Why is there no great city where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi?

Big cities usually (or very often) grow up along key transportation routes – especially where one route meets another. St. Louis, Missouri, grew up where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi. Why is there no great city where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi? There’s none on the Missouri side, none on the Kentucky side, and on the Illinois side there’s only Cairo (pop. 3,632 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairo%2C_Illinois). And the Ohio was a major transportation route in the 19th Century (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ohio_river).

WAG is that before the days of flood control, that would be a very bad place to put a town. The towns that were uphill or on a bluff above the river a bit fared better, like Memphis and St. Louis. Plus, the Mississippi tends to meander, so the town might have either been underwater or too far from it eventually.

Here’s a link to a good historical record of commerce in Cairo (which had roughtly twice as many residents in 1900 as it does today).

Cairo, Illinois

As already mentioned, seems that flooding was a major issue and as bridges were built across the Mississippi River it’s importance to commerce waned.

Cairo is an old railroad town. I understand the name is pronounced ‘Kay-ro’ for some reason.

Yes, It’s KAY-ro. I’ve been there and it definitely qualifies as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, IOW one I’ll avoid repeating if at all possible.

Cairo is very close to being the armpit of America. Something like 75% of the residents are on public assistance. All the jobs left 50 years ago and the people just didn’t. Weird, ignorant, and scary. I’m an open-minded Progressive realist who’s seen the Third World up close & personal, but this place is something out of the movies.

As is Cairo, GA, home of Karo syrup.

Actually, I’m not sure that the premise of the OP is correct. Certainly Pittsburgh and Albany represent major cities on confluences and I guess we could claim St. Louis for the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers (although their actual confluence is more than 15 miles from downtown St. Louis which would have made it over a day’s travel away prior to the steamboat–and still a several hour trip for an upbound boat in the early days of steam).

On the other hand, there is no major city at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Illinois River. Paducah (Tennessee River) is larger than Cairo, but I would not call it a major city. There is not even a village at the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio rivers. The Great Miami and Little Miami rivers flank Cincinnati, but neither has a city at their confluence with the Ohio. The Scioto does end at Portsmouth, but that was a function of the Ohio-Erie Canal using the Scioto as a water source–and Portsmouth is another city of only modest size. There is no city at the Arkansas/Mississippi confluence. Like St. Louis, you might make a case for Montreal being the confluence of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence, but the city is actually removed from the point(s) where they meet–and faces away from the Ottawa. Neither the St. Maurice nor the Saguenay meet the St. Lawrence at anything resembling a major city. And the Richlieu, providing the primary overland route between Canada and the rest of the colonies in the late 18th century empties out at picturesque Sorel, many miles removed from Montreal.

Leaving North America, Milan, Italy dominates the Po valley, yet it is not even on the Po river and no major cities appear on confluences of any of the Po tributaries. If we look at Northern Europe, we find rather more large cities at confluences, but I suspect that that was a function of the period when primary transportation was by water and the cities arose at points where they could collect tolls. By the time that North America was settled, we did not have small lordlings or communities imposing tolls on the rivers, and the canals and railroads that followed soon after the westward expansion mitigated against the rivers dominating the transportation to the exclusion of other sites. The Rhine, in a dep valley, has a good-sized city at every brook that empties into it. The Oder, the Elbe, and even the Danube, on broader plains, not so much.

In his book Old Glory, An American Voyage, Jonathan Raban chronicles his trip in an 18-foot flatbottomed aluminum jon-boat down most of the length of the Mississippi River. If I recall correctly, the tugboat captains (he had a marine radio) talked him into having his little boat hoisted aboard a bigger boat for the trip through the confluence. Even veteran rivermen find the confluence at Cairo scary. There’s bigtime turbulence and a domelike disturbance the rivermen call “the boil.” Perhaps that’s part of the reason there’s no big city there.

By the way, many towns along the way had massive piles of clamshells at the shoreline. All the shells were riddled with round holes from the button factories that thrived there until all the clams were gone.

Transportation centers don’t arise along the route; they generally occur where the means of transportation change. For example, a port where cargo is transferred from river ships to ocean ships or loaded and unloaded from land transportation. Or the point on a river that’s as far upriver as ships can go and where shipments will be transferred to land transportation. But at Cairo there’s no real purpose for stopping. If you’ve already loaded your ship and are sailing upriver all you’re going to do at Cairo is turn left or right and keep sailing.

Which is why Paducah, KY is a lot bigger than Cairo.

See: Fall Line

boundary between an upland region and a coastal plain across which rivers from the upland region drop to the plain as falls or rapids. A fall line is formed in an area where the rivers have eroded away the soft rocks of a coastal plain more quickly than the older harder rocks of an upland region. Such erosion follows a crooked line along a coast. River vessels usually cannot travel beyond a fall line and their cargoes must be unloaded there.

Fall line cities in Virginia are Richmond, on the fall line of the James; Petersburg on the fall line of the appomattox and Fredericksberg on the fall line of the Rappahannock.

FWIW, neither of the Miami rivers is really navigable, at least in terms of commerce. There is another river that flows down into Kentucky* from the Ohio at Cincinnati, I think it’s the Green River. My understanding is that Cincinnati is where it is because there was an easy access point there for ships to stop and load. Seems like there were also a decent number of people who wrecked there or got stranded for whatever reason and just decided to stay.

*It probably actually flows up into the Ohio, but I don’t really know.

You must be thinking of the Licking River, which gave Cincinnati its original name of Losantiville, created from a crazy combination of languages and meaning “city opposite the mouth of the Licking River” (the “L” stood for “Licking River”).

Waiting for someone to mention Cairo’s appearance in Huck Finn :slight_smile:

Yeah, that’s the one. I knew Cincy used to be Losantiville, but I never knew “why” before.

Cairo never appears in Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Jim missed one night in a fog and never saw it.


Interestingly, the same area was one of the centers, perhaps the primary center, of the pre-Columbian “Mound Builder” civilization, or almost-civilization, of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys (which had vanished long before Europeans arrived in the Americas, nobody knows why – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mound_Builders). The mound-city of Cahokia (that’s what the French settlers called it, after a local Indian tribe – the original name, and the name and language of its people, are lost forever – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cahokia) was located near what is now East St. Louis, Illinois – also a fair piece from the actual confluence of the rivers, but its location near the confluence was no happenstance. The area was a nexus of trade routes. (I visited Cahokia last year – apart from the central mound there’s not much to see in the way of ruins, but the attached museum is fascinating.)

It does, however, appear in Neil Gaiman’s excellent American Gods

I’ve always quite wondered about Cairo; it was a logistical stopping place in roadtrips between Mississippi and Chicago, but, man, Cairo always smelled mighty ripe upon approach in summer travelling times. Still, would always cruise through town, because it was like time forgot it.

This thread made me curious, and the most interesting link was this: http://users.stlcc.edu/jangert/cairo/cairo.html

The basic summer stink approaching Cairo made me think that the particular spring floods does not lend itself to easy primo settlement, hence poorer settlers, hence more racial strife. Before searching out the above link, I fetched a fine book out of my library, mentioned in the link: Let My People Go ; Cairo, Illinois:1967-1973: Civil Rights Photographsby Preston Ewing, Jr. The preface to that book indicates that Cairo was subject to frequent spring flooding, not the most desirable land.

But, by 1843, flood levees were built, and post Civil War era, 1860, northward migration by the Southern Black population was a great movement. To quote the same book:

“During the Civil War Period, 1860-64, Union forces operated out of the Cairo area because of it’s ideal location near the Southern states. After the war, Cairo continued to grow along with the riverboat traffic. (My note; black workers were welcomed with the work available) As their numbers in the community grew , black citizens increasingly found themselves victims of racism and violence. Whites enforced complete racial segregation even though it was prohibited in schools and public places by Illinois state law.”

I could go on here a great deal, the above mentioned book does a better service than I can; suffice it to say; Cairo, Illinois, was a possible concurrence of waters, but too prone to flood in spring, making it less habitable than St. Louis or Memphis. Occupied by Union troops,when needed, attracting black populations who really needed to get out of Dodge. After surge, no protection, and left to languish, deal with hatred due to stupid prejudice.

On we go. I’d like to hear from people who live in the Cairo area for how it is now.

The ripe smell?
I’ve never been to Cairo, but somebody here mentioned the Karo corn syrup made there. I have been near a corn sugar plant outside of Lafayette, Indiana, and it has a rich, funky aroma for miles downwind.