The Great River Road

“A grave uncheered by any gleam of promise” was but one of Charles Dickens’s unsympathetic descriptions of Cairo (pop. 2,831; pronounced “CARE-oh” or “KAY-ro”), the town that presides over—and sometimes under—the meeting of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Routinely submerged by floodwaters until the Corps of Engineers ringed the town with a massive stockade of levees and huge steel floodgates, Cairo’s star shone briefly in the steamboat era and during the Civil War, when 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 over 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 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.