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Collection Title: U.S.S Cairo Collection

Collection Number: M277

Dates: 1968-1984

Volume: 1 Folder

Provenance: Transferred to McCain Library and Archives in November 1991 from Cox Library, University of Southern Mississippi, Gulf Park Campus. Origin of materials is not known, but they may have been transferred to Cox Library when the Library at the University of Southern Mississippi, Natchez Campus was closed several years earlier.

Copyright: This collection may be protected from unauthorized copying by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code).

Biographical/Historical Sketch:

The U.S.S. Cairo (Care-oh) was one of seven ironclad river gunboats constructed for the United States War Department during the American Civil War. Built at Mound City, Illinois, in 1861, by James B. Eads, the Cairo derived its name from the city of Cairo, Illinois. Commissioned on January 16, 1862, the main purpose of the Cairo was to engage Confederate gunboats on inland rivers and waterways in the Southern states.

The Cairo measured one-hundred seventy-five feet in length, fifty-one feet in width, drew six feet of water, and weighed five-hundred twelve tons when commissioned. Capable of carrying a crew of one-hundred sixty, two coal fired steam engines powered a twenty-two foot paddle wheel which propelled the Cairo at speeds upwards of six knots. The firepower of the Cairo was quite diverse, consisting of 6 forty-two pounders (a gun launching a projectile of a specified weight), 6 thirty-two pounders, 3 eight-inch guns, and 1 twelve pound howitzer. To provide protection against enemy forays, two and half inch armor plating covered the front casement and sides.

On December 12, 1862, while mine sweeping the Yazoo River, two electrically detonated mines exploded under the Cairo's hull while it was sixteen miles north of the mouth of the Yazoo, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The damage to the ship's hull was so severe that the Cairo sunk in approximately twelve minutes. Surprisingly, all one-hundred and fifty-eight crew members and seventeen officers on board escaped injury as a result of Captain Thomas O. Selfridge's decision to beach the boat on the river embankment moments before sinking. The Cairo's two smokestacks were the only portions of the ship that remained above water. However, fearing that the Confederates might attempt to locate and raise the sunken Cairo, the smokestacks were broken off by the Queen of the West, a Union ram (a warship with a heavy beak at the bow for piercing enemy ships).

The Cairo remained submerged in the muddy waters of the Yazoo River for one-hundred and two years. The exact location of the gunship was often speculated upon, but not confirmed until November 12, 1956. Three men, Edwin Bearss, historian at the Vicksburg Military Park, Warren Grabau, amateur historian and professor of geology, and Don Jacks, a park employee, discovered the Cairo twelve miles north of Vicksburg. Using a small compass and a johnboat, the men located the Cairo during an unusually low water level on the Yazoo River. The dimensions of the Cairo were determined with the aid of twelve foot poles used to feel around the surface of the boat.

Efforts to raise the Cairo slow. In October 1964, the three inch cables used to hoist the Cairo onto a submerged barge broke the hull of the ship and dashed hopes of raising the gunboat intact. Once broken, the rescue crew elected to cut the ship into three separate pieces with the plan of saving as much of the ship as possible. The plan succeeded and in December 1964, the remains of the Cairo were loaded onto barges and transported to Vicksburg. During the summer of 1965, the remnants were relocated to Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The Cairo lingered in Pascagoula for twelve years due to lack of funding. Finally, in 1972, Congress appropriated $5.9 million to cover expenses for a complete restoration of the gunboat and an exhibit in the Vicksburg Military Park. However, further delays in funding stalled progress until June 1977, when barges transported the Cairo back to Vicksburg where the pieces of the damaged hull were placed on a large concrete slab. Upon arrival at the park, only 30% to 40% of the original Cairo survived.

Since no definitive blueprint of the Cairo exists, historical architects Doug Ashley and Tom McGrath constructed a wooden model (scaled 1' : 1") of the Cairo. This model, in addition to a one-hundred and twenty year-old photograph of the Cairo, served as the template for the restoration process. The park service employed approximately twenty-five carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, welders, engineers, and maintenance workers for the reconstruction effort.

In addition to the work done on the Cairo, a museum opened in 1980 near the restoration site. The museum commemorates the history of the Cairo and displays numerous artifacts recovered from the boat such as books, pistols, cooking utensils, shoes, knives, tooth brushes, and barrels containing beef and pork.

To protect it against weathering, a pavilion two-hundred forty-five feet long, one-hundred thirty feet wide, and forty feet high shelters the Cairo. After five years of perseverance, the restoration project was completed in the spring of 1984. Construction of an observation deck enables the public to view the Cairo from a distance and within the boat itself.

Scope and Content:

This collection consists of nine photographs and eight newspaper articles relating to the U.S.S. Cairo. The photographs contain close-up images of the Cairo's bow section, pilot house, cannons, engines, and steering mechanism. In addition, there are several images of the Cairo taken from a distance which provide a full view of the boat. The photographs were taken ca. 1967 at Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, before restoration began.

The newspaper articles in the collection provide information about the history of the Cairo, its sinking during the Civil War, and the raising and restoration process. These articles also contain pictures documenting the construction of a protective pavilion for the Cairo, an image of the Cairo taken in 1862, aerial pictures of the reconstruction effort dating between 1968 and 1984, and several images of the salvage crew restoring the gunboat.


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Revised: December 16, 2004