We kind of know what Cairo, Illinois is going through as the Ohio River reaches record flood levels in the southernmost town in Illinois. We know because we used to stand on the Jefferson City river bluff and look across the Missouri River to Cedar City.
In the early days of Missouri, before there was a Jefferson City, some early French traders and trappers made an area that brought two tributaries to the Missouri River into something of a trade area. They called the area New Hibernia. In 1834, eight years after the seat of state government was moved to the City of Jefferson, a couple of men named William Scott and John Yount purchased land patents that included what was then called the village of New Hibernia. In time New Hibernia became known as Cedar City, a name formally put on the post office in 1871.
Floods were a constant, although not annual, threat and in time the changing channel left Cedar City about a half-mile from the river. Ferry boats carried people and cargo back and forth from Cedar City and the Hibernia river landing until a bridge was opened in 1895.
We watched several floods inundate Cedar City and watch each time that people moved back, cleaned up, and reclaimed their town. In the late 60s and early 70s the state highway department proposed a new interchange north of Cedar City. Jefferson City’s housing authority and its economic development folks saw an opportunity with that development and approached Cedar City about a buyout with an offer to move the community north, closer to the site of the new interchange—the town’s main businesses had been a string of gas stations along Highway 63. Jefferson City would use the original Cedar City town site as an economic development area.
A community meeting was held at the Cedar City school one night. Jefferson City officials made their pitch. And they were strongly rejected.
No way, said the people at that meeting. No way are we going to move our town. No way are we going to leave this place where we were born and grew up and where are parents and grandparents were born and grew up. This is our home. We’ve withstood the worst the Missouri River can throw at us and we’re staying.
And they did stay in their little no-account town (in the eyes of some). The hardest thing for people to do is abandon the home they’ve known for generations. The hardest thing for floods to destroy are the roots people have put down.
Then came 1993 and the flood that finally washed away a people’s roots and the community of Cedar City. The flood was so devastating that few signs remain almost two decades later and a generation of people living in and near Jefferson City do not know that there was ever a town where the North Jefferson City Park now stands.
Cairo, Illinois is a town of about 2,800 people. Ninety years ago more than 15,000 people lived there. It was founded only three years after Yount and Scott got the land patents to the area that became Cedar City, Missouri.
Cairo has battled the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers many times, the worst time being in 1937. It isn’t much of a town anymore. More than a third of the people there live below the poverty line. Almost half of those younger than 18 are living in poverty. More than one in five people 65 and older are in poverty. The Cairo school district ranks as the 15th worst district in the entire nation in terms of the percent of its children living in poverty.
But it’s home to those people. The last we heard, about 100 people had ignored a citywide evacuation order even though the town is faced with a flood 15 feet deep.
Some of us on this side of the river have asked whether the deteriorating city of Cairo is of greater value than 130,000 acres of fertile southeast Missouri farm land reclaimed a century ago from swamps so dense that men on horses often could not cross them.
That’s the difference. To us, it’s land. To the people of Cairo, it’s home. It’s roots.
Those of us who watched Cedar City die, drowned in the flood of ’93, understand the fierceness of people in small communities that seem to be of little value except to those who have called them “home.”