Smallest County in the USA, Part 1

On February 15, 2008 · 2 Comments

What is the smallest county in the United States? It’s such a simple question but there are many ways to approach it. It really depends. Would it be the smallest parcel of land that actually carries the title “county?” Does it require a distinct, functional government with specific attributes? What about independent cities that provide citizens with similar services and which the U.S. Census Bureau calls “county equivalents?” These considerations all lead to different conclusions. Over the next several entries I will explore various perspectives and discuss leading candidates for the Smallest County designation.



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Kalawao County, Hawaii is the smallest administrative unit in the United States that is explicitly called a county. It has a landmass of 13.21 square miles. A mere speck. Hands down and without a doubt, nothing in the United States called a “county” is smaller than Kalawao. However it is debatable whether it should quality as a functional county due to its geography, history, governance and future.Kalawao County encompasses the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north shore of Moloka’i. It is completely walled-off from the remainder of the island by a curtain of steep mountainous terrain. No roads lead to Kalawao. Visitors arriving by land must negotiate a rugged foot trail over the mountains. Such a small, isolated, and remote spot seems an unusual choice for a standalone county.

It make more sense in the context of the county’s history, for it was here that the Belgian priest Father Damien provided a haven for individuals suffering from Hansen’s Disease (then known as leprosy). People afflicted with Hansen’s Disease were forced to live in the colony beginning in the 1880′s as a way to contain the contagion. The government of Hawaii designated it as a separate county when it established this structure in 1905, probably as a way to reinforce its isolation. Advances in medicine eventually rendered Hansen’s Disease both treatable and non-communicable. The Kalaupapa quarantine was lifted in 1969 and the underpinning logic behind the existence of Kalawao County lifted with it. However many of the residents had grown accustomed to life in their remote, self-reliant community. In a humanitarian gesture the state allowed them to remain in Kalawao County for the rest of their lives but no new resident could join them.

There is no doubt that Kalawao is an established county under the laws of Hawaii. However its functions are extremely limited and quite dissimilar to the other four counties comprising the state. It places Kalawao County under the “jurisdiction and control” of the department of health. It also establishes a single county officer, a sheriff, to be a patient-resident appointed by the department of health.

The U.S. Census Bureau considers Kalawao to be a county for census purposes, and includes coverage for it both on its map and its Quick Facts statistics. The population cannot be replenished and it continues to drop as it ages. The Bureau recorded 147 residents in 2000, falling to 120 in 2006. Eventually it will become zero.

It is the only county in the United States with restricted access. Visitors must obtain permission to enter. Permits can be obtained fairly readily through officially sanctioned tours conducted by authorized operators, but people can’t just show up and walk in. And anyone under 16 years is totally out of luck. They are prohibited by State law.

For all of these unusual reasons and special circumstances, it is debatable whether Kalawao can actually be considered a county in anything more than name only. The National Association of Counties does not list Kalawao as a county. Its population will disappear in another generation and it will likely cease to be a county even in name. The point will become moot.

Kalawao is the smallest county in the United States today. But is it truly a county?

Other Posts in this Series:

On February 15, 2008 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Smallest County in the USA, Part 1”

  1. [...] is a four-part series on trying to pin down the smallest county in the U.S. The smallest county is [...]

  2. [...] Smallest County in the United States series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Collectively these are by far the most popular pages on Twelve Mile [...]

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