If the "Largest Smallest United States County" sounds fleetingly familiar, you are correct. I covered a variant of this a couple of years ago. Count yourself among the small group of 12MC devotees who have been following along and paying attention for quite awhile. I was contacted by reader Ariel who wondered if I’d ever looked into a different angle of this same phenomenon: examining population rather than geographic size. I’d never thought about that before so I enjoyed his suggestions and I will present my findings now.
Let’s make sure we all understand the reference. Consider that every U.S. state has one county with a smallest population. We’ve examined some counties with extremely small populations previously. In Texas the county with the smallest population is Loving, with 82 residents. Which state, however, has a smallest county population that is larger than any other state’s county with the smallest population? We know it’s not going to be Texas which which comes in dead last (alas, not everything is really bigger in Texas) so it has to be a different state.
Anyone care to guess which one anchors the opposite end of the spectrum? Think smaller states in the northeast.
Delaware wins according to 2010 Census figures. The county in Delaware with the fewest residents is Kent County, the home of a whopping 162,310 people. Take that, Texas! Delaware has a clear advantage, though. It has fewer counties than any other state, only three, cleaved approximately into thirds. Mid-Atlantic rural isn’t anything like Texas rural either, and there aren’t a lot of places for Delaware residents to spread anyway.
The largest smallest U.S. counties by population are:
Bristol County, Rhode Island (map): population 49,875
Coos County, New Hampshire (map): population 33,055
It drops-off quickly from there.
Ariel did well with his educated guess. He figured Kent and Salem, missing only Windham. Good job, Ariel!
Here’s a trivia question that just came to mind as I typed this: Which state is the only state where the capital city is found in its least populated county? Delaware! Dover, the state capital, is located in Kent County. Some quick fact-checking seems to confirm my assertion. Feel free to use that at your next social gathering and see how quickly people find a way to break away from the conversation.
Let’s try this from another dimension. Each state also has a smallest county by size. Using Texas as an example once again, the smallest county by size in Texas is Rockwall County (not Loving County, even though it has the fewest people). If we shuffle that list of fifty again, this time using the smallest county by size for each state, which one has the largest population?
This one is a bit of a "gimme" because it should be pretty obvious.
Did you guess New York County, also known as the Borough of Manhattan (which is slightly larger than the island of Manhattan)? It’s the smallest county in New York State by size and it has 1,585,873 residents.
The largest populations of smallest counties by state are:
New York County, New York (map): population 1,585,873
San Francisco County, California (map): population 805,235
Multnomah County, Oregon (map): population 735,334
Hudson County, New Jersey (map): population 634,266
Baltimore City, Maryland (map): population 620,961
New Castle County, Delaware (map): population 538,479
Ramsey County, Minnesota (map): population 508,640
Once again it begins to drop off fairly quickly after the initial set. Portland caught me off-guard; I never would have guessed that one. The others seemed logical once I saw them on a list.
As an aside, Baltimore City is a bit of an anomaly. It’s not a county and it shouldn’t be confused with Baltimore County which cradles it on three sides. Nonetheless it is considered a "county equivalent" for census purposes so I will keep it on the list. Yes, and some New England states no longer have functioning counties either but I’ll keep them in consideration for the same reason.
We know that in our Texas example, Loving has the smallest population and Rockwall has the smallest size. Are there any states where the same county has both? It doesn’t happen as often as I imagined because cities are often concentrated into small county areas as noted above.
I’m fascinated by the concept of population centers. In the United States the U.S. Census bureau defines the Mean Center of Population as: the point at which an imaginary, flat, weightless, and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if weights of identical value were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person on the date of the census. Over time that point will change. The U.S. calculation shows a steady westward march with a distinct bend towards the southwest in the last half-century.
I’m not going to focus much more attention on the U.S. mean center of population. I think it’s already pretty well understood. If you’d like to explore this set of issues in further depth you can watch the Census Bureau map animation and head over to their dedicated site. It includes everything you’d possibly want to know including how they calculate it.
Instead, I’ll take things down a layer and examine some individual state centers of population.
The U.S. Census Bureau calculates state centers every decade so it’s easy enough to drop the lat/long coordinates into a simple Google Map. I did this for the 2010 calculations (blue push pins), and just for fun I did the same thing for the 2000 calculations (red push pins). I’ve embedded the resulting tiny map above for illustrative purposes. You’ll probably want to open this in another tab if you’d like to explore it further. You’ll find two pins per state if you drill down far enough. I haven’t forgotten about readers in Alaska and Hawaii either. Zoom out and you’ll find those too.
The differences in location between the red and blue pins signifies a movement of the mean center of population for each state over the prior decade. Bear in mind that these represent two points in time. They might suggest a basic direction and a possible magnitude but don’t consider them too precisely. Obviously I could improve this by adding a few more decades like the U.S. map but I didn’t have enough time to enter several hundred more data points this morning. It might be worth trying that for a few select locations in a future article if anyone is interested. I’ll have to think about that (not sure where I’d get all the data at the moment).
A large metropolitan area in an otherwise sparsely-settled state will pull the center of population closer towards its orbit. The effect is particularly noticeable for dominant cities located near state boundaries. Some of these are intuitive. Las Vegas dominates Nevada from the extreme south, even with a couple of smaller cities like Reno and Carson City to the west trying to offset it. The population center still gravitates towards Las Vegas. Similarly, the Salt Lake Valley pulls Utah’s population center towards the north-central end of the state, to the outskirts of Salt Lake City itself.
Oregon surprised me a bit. I realized that southeastern Oregon was vast and empty so I fully expected the center to land closer the Pacific coast. I didn’t realize how far Portland would pull it north, though.
Nebraska and Kansas confirmed my suspicions. Omaha and Lincoln dominate Nebraska. The football stadium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is sometimes called the state’s "third largest city" on game day; a clear demonstration of that skew. The Kansas City metropolitan performs a similar function in Kansas.
Many of the Great Plains states follow this pattern. They are transitional areas in a sense. They straddle eastern and western parts of the U.S., with people concentrated towards the east and open grasslands towards the west. The population continues to move towards the cities which are found in the east.
Again, let’s bear in mind that I’m using only two points of data. Nonetheless, one can observe fairly meaningful movement in West Virginia and Virginia. Both are feeling the gravitational tug of the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Northern Virginia experienced tremendous growth over the decade. The same was true for the three eastern panhandle counties of West Virginia (Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson) which grew at about 25% between 2000 and 2010.
Alaska provides another interesting case study. The mean center of population moved quite a bit albeit it’s a large state that shows greater movement in terms of pure mileage anyway. Anchorage tugged the center towards its borders as one would expect. There’s also a significant northward component I hadn’t anticipated that demonstrates the growing pull of the Mat-Su Valley. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage is a rapidly expanding exurb of the city. It jumped from 60,000 people in 2000 to 90,000 people in 2010 — a phenomenal 50% growth. That might not seem like a lot of people in terms of raw numbers but it creates a meaningful impact to a low-population state like Alaska.
By contrast, the northeast United States displays very stable centers of population. Connecticut’s center, as an example moved maybe 1,500 feet over the decade.
People visit confluences, highpoints and directional extremes, so why not centers of population? Best of all they change every decade, refreshing the list and providing plenty of opportunities to return to each of the 50 states. Some of these are tough spots in remote areas or even out to sea as in the case of Hawaii. I think one of the tougher locations, if not the toughest, might be Nevada. The population center lands squarely on the Nevada Test Range. The military might not look too kindly upon interlopers unless one wants to see the center of population at Guantanamo Bay.
There are plenty of easy occurrences near roads in well-developed neighborhoods. I’d argue that Minnesota is easiest of all: the spot appears to fall directly upon Interstate 94 northwest of Minneapolis. It’s not just near I-94 or adjacent to I-94, but right on the very road surface of the westbound lanes. Thousands of people visit Minnesota’s exact mean center of population every day. I wonder if anyone every realizes it?
I’m going to crown Nevada as the grand champion of state population centers. It’s skewed heavily away from the geographic center (towards Las Vegas), it’s moving rapidly (again, fueled by Las Vegas) but it’s remote and inaccessible (middle of the desert on a military facility).
I couldn’t feature every peculiarity. Doubtless there are other interesting stories waiting to be uncovered between the push pins if you choose to hunt for them.
I discussed the easternmost and southernmost United States county with fewer than a single resident per square mile in the first installment. That was Kenedy County, Texas. Now, let’s review the map of fractional county population densities once again and take a closer look. There aren’t very many; only 63 out of 3,143 counties or equivalents fall into that category. I’ve provided a complete list at the bottom of this post for those who want the full set of details.
First, I’m impressed by the complete lack of representation throughout the entire eastern half of the nation. A line begins to emerge along the western edge of the Great Plains with clusters in eastern Montana, western Nebraska, southeastern Oregon plus smatterings in various other western states. Alaska, as expected, contributes the bulk of empty acreage.
Texas certainly lays claim a number of counties. Not far from Kenedy, McMullen Co. represents the second easternmost and second southernmost on the list. I feel sorry for McMullen, an also-ran in two different ways.
Then things get interesting. What is the third easternmost county? It’s Blaine Co., Nebraska by my estimates. That’s the little nob sticking out from the Nebraska cluster. However it’s further east than Edwards or King Counties in Texas by maybe two or three miles at most. I like Blaine because Weed Superintendent is an elected office. I’m going to assume it has to do with the abatement of invasive plants in an area dependent upon agriculture but it still sounds really funny. No disrespect to Carol Conard, Weed Superintendent for Blaine Co. is intended. I’m sure she does a fine job.
The Bethel Census Area in Alaska provides another fascinating point of trivia. It’s the only county equivalent with a population density below one that also has a total population above 10,000. It’s not even close. Bethel had 17,013 residents in 2010. However that doesn’t do much good in an area of forty thousand square miles.
Garfield Co., Utah barely squeaks by with 5,172 people on 5,175 square miles. A single family could move here over the next decade and it push it off my density map. That’s likely to happen. Garfield has gained population for the last forty years and it’s about to pass its historic high established all the way back in 1940. Nobody know how that may impact the Miss Garfield County contest.
Of course there also has to be a "biggest loser," a county that comes closest to making the list but falls just barely short. That dubious distinction goes to Roberts Co., Texas with 929 residents on 924 square miles. It’s a dry county so they can’t even console themselves. It’s tough to say if Roberts Co. will rejoin the list or not. It’s would have been on the list in 2000 and it’s lost population historically. However Roberts gained forty-something people over the last decade which pushed it back over the line. The county economy depends heavily upon oil and natural gas extraction and we’re in a boom right now so their status could change as prices fluctuation.
One other county that did not make the list deserves a mention: Issaquena Co., Mississippi. It is a complete outlier in that part of the nation. One might think it would be unusual to consider a county with 1,406 people on 413 square miles — all the way down at number 259 on my list — but this poor Mississippi Delta county bled people at an astounding rate. More than 10,000 people lived here a century ago. It lost another 40% of its population just over the last decade. I don’t think it will happen in 2020, however it’s possible a little red dot may jump all the way over to Mississippi someday.
Remember in the last installment that I mentioned a trendsetting musician born in Kenedy County? Apparently isolated, impoverished counties have a way of doing that. Issaquena was the birthplace of an even more famous musician: McKinley Morganfield. He was known better as Muddy Waters.