Stability and Change in North Carolina’s Top 10 Most Populous Counties
In 1910, North Carolina had a population of 2.2 million. Only two cities, Charlotte (34,014) and Wilmington (25,748), had populations surpassing 25,000 persons. Winston-Salem (22,700) was the third largest city in the state followed by Raleigh (19,218), Asheville (18,762), Durham (18,241), and Greensboro (15,895). None of North Carolina’s cities numbered among the 100 largest cities in the United States.
Reflecting this highly rural, low density population, less than 3% of the state’s population lived in urban places with 25,000 or more residents; another 12% lived in cities and towns with 2,500 to 24,999 persons; and 10% lived in incorporated areas with fewer than 2,500 residents. The remainder of the state’s population (75%) lived in rural areas. In 1910, North Carolina’s top 10 counties by population contained 493,442 residents or 22.4% of the state’s total population.
One hundred years later, North Carolina’s population had more than quadrupled to 9.5 million. The state grew steadily more urban over the century, and, by 2010, two-thirds of North Carolina residents lived in urban areas. Charlotte city had more than 730,000 residents, the 17th most populous city in the nation, and four other North Carolina cities—Raleigh (43rd), Greensboro (70th), Winston-Salem (84th), and Durham (87th)—were among the 100 largest in the United States.
In 2010, North Carolina’s top 10 counties by population contained 4.1 million residents, 43% of the state’s total population.
Between 1910 and 2010, the counties that made up North Carolina’s 10 most populous counties shifted, reflecting overall patterns of population growth and urbanization. Six counties—Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Buncombe, and Gaston—were among the 10 most populous counties in 1910 and remained in the top 10 throughout the century. Each contains a large urban area—Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Asheville, and Gastonia, respectively—that drove overall county population growth.
The rise of Guilford County to the most populous county in 1930 and 1940 reflects the strength of the manufacturing industry in Greensboro during this time period. Similarly, Wake County’s shift from fourth most populous county in 1960 to the second most populous in 1990 (a spot it has maintained) reflects growth fueled by the establishment of Research Triangle Park in 1959.
Four counties—Robeson, Johnston, Rowan, and Halifax—were among the 10 most populous in the state in 1910 and steadily declined in relative population over the century, reflecting the steady decline of agricultural employment in the state. Agriculture remains vital to the economy of these four counties: Robeson led the state in soybean, wheat, and corn (for grain) production in 2012 while Halifax led in cotton production; Johnston ranked second for both tobacco production and the dollar value of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and berries; and Rowan had the 8th largest number of cattle in the state.
With its proximity to fast-growing Wake County, Johnston’s population surged over the past two decades. In 1990, Johnston County had just over 81,000 residents. By 2010, its population had more than doubled to 169,000, and Johnston had moved from the 26th most populous county in 1990 to the 13th most populous in 2010. Although Johnston is projected to continue to grow in the coming decades, it is not projected to re-enter the top 10.
Rowan and Robeson counties have experienced steady growth over the past century, but not as rapid as other, more urban counties in the state.
In contrast to these counties, Halifax’s population has stagnated; in 2010, the county’s population was 54,700, just 1,450 persons more than it was in 1930. As a consequence, Halifax had the largest drop in relative position over the century, declining from 8th largest county in 1910 to 51st largest in 2010.
Four other counties—Cumberland, Durham, New Hanover, and Union—were not in the top 10 in 1910 but were among the 10 most populous counties in 2010. Two of these, Durham and New Hanover, contain large cities, Durham and Wilmington, respectively, whose growth has contributed to overall county population growth. Durham has also benefited from the regional impact of the Research Triangle and the growth of neighboring Wake County. Union County, similarly, has benefited from the significant growth of neighboring Mecklenburg.
Projections for North Carolina’s counties through 2020 project relative stability in the 10 most populous counties, with one exception: Onslow County is projected to enter the top 10 and Gaston County is projected to be pushed to 11th place. Like Cumberland, Onslow’s population is highly influenced by the presence of military bases (Camp Lejeune). However, Onslow’s population is projected to outnumber Gaston’s by only 4,200 persons in 2020; downscaling of military operations or greater than expected growth in the counties neighboring Mecklenburg could mean that 2020’s top 10 counties by population will be identical to the 2010 list.
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