Not Quite Obscure Enough

On December 20, 2011 · 4 Comments

There are places so obscure that they achieve a level of notoriety in geo-oddity circles. Examples would include Loving County, Texas and Kalawao County, Hawaii, which are both revered in the county counting community. No county has fewer residents than Loving with only 82 people recorded in the 2010 Decennial Census. Kalawao comes in a close second with 90 residents; however its claim-to-fame isn’t associated with population but with size — it’s the smallest county in the United States at only 13.2 square miles of land. Both locations have been discussed on the Twelve Mile Circle (in "Is Everything Really Bigger in Texas?" and in Smallest County in the USA, Part 1) and on many other geo-blogs ad infinitum.

Odd geography enthusiasts go out of their way to visit Loving and Kalawao. Even the mainstream Press lauds attention on them with a regular streams of human interest stories. I guess reporters need to find something to do between news cycles. They’ll trudge down to the Loving County’s seat at Mentone (population 19) and interview whoever decided to be sheriff that year like they’re the first ones that ever thought of it.

Nobody every pays attention to the less fortunate counties that come after Loving and Kalawao, the remaining eight that round-out the Top 10 of the least populated. Let’s give a little nod to those tiny places that aren’t quite obscure enough to occupy the limelight. This is the Top (bottom?) 10 as tallied by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010:

  1. Loving, TX (82)
  2. Kalawao, HI (90)
  3. King, TX (286)
  4. Kenedy, TX (416) – easternmost county in the US with less than one person per square mile
  5. Arthur, NE (460)
  6. Blaine, NE (478)
  7. Petroleum, MT (494) – newest county in Montana (est. 1926)
  8. McPherson, NE (539)
  9. Grant, NE (614)
  10. Loup, NE (632)

It’s striking that Nebraska contains fully half of the least populous counties in the Top 10, albeit Texas has a lock on several top spots. Clearly Nebraska has an opportunity to capitalizing on its unique situation. We’ve seen plenty of travel corridors created to promote tourism: wine and beer trails; exploration routes; and nostalgic motor roads to name a few. I propose the Nebraska Overlooked County Trail. Maybe visitors will get a little prize when they collect a stamp at each county courthouse or something. It wouldn’t take a lot of tourism to create positive impacts in locations this small, so take a drive and hit a cluster of the absolutely most obscure of obscure counties.

View Larger Map

Amazingly, this entire course can be completed in about 4 hours while covering only 200 miles (335 km).

Highlights would include the original Arthur County courthouse (now the Arthur County Historical Society Museum) alleged to be the smallest courthouse in the United States up until around 1960. I’m having trouble finding any other highlights besides the scenery but I’m sure they exist! We just have to think a little more creatively. I offer all rights to this idea to the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism to develop and publicize as they wish.

Ten Smallest Counties

Strange things may be afoot in the future. Kalawao could eclipse Loving. The unusual situation of Kalawao continues to drain its population. In 2010, only 2% of the people living there were under age 18 and its median age was 59. Meanwhile, Loving has been holding steady for the last thirty years and even gained population in 2010. Eventually Kalawao will disappear as a county unable to replenish its population but it’s not inconceivable that it will shove Loving aside before that happens. I am guessing that will occur in the 2020 Decennial Census, and it will attract appreciable media attention when it captures both the diminutive size and population honors. Tourism interest will increase and it will become increasingly difficult to secure permission to visit. See Kalawao before 2020 if you want include it on your list of counties counted.

Most of the counties peaked their population in the early 20th Century before declining slowly before bottoming out in the last couple of decades. It will be interesting to see whether any of these counties rebound as white-collar jobs become increasingly free of geography and their children no longer need to move away.

On December 20, 2011 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Not Quite Obscure Enough”

  1. Steve CTMQ says:

    “easternmost county in the US with less than one person per square mile” – I must know how you determined this nugget. I can’t imagine the Census Bureau noted it.

    Of course, I’m then guy who just got strangely excited upon stumbling on the Deep River (CT) Horseshoe League” which claims to be “the longest continuous currently operating organization devoted to horseshoe pitching.”

    Merry Christmas to us all.

  2. Peter says:

    Kenedy County’s an odd case, being on the Gulf coast and not too far (at least in Texas terms) from the city of Corpus Christi. What might be a partial explanation for the very small population is that a significant portion of the county is occupied by the King Ranch. But much isn’t, so that’s not the full story.

    • Karl Z says:

      Let me give an explanation a shot:

      1) No river, stream, or other source of old-time transportation access
      2) No decent port location
      3) Swampy and low-lying (ever been there?)
      4) Unpleasant climate, especially in the summer
      5) Too far from the border for cross-border activity

      That’s not going to make the place very attractive. That’s probably why the county seat (Sarita) is an unincorporated community, and really the only town in the county. There may be some other reason why the area isn’t attractive that I don’t know about.

      Kenedy County was one of the last counties (and possibly THE last county) created in Texas, formed in 1921, from parts of two other counties. The clue for me was looking at a list of county numbers from Texas Department of Transportation–the numbers coincide with alphabetical order until they hit Kenedy County, which is out of order, so the list existed BEFORE Kenedy County. The only road of note is US 77. There don’t appear to be any state highways or FM roads in the county (the latter is unusual for Texas). There’s a Border Patrol checkpoint about 15 miles south of Sarita–where else are you going to go to get around it? (It’s as lonely as the Webb County checkpoint on US 59.)

      Texas plans to convert US 77 to a freeway as one of the three southern branches of Interstate 69. The conversion won’t be hard in Kenedy County. It will probably increase the county’s isolation, though, because there’s very little reason to build exits here.

    • Scott Surgent says:

      Some of the other large ranches properties that comprise Kenedy County are “associated” ranches to the giant King Ranch, either as off-shoots or competing ranches that absorbed into one another. The definitive book is The Kings of Texas which explores in great detail the rise of the King Ranch and how it has survived to this day.

      Loving County is the newest county (1931) in Texas but by a technicality: it was formed around 1887 but repealed later after corruption in the county government, and for most of the next 30 years was an unorganized county attached to Winkler County.

      Having been to both, I lean toward Kenedy being “bleaker” than Loving. At least you can stand on your car hood and see above the expanse of brush in Loving County.

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