Counting Counties


I was about seven years old when I got my first copy of the Rand McNally Road Atlas (RMRA), and I’ve rarely been more than 50 feet away from one ever since. Unless I was out of the country, there has probably never been a day when I haven’t looked at it at least once.

The obvious question that a kid would ask is: What is the smallest county in the United States? In those days, RMRA alphabetized counties separately from cities and towns in the index, so it was a simple matter to go through and search for the smallest one. But I didn’t have the patience to sort through all 50 states; instead I tried to use some cleverness.

I assumed that the smallest county would not be in populous states, so I excluded places like California and New York. Further, the RMRA didn’t list any counties for Alaska (nor does it today), so that state didn’t count. Thus the logical choice (for a kid) was Wyoming – the least populous state in the union (then excluding Alaska). But I soon noticed that Wyoming only had 23 counties – so despite the small overall population, it seemed unlikely that any of them were very small. Indeed, Wyoming has no counties with fewer than 1000 people.

So the trick was not only to find a sparsely populated state, but also one with a lot of counties. North Dakota, with less than 700,000 people but with 53 counties, fits the bill. And indeed, I came across Arthur County, population 444, which seemed a likely candidate.

But South Dakota has 66 counties and Nebraska 93, so it is possible that a smaller county existed in one of those two states. No joy – Arthur was smaller than any of those 159.

I confidently went out into the world thinking Arthur County, ND was the smallest county in the United States.

But then it dawned on me that Texas had 254 counties. In those days it wasn’t the population behemoth that it is today, and with only 269,000 square miles, a lot of those counties had to be pretty small.

And so I found it – Loving County – population 67. That’s its population today; I can’t recall the number from the 1950 census (which would have been the number I found), but I think it was very close to that. And Loving County really is the smallest county (by population) in the United States even now.

So am I telling you anything you didn’t already know? Probably not – I’m guessing most readers of this blog have long since learned this little bit of trivia. And you learned it from Wikipedia, here. You will also discover that Arthur County is only fifth on the list, bigger than three counties in Texas.

Wikipedia makes it just much too easy! Imagine, if you will, that I’d had Wikipedia as a child. Think of all the articles I could write for this blog containing utterly useless information about everything. No more cleverness or labor required – all data is right there at your fingertips.

Now maybe I can play one-up-man-ship with Wikipedia? Through careful study of the RMRA, I discovered three states that have exclaves: New York, Kentucky and Hawaii.

* Liberty Island and the parts of Ellis Island that belong to New York are surrounded by New Jersey. These are also exclaves of New York County (Manhattan).
* The westernmost part of Kentucky (part of Fulton County) cannot be reached without crossing Missouri or Tennessee.
* Oahu and Kauai are separated by more than 24 miles, which means that one has to cross international waters to get from one to the other. (But since they are different counties, neither Honolulu nor Kauai counties have exclaves.)

I also note that Brookline, MA is in Norfolk County, separated from the rest of the county by Middlesex and Somerset counties.

So there, Wikipedia! Oh – alright – not so fast. See here. I haven’t had the courage to go through it all and see what I’m missing. Why bother?

There are some questions for which the RMRA is not especially useful. For example, what are the largest and smallest counties by land area? Excluding Alaska (and by all means, let’s exclude Alaska), then simply by inspection any kid will tell you that San Bernardino, CA, is the biggest county in the country. At 20,000 square miles, it is almost as big as West Virginia.

What is the smallest county? Before resorting to Wikipedia, I spent a sleepless night pondering this problem. I thought Hawaii’s Kalawao County might fit the bill. Boy was I wrong!

Kalawao County is what’s left over from Father Damien’s leper colony on the north coast of Molokai. At midnight, I thought it was just the famous little peninsula that juts offshore. However my American Road Atlas (published by Langenscheidt, and nicer but considerably pricier than the RMRA) shows the county is considerably bigger than that – by about 2 or 3 times.

And what about RMRA? Shockingly, it doesn’t show Kalawao County at all, neither on the map nor in the index! I don’t think it ever has. I find this bothersome.

Nevertheless, neither atlas cites areas of any county, so it really is necessary to turn to Wikipedia. Wonderfully enough, Wikipedia does not have a list of the smallest counties by area – they only list the smallest county in each state – and then you have to look at a state list. Now there’s a good job here for some kid!

The matter is complicated because Virginia has a series of independent cities – the smallest of which is Falls Church. At 2.2 square miles, this is the smallest county-like subdivision in the US. But it isn’t a county. The smallest actual county is Arlington County, VA, at 26 square miles (compared to Kalawao’s 52).

Now what subtle distinction in local governance disqualifies Falls Church, and grants Arlington the status of smallest county? I have no idea.

A county that I’ve never heard of – Colorado’s Broomfield County – has only 28 square miles. It surrounds a suburb of Denver by the same name – how it got to be its own county I have no idea. And Bristol County, RI, clocks in at 45.

But this is not the worst. I can surely be forgiven for overlooking city-states in Virginia or anomalies in Colorado. What is harder to understand is how I missed Manhattan! New York County (which includes Manhattan, some smaller islands, and Marble Hill) comes in at 34 square miles. This, surely, would have been a better midnight guess for the smallest county in the country.

Wikipedia makes me feel old, rendering the skills of a lifetime obsolete. Just the other week my daughter suggested I needed to buy a GPS.


Daniel Jelski is Dean of Science & Engineering State University of New York at New Paltz.