The Great River Road


“A grave uncheered by any gleam of promise” was but one of Charles Dickens’s unsympathetic descriptions of Cairo (pop. 2,188; pronounced “CARE-oh” or “KAY-ro”), the town that presides over—and sometimes under—the meeting of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It was routinely submerged by floodwaters until the Corps of Engineers ringed the town with a massive stockade of levees and huge steel floodgates. During the Civil War, General Grant quartered his Army of the Tennessee here and Union ironclads were berthed along the waterfront.

If you enjoy studying historic buildings (more often than not in Cairo they are empty decaying buildings), you can see many signs of the prosperity that helped Cairo reach a peak population of more than 15,000 people: a number of Victorian-era mansions built by merchants and boat captains remain in varying stages of repair, there’s a majestic public library, and volunteers have been slowly restoring the stately circa-1872 Cairo Custom House Museum (1400 Washington Ave., 618/734-9632, Tues.-Fri., free) into an intriguing if incomplete museum.

Along with the historic remnants, Cairo has something else worth seeing: the confluence of the two mighty rivers. Unless there’s a flood in progress (as there was so destructively in the spring of 2011), do your watching from a small platform in Fort Defiance State Park, at the foot of the bridge that carries US-60 between Missouri and Kentucky, lasting but a quarter-mile (0.4 km) in Illinois.

While most of Cairo’s story is in the past, if you visit you can enjoy one present-day pleasure: the delicious pulled pork sandwiches and other barbecue treats on offer at Shemwell’s (1102 Washington St., 618/734-0165), just up from the Custom House.

Metropolis: Home of Superman

The town of Metropolis, Illinois (pop. 6,047), along the Ohio River 45 mi (72 km) northeast of Cairo but most easily accessible via Paducah, Kentucky, takes pride in its adopted superhero son, Superman. An impressive and photogenic 15-ft-tall (4.6-m) statue of the Man of Steel stands along Market Street downtown, on a pedestal promoting “Truth—Justice—The American Way,” on the north side of the Massac County Courthouse. Nearby are a quick-change telephone booth and the “offices” of the Daily Planet newspaper. Every June a festival celebrates the Man of Steel’s crime-fighting efforts. For more information, and a look at one of the most extensive collections of Superman artifacts and memorabilia anywhere, visit the Super Museum (517 Market St., 618/524-5518, daily, $5), across the street from that selfie-ready statue.

The other big attraction in town is the nearly 40,000-sq-ft (3,716-sq-m) Harrah’s Metropolis Casino, down on the banks of the Ohio River at the base of the railroad bridge.

Travel Maps of the Great River Road

Map of the Great River Road through Northern Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.
Map of the GRR through Northern IL, IA, and MO.
Map of the Great River Road through Southern Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.
Map of the GRR through Southern IL, IA, and MO.

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