have been offered in the U.S. from the 1870s until at least 1900.
Ayer’s Pills were one of many pharmaceuticals offered by Dr. J.C. Ayer and Co., of Lowell, Massachusetts. James Cook Ayer was America’s leading and wealthiest manufacturer of patent medicine. In the 1870s, he spent the unbelievable sum of $140,000 annually to advertise his medicines, and amassed a fortune of $20 million (Wikipedia).
Ayer graduated from medical school, but never practiced medicine, choosing instead to concentrate on the development of his medicines and the subsequent business. He died in 1878.
Down in the bottom right corner of the wall is an ad for Oscar Pepper Whiskey. Oscar Pepper established his whiskey brand in 1838, with roots as far back as 1800. The brand went on to become Woodford Reserve, still in production in Kentucky.
Historic ironwork columns
As historic storefronts are lost to demolition, historic ironwork columns like those pictured above are also lost. These ironwork storefronts were sold by mail order in the late 1800s, and were manufactured in many cities, but St. Louis was home base for the majority of the foundries.
I posted a reference list of antique ironworks here. I will continue to update it as I find more examples in small towns.
Thanks for reading