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The Ghost Town of Cairo: Arkansas Diamond Mining, Day One

Planning the Trip

I'm from Central Illinois, but my husband was born in northeast Arkansas and still has a lot of family along the Arkansas-Missouri border. We've been to Northeast Arkansas and Southern Missouri more times than I can count to visit family on holidays and for family reunions. Despite that, I can't say that we've ever really seen much of Arkansas itself.

I decided that at some point we needed to see more of Arkansas than the 30 or so square miles we'd seen so much of! I mean, there must be more to the state than the soybean fields and the hill my husband's grandmother lived on, right?

Over last summer, another family reunion in Arkansas  gave me just the excuse I needed to plan an extended family vacation with the intention of exploring more of this great state my family had seen so little of.

The centerpiece of the trip sprung from our neighbors' passion for mining trips. In casual conversation they happened to mention visiting a diamond mine in central Arkansas. A diamond mine? In Arkansas? Considering that I have two sons who would jump at any chance to dig in dirt, especially if I added the lure of a "get rich quick" scheme, I figured this would be a good thing to center an entire trip around.

I spent countless hours searching for some good old-fashioned cabin-style lodging and other attractions in the area; and spent even more time convincing the in-laws and my husband's sister and her family to go along with us. Knowing we would spend the last two days of the trip attending my husband's family reunion, I put together an itinerary for the entire family that included diamond and quartz mining, visiting historic spas, and spending a few nights in a pair of rustic country cabins, complete with campfires and river views.

The evening before the trip was spent with our usual hectic last minute packing. When it was just my husband and I, packing for trips seemed so easy. Adding two sons ages 8 and 10 to the mix tends to make my job a lot harder! After getting the kids all packed, we hustled them into bed, with visions of diamonds the size of their fists and roasting marshmallows dancing in their heads and then hit the sack ourselves.

Day One, Tuesday, June 9

Northern Illinois to Doniphan, Missouri

Finally, day one of the great mining adventure was upon us! The kids were excited to be on the way. Amazingly, everyone managed to get up by 6:30, get dressed and ready to be out the door by 7am. This was a new record for us! Despite our best intentions, and my husband's increasing frustrations, we typically leave at least an hour later than we originally plan. In fact, its' a bit of a running joke with family and friends. Such is the life of parents.

We loaded up the rest of the gear, got everything in it's place, but somehow I managed to misplace the new game I had bought the kids especially for the journey. So much for something new to do on the trip. After wasting time searching fruitlessly for it, we finally gave up and I just hoped it made its way into a bag unnoticed and we would find it for the way home.

We finally headed out, only about an hour later than planned. Ah, I knew it was too good to be true. We struck out along Route 47, a county highway, opting for this more scenic route than the traditional Interstates. By 10am we had only endured one question of “how much longer til we get there?” from the kids. Out of the corner of my eye, I'm pretty sure I saw them grinning as they asked. Maybe it was the countless stories my husband had told the kids about his epic four week grand vacation by car to California and back when he was young, with lines like "back then we didn't have video games, so my sister and I had fun the old-fashioned way, by picking on each other and asking my parents 'are we there yet' over and over and OVER again!" Whatever it was, the kids had obviously figured out exactly how to get under Mom's skin. I punched my husband in the arm, as just punishment.

We got stuck behind the longest semi I'd ever seen, which was hauling a single windmill blade to a nearby windmill farm. Considering the load, I couldn't really fault them for moving slowly, and it was interesting to see how big the blades were up close. Despite that, we still made good time.

Route 47 eventually runs into Interstate 72 near Champaign-Urbana, which we took over to Interstate 57 and then continued south. Before we got too far, we stopped for lunch at a rest area just south of Champaign-Urbana. For a change, this one had very clean women's bathrooms. While that might sound silly, for a female it's worth noting for future trips. I circled that one on the map!

We assembled sandwiches, ate some grapes and let the kids run around on the playground for a few minutes to siphon off some of that pent-up energy before getting back on the road.

We  stopped for gas in Salem, Illinois and everyone caved in and bought some chocolate. My husband's eye was caught by a sexy looking retro-style A&W Root Beer Float bottle and just HAD to have it, proclaiming "wow, this is the coolest looking thing EVER! I bet it tastes GREAT!" While it looked interesting, the general consensus was: YUK. We couldn’t even give it to the kids, which should tell you something! Ah well, live and Learn.

Abandoned round liquor store in Odin, Illinois

Coldest Beer In Town

As luck would have it (or is it a curse?), an old abandoned liquor store overrun by rampant foliage, happened to be sitting on an equally abandoned dead-end road right next store to the gas station. My husband is a sucker for urban decay, so we drove over to it and he jumped out of the car and excitedly took pictures. I happened to steal a glance back at my oldest son and caught him looking at his father and shrugging his shoulders with that "he's crazy, but we're used to it" look on his face.

Cairo, Illinois

Speaking of urban decay, our next stop was Cairo, Illinois. More pictures for our photo album of signs. It is amazingly sad how dilapidated this town is. Here it sits, at the junction of two major rivers, and it's boarded up.

Massive levy floodgate, Cairo, Illinois

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter

As you come into town, there is a very cool iron gate that rises up into the overpass, a remnant of very old times. We drove through and into the old downtown area. At least ninety percent of the buildings are vacant and boarded up. As the kids looked around, they both exclaimed “Looks like the zombies could show up at any time! Then that iron gate will drop, and we'll be dinner for sure!” This town should make its next million as a movie set. You could shoot a horror film here without having to build a set; just use the abandoned town.

We took the bridge out of town and within minutes found ourselves in Missouri. Yeah, next state on our journey! Now we just needed to finish the long stretch through the state to make it to our first stop for the night. Our plans called for meeting up with the rest of our party that evening, then forming a caravan for the drive to the diamond mine the next day. Ten hours today, then another six tomorrow, then hope for treasure!

All photos by eJourna

View a complete set of photos of Cairo, Illinois

Related posts:

  1. Superman’s Hometown: Arkansas Diamond Mining Day Five and Six
  2. Hot Springs: Arkansas Diamond Mining Day Four
  3. Sifting for Treasure: Arkansas Diamond Mining Day Two
  4. A Day In The Quartz Fields: Arkansas Diamond Mining Day Three
  5. Ghosts of the South: Exploring Haunted Places in Arkansas

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