Focused on Counties

I’m planning for three, maybe four road trips of significant length coming up over the next several months. All of them will involve significant County Counting components. While I’ve put a big dent into my quest to visit every county in the United States, the total still represents considerably less than half of those available. I’ve been pondering several strategies as I’ve examined places that will require significant effort. That led me to stare at a lot of county maps lately, examining them from a variety of perspectives. I don’t think I found anything earth shattering although I tucked a few observations away for future reference.

Square Miles (land area only)

Georgia Counties
Georgia Counties
via Mob Rule

Georgia continued to confound me. How will I ever finish a state with so many tiny counties crammed within its borders? For sure, I will see every crevice and corner of Georgia by the time I finish. I examined a bunch of other states with tiny counties and I began to wonder which one had the smallest average county size. Being the precise person that I am, of course I created a spreadsheet to calculate and rank them. The smallest average county size belonged to… Rhode Island averaging 207 square miles per county (feel free to convert to square kilometres if you prefer). That hardly seemed a challenge though. Rhode Island only had 5 counties. Plus, I’ve already visited every one of them.

Second place, with an average county size of 297 square miles, went to Virginia. I’ve already finished that one too. That was a difficult feat — and I live there! However Virginia came up near the top only because it had those 38 insanely small Independent Cities. Take away those and Virginia would fall to #8 on the list. Next came Kentucky and New Jersey, and only then Georgia, followed by Tennessee. Every state in that grouping featured an average county square mileage somewhere in the 300’s. All of them will be difficult to finish except for New Jersey which had only 21 counties. Georgia had 159! Texas fell way down on the list with an average county size of 1,028 square miles. Even so it will be frustratingly difficult because of its immense size combined with a jaw-dropping 254 counties.

I figured larger western states with fewer counties would be an easier accomplishment. That might be true in general. However, Alaska might be the exception. If one considered its boroughs and each of the individual Census Areas of the Unorganized Borough (all considered "county equivalents" for these purposes) they would hit an average size of 19,677 square miles. Yet it would be difficult, time-consuming and expensive to visit them all. It would probably involve chartering private airplanes.

Population (2016 estimates)

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. My Own Photo.

I didn’t stop there however, maybe because I was on a roll, although my next tangent had nothing to do with County Counting. The spreadsheet was already set up so it was pretty easy to add another column and replicate the study with populations. Just because. Why not?

South Dakota featured the fewest people per county on average, with only 13,113 residents each. North Dakota and Montana followed next in line, each with an average of fewer than 20,000 people per county. Alaska served as an interesting anomaly once again. I figured it would be lower on the list than #6. However it had a fairly sizable population even though nearly everyone lived in only two boroughs, Anchorage and adjoining Matanuska-Susitna. That skewed things. Rankings probably would have changed if I’d bothered to examine median rather than average. That would have entailed effort and I’m lazy so we’ll never know.

California fell at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. There, the average county population hit an astounding 676,724 residents. The average California county had a larger population than the entire states of Wyoming or Vermont! Crazy.

I found another oddity. Two very different states had nearly the same population and number of counties: Arizona and Massachusetts. That happened despite Arizona being nearly 15 times larger than Massachusetts. It served as a wonderful demonstration of larger western states with larger county sizes in contrast to smaller eastern states with smaller counties.

The Complete Oddball

4th of July 2009
Washington Monument on the 4th of July. My Own Photo.

What if the District of Columbia ever became a state? DC would be composed of a single county of 61 square miles, and a population of 681,170 residents. That would make DC the state with the smallest average county size, by far. It would also be the state with the largest average county population. County counting would be really, really easy there too.

I travel into the District of Columbia nearly every day so I think I have that one covered.

The Largest Smallest US County (population)

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.

View Larger Map

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:

  • Kent County, Delaware (map): population 162,310
  • Windham County, Connecticut (map): population 118,428
  • Salem County, New Jersey (map): population 66,083
  • 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.

View Larger Map

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.

View Larger Map

I found six instances where the smallest population concentrated in the smallest county.

  • Bristol County, Rhode Island (map): population 49,875
  • McCormick County, South Carolina (map): population 10,233
  • Nantucket County, Massachusetts (map): population 10,172
  • Ohio County, Indiana (map): population 6,128
  • Robertson County, Kentucky (map): population 2,282
  • Kalawao County, Hawaii (map): population 90

I then considered sorting these data by population density, but I began to lose interest. Maybe next time.

State Centers of Population

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.

US Mean Center of Population 1790-2010
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons in the public domain

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.

View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

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).

My mind naturally wanders towards anomalies.


View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

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.

View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

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.

New York clearly shows the greatest imbalance for Atlantic coastal states. New York City and Long Island pull the mean center of population appreciably towards the southeast.


View 2010 Centers of Population in a larger map

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.

Anyone Want to Visit?

Wfm area51 map en
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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?

Grand Champion

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.