Not Quite Obscure Enough

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.

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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.

Texas: Is Everything Really Bigger?

I’ve been to Texas many times. I have family there, I have business there, and I’ve driven across its length. I don’t underestimate its gargantuan size. There’s a reason why "Everything is Bigger in Texas" has become such an iconic boast that borders on cliché. If Texas were still a country as it was when it gained independence from Mexico in 1836, it would be about the 40th largest in the world, on a par with France and Afghanistan.

The people of Texas take great pride in it’s wide open spaces and cowboy mystique. The state has created successful advertising slogans such as, "It’s like a whole other country" (tourism) and "don’t mess with Texas" (anti-littering campaign) to great effect.

Over the years I’ve driven frequently along Interstate 10 from Louisiana across the Texas border on the way to places like Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Texas wants you to know that it ain’t no puny eastern state. The Texas Department of Transportation purposely erected this road sign designed to break a traveler’s spirit.

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Indeed, the state felt obligated to point out that El Paso on the western edge is 857 miles away from this stretch of highway all the way over in Orange. Trust me, this is a horribly discouraging sign. Consider how long it would take to drive 857 miles (1,380 kilometres). It’s a lasting impression burned firmly into my psyche. They’ve made their point and it’s been taken.

As a testament to my fondness for the Twelve Mile Circle, consider further how long it took me to find that one little road sign on Street View while clicking through miles of virtual highway images. More than I’m willing to admit. Oh, how I loathe that sign.

Texas is big. I get it. But is everything really bigger in Texas? Variability exists everywhere, even here, so naturally even in a super-sized state something has to be small, smaller or smallest. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples at the county level.

Loving County

Loving County Texas
SOURCE: Wikipedia – Loving County, Texas; released to the public domain

Loving County doesn’t garner its fame and recognition from its name. The "loving" actually derives from Oliver Loving, the guy who got only second billing on the historic Goodnight-Loving Trail where cowboys drove Texas Longhorns to market. What a pity that Loving doesn’t come from loving. It would have been a much better narrative.

Still, the residents get a few moments of glory and attention a couple of times a year when the national media decides to feature a quirky human-interest story here. Why? Because of the 3,000+ individual counties and county equivalents in the United States, only one of them can have the fewest people. That happens right here in Loving County Texas, where the Census Bureau recorded just 67 residents in 2000.

Settlement has always been sparse in this remote stretch of west Texas. There were only three residents recorded here in the 1890 Census. It peaked at 285 residents in 1940. The population ebbs and flows with the fortunes of the oil and gas industry, which is about the only thing out here except for ranching. More demand means more drilling, and the population increases. Maybe Loving County will experience a renaissance in a world of greater energy consumption.

I won’t spend much time discussing Loving County because of its regular media attention. Any search engine will fill pages of articles and narratives written by professionals. I will point out one of the better articles I saw, a 2006 New York Times feature called "1 Cafe, 1 Gas Station, 2 Roads: America’s Emptiest County." I learned that a fringe group of outsiders tried to take over the county a few years ago to establish their version of a libertarian utopia. It doesn’t take much effort to out-vote 67 residents, or so they figured, but they sorely underestimated Texas Justice.

Rockwall County

Rockwall County Texas
SOURCE: Wikipedia – Rockwall County, Texas; released to the public domain

Loving County may have the smallest population of any county in Texas and indeed the United States, but it is not the smallest in size. In Texas that honor goes to Rockwall County. See the little red dot up there towards the northeast on the map above? It’s hard to see, maybe only a single pixel, but it represents 149 square miles. It’s not even close to the smallest county in terms of population though. More than 43,000 people live in Rockwall.

Rockwall County falls within the highly-populated Dallas / Fort Worth metropolitan area, but it is dwarfed by its considerably larger neighbors. It’s natural to wonder why it even exists. How could such a tiny county have arisen in such a significantly populated area? The answer can be found in the later half of the Nineteenth Century.

Rockwall began as a little nonconsequential northwestern appendage tacked to Kaufman County. It split-off in 1873 "because the county seat, Kaufman, was inconvenient for the residents of the northern panhandle." It’s a little easier to see this on a map, and I’m using Mapquest for this one since Google Maps still doesn’t display county boundaries.

Thirty miles separate the two county seats. That doesn’t sound so bad. However let’s keep in mind that a modern road network did not exist in 1873 nor did the automobile. It would have been an all day affair and perhaps an overnight trip on horseback to transact even the most mundane county business. Many counties in the United States formed for similar reasons: residents felt isolated and underserved when their homes fell far from the county seat. Oftentimes this also resulted in second-class status, with fewer services for their taxpayer dollars.

Rockwall County isn’t the smallest county in the United States — not even close — but 149 square miles is a respectably diminutive footprint and not what one would expect to find in a behemoth like Texas.