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County/State size over time - RonO's Ramblings

May. 19th, 2009 10:59 am County/State size over time

In his Live Journal jrittenhouse posts a link to a map showing how much stimulus money each county in the US is receiving for projects.

Two people (so far), including myself, have commented about how this map, like many that show counties on a country-wide basis, emphasizes how counties get larger as we move from East to West.

I suspect that both the size of the states, which also grow as you move from East to West, just not always as noticeably, are factors of when the lands were divided up for governmental purposes. I once heard, somewhere, that, with three exceptions, the all of the states could be crossed in about one day by the most common method of transportation at the time their current boundaries were set. I suspect that the states were divided into counties, parishes, boroughs, etc. in a similar way. So as we move from east to west, the states and counties get larger because of the changes in transportation over time.

FWIW, the 3 exceptions are Texas -- which normally would have been 3 or 4 states -- California (2 states) and Alaska (3 or 4 states). Montana may also be an exception. I think at least two of these states were left in tact as much due to issues around the slavery debate as for any other reason. Alaska, and Montana if it should have been 2 states, were probably population density issues.

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Comments:

From:jrittenhouse
Date:May 19th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
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I think the largest county in the country in land size is San Bernadino in California (2 million people). There's a ton of counties in the high plains area that have tiny population numbers (see Cherry County in Nebraska, with only 6-7000 people. They got zilch out of the stimulus.

Cherry: 6,010 square miles
San Bernadino: 20,062 square miles.

See also This County Map reference.
From:rono_60103
Date:May 19th, 2009 06:29 pm (UTC)
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San Bernadino and Riverside counties are both rather interesting in that about half of the county has a very high population density (the so-called Inland Empire of the greater LA Metro area) and the other half has a very low density (basically the Mohave desert).

Riverside is also interesting in that it really has two separate metropolitan areas -- or perhaps a metropolitan and a micropolitan area. In the west is Riverside and the rest of its part of the Inland Empire and about half-way to Arizona from there is Palm Springs and its surrounding communities. But, since the official statistics on metro areas are kept on a county-wide basis, they all get lumped into the Riverside-San Bernadino MSA and then into the bigger CGMSA with LA and Orange Counties, along with Ventura county and I think one other one.

San Diego County escapes being lumped in simply because not that many people cross Camp Pendelton or drift between the somewhat rural parts of the inland north county and the similarly somewhat rural parts of southwestern Riverside county.

As an almost aside, in the 8 months I've (again) lived in San Diego, I've been in a total of 5 California counties -- and pretty much just crossed a big chunk of San Bernadio county on the way from Arizona. In the 8 months before leaving Illinois, I was probably in 7 Illinois counties not counting the ones I passed through on the move out, but counting DeKalb that we passed through driving to Rockford to visit my in-laws.
From:kevin_standlee
Date:May 19th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, the three largest counties (Alaska doesn't have counties; their census districts are somewhat analogous but don't have the local-government element) are contiguous to each other: San Bernardino CA, Nye NV, and Inyo CA. (Of course, they're mostly desert and mountains.) I lived in Inyo County (Bishop) for two years. I was once talking to a friend who lived in Salem MA before a Boston Worldcon and said, "Great! We'll finally get a chance to meet up."

He said, "I don't know; it's awfully far to drive."

I was aghast. "Awfully far? Awfully far? You've got to be kidding. I've lived in counties that are bigger than your whole state!" From my point of view, nothing in Massachusetts is very far from anything else in the state.
From:jrittenhouse
Date:May 19th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
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Alaska has 'corporations' and 'boroughs' of all sorts of sizes; some are mammoth.
From:kevin_standlee
Date:May 19th, 2009 09:48 pm (UTC)
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I'm not certain about the "transportation time" angle -- and it certainly takes more than one day to cross Wyoming by the common transportation method of the time of it's incorporation -- but How the States Got Their Shapes discusses the general ideas of how wide and tall the states were supposed to be, by the way of thinking of the Congress that created them. However, I have heard that the midwestern states and Texas were divided into counties by the theory that any resident should be able to get to the county seat and back again using a horse and wagon in a single (albeit in some cases long) day. Another theory I've read is that it was to give more and more people a share of government by slicing the pieces very small.

Texas and California are among the special cases partially because they were independent countries first, although California for only about three weeks. And neither went through the intermediate territorial phase that most US states west of the Appalachian Mountains did. California held a constitutional convention, drew up a document, elected two senators, and sent the lot to Washington as a fait acompli -- either admit California or face losing all of that gold and whatnot.

Mind you, I'm one of those who would be happy to split California into two or even more states. The northern counties of the state* could combine with the southern counties of Oregon to form the State of Jefferson.
_____
*I mean real north; the Bay Area is not really Northern California except in a two-region model.
From:jrittenhouse
Date:May 19th, 2009 10:06 pm (UTC)
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Being an alternate history maven, I always think such discussions are cool, and I honestly don't see the connection in California between the very disparate areas of the state.

In the midwest, the whole county structure was also based on a system of busting up the area into roughly similar chunks, with roughly the same sort of number of subunits (townships, etc). This also was an element in the support of the public schools system; a certain amount of the land set aside to support the schools, etc.

This fell apart in the West because of the vastness and ruggedness of the territory involved. California was already divvied up into Ranchos and whatnot way back in colonial days, and those persisted.