Located in the Historic District of downtown Cairo is the Cairo Custom
House Museum. The museum is housed in the building that was constructed
as the United States Custom House. The site for the custom house was
chosen in 1859 by Illinois Senator and Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the
1860 presidential campaign Stephen A. Douglas. Construction of the
Custom House was postponed until after the Civil War. In 1866 John A.
Logan returned to Congress and lobbied successfully for fifty thousand
dollars to start construction, with fifty thousand dollars allocated
each following year until construction was completed. Construction began
in 1867, and the building opened to the public on the evening of June
16, 1872. The original purpose of the Custom House was to house the
offices which dealt with collecting duties and tariffs on international
imports which had not been offloaded before they reached Cairo on their
way up the Mississippi River.
Alfred B. Mullett was chosen as the architect for the Custom House.
Mullett was considered to be "extravagant" in his buildings and is
famous for the buildings he designed, including the U.S. Treasury
Department, an addition to the White House, the St. Louis Post Office,
and the San Francisco Mint. The floors of the custom house were made of
black slate and white marble square tiles arranged like a checkerboard.
Alternating strips of black and white walnut wood were also used for
flooring. The fireplaces installed throughout the building were not used
for heating, but were designed for ventilation. Italian marble was used
for the fireplaces, an example of the extravagance of the architect. The
slate used for roofing and other features was brought from Vermont. Most
of the stone, however, came from nearby Shawneetown. The building was
lighted with gas light fixtures until the 1890s. Electricity was added
to the building in the 1890s and in 1892 Elisha Graves Otis added an
Custom House has served the community in a number of capacities after
the need for a custom house ceased. The building has been used by the
U.S. Post Office, the Weather Bureau, the Federal Court system, and the
Cairo Police Department. The building was last used in an official
function in 1975. A Custom House Restoration Commission was been set up
to preserve this once-magnificent building and restoration began in
1984. Restoration on the first floor is complete and has been
transformed into a museum that is open to the public. Many interesting
displays are shown in the museum including Civil War memorabilia, a
replica of the U.S.S. Cairo gunboat, an 1865 Cairo Fire Department
hand-operated pumper, and an exhibit on the 1937 flood in Cairo.
Information regarding the Custom House architect and a Civil War-era
desk used by Ulysses S. Grant when he was in Cairo are also on display.