Friday, August 19, 2011

Historical Populations of Massachusetts Cities

I was discussing with someone recently the rankings in population of various cities in Massachusetts. This is fun for me. I recalled that a few years ago, when Lowell fell behind Cambridge for a bit, I had graphed the populations of the top 10 cities in the state, and a few other interesting ones (the data came from Wikipedia, which took it from the US Census). Having not kept the graph, I decided to recreate it. I actually needed two, because Massachusetts has a few different classes of city sizes and I don't know how to play with axes in Excel well enough to get them all on one graph. Besides, the second one is ridiculously crowded as it is:

The first graph is on a scale Boston can dominate. It was, at its peak, a magnitude larger than many of the other cities in the top 10, so it requires a separate scale. Starting at the first US Census in 1790, this graphs the population of Boston against Worcester and Springfield, then starting with its first appearance in the Census in 1830 (founded 1826), is Lowell.

Lowell spent from almost its founding until the Civil War as the second city in Massachusetts, but by a small margin. However, starting around 1870, the second wave of industrialization in Massachusetts, that tied to coal as an industrial fuel and industries outside of textiles, quickly eclipsed Lowell. In fact, Lowell ceased growing by 1920 and has had an essentially stagnant population ever since.

Worcester and Springfield - both physically large regional cities (Central and Western Massachusetts respectively) with diverse economies - were essentially lockstep in growth, although slowing in 1920, until after World War II. At that point, their populations drop a little, with Worcester's beginning to reverse the trend about 1980.

Boston hit a population stagnation around 1920 as well, followed by a dive after World War II and a resurgence in the 1980s.

The post World War II decline seen in the three largest cities is likely due to deindustrialization, urban strife, and the automobile. The resurgence in Worcester, Boston, and to an extent Lowell, is timed with the Massachusetts Miracle. Lowell's early stagnation is a clear byproduct of it being essentially a single-industry, company town. Had Lowell's borders contained only the built-on areas in 1920, and the introduction of the interstates hadn't made it convenient to other industries out of town, it would be a much smaller city today. This is probably true of Worcester and Springfield as well, whereas I would bet (but don't know for sure) that highly urbanized Boston didn't have any more land to allow suburbanization in.

Again, I apologize for how busy this graph is! It begins with Lowell, ranks the next largest cities in the top 10 (Cambridge, New Bedford, Brockton, Quincy, Lynn, Fall River), and then adds in Lawrence, Haverhill, Salem, Fitchburg, and Holyoke for some perspective.

Little Salem is included because until the dawn of the industrial era, Salem's maritime industry made it Massachusetts' second city. In fact, it was the second municipality in the state granted a city charter in 1835, about a decade after Boston, and mere months before Lowell's explosive growth granted it the third city charter in the state. However, while Salem was a boom town itself, the shallowness of its harbor reduced its rate of population growth early. While it eventually diversified its economy and continued growing, the same industrial slowdown that hit every other city in the state right before the depression froze its growth rate again. Its location probably saved it from deep decline.

Holyoke and Lawrence are the next logical grouping of cities here. Like Lowell, they are first-generation textile cities, beginning explosive growth rates shortly after their foundings around 1845. Their growth rates match Lowell until 1920, when they both experienced stagnation and deep decline after World War II, like the cities in graph one. There is a brighter spot for Lawrence, as part of that decline was reversed, again, around 1980, probably due to the same Massachusetts Miracle that saved the rest. Holyoke, much, much further from Boston than Lawrence, even with an abundance of open land Lawrence has never had, never recovered.

The third grouping is Fall River, New Bedford, and Lynn. All three are coastal cities with traditional maritime economies, especially ancient New Bedford. However, the strong textile economy after the Civil War and these cities' location on deep water, made coal-powered factories extremely attractive, after the absence of the rivers driving growth in the grouping above stopped being a retardant. Both New Bedford and Fall River passed Lowell in size by 1920 (being physically larger and more successful), but their distance from Boston (about as far as Worcester is), as we've seen repeatedly, could not reverse the post-war population declines. Lynn was not as unlucky: it actually very closely resembles Lawrence. This is sort of expected with its heavy industrial history, but for some reason, perhaps proximity to Boston, never quite was hit as hard. In fact, during the "dark" years for Lowell, Lynn actually had slightly more people.

Cambridge and Quincy are all very close to Boston and should be the next group. Being commuter suburbs of Boston well before the automobile, they are sort of an odd-man out grouping here, perhaps more resembling Newton and Somerville, which would be in the top 15 cities. Cambridge is very close to downtown Boston, and therefore was almost always a fairly large community. Mid 19th-century urban expansion and the streetcar made it urbanize quickly. The same post-war trends we saw in all cities is here as well. Quincy is a little further out, and its growth seems to have happened after 1900, with the same growth drivers as Cambridge, but on a smaller scale. It too saw a post-war slowdown.

Brockton and Haverhill form a group as they are both very physically large cities without good rivers for power, but are reasonably close to Boston. Both have history in the shoe-making industry, which held on longer than textiles (I believe this was Lynn as well...). Brockton, it is obvious is much closer to Boston, as after the standard 1920s slowdown, grew by an atypically large amount after World War II. In exchange, Haverhill's old history as being located on a navigable part of the Merrimack for early ships, was (hard to see at this scale) but a large town very early on, beginning its industrial growth around the Civil War, a few decades before Brockton.

That leaves Fitchburg. I actually expected Fitchburg to resemble Holyoke due to its distance from large cities and poor location in general, but instead we see late 19th-century industrial growth, and the typical stagnation without a drop. It is also geographically large. Perhaps the location isn't as bad as I'd like to think!

There are a couple of easy trends I've mentioned repeatedly: The oceanside cities grew first. Then the powerful river cities, then the coal-based cities. Growth stopped abruptly right around 1920, beating the Great Depression by 10 years (a relation would be nice). Nothing much good happened during the Depression or World War II. After World War II the dense industrial cities suffered tremendously, whereas the commutable-to-Boston group saw a resurgence with the Massachusetts Miracle. Of course, I'm basing all of this off of a single demographic trend. It would be interesting to get income and population age in here as well, but I'm not up for that.

Well, I hope that was fun!


  1. Looking at the second graph it appears that Brockton bucked the trend. Why would it have grown so fast in the 70s?

  2. I think it's a few things:

    The shoe industry didn't die a horrible death before World War II, allowing the city to hold on a bit longer. By the time that industry died in the 1960s...

    Route 24 connecting Brockton to Boston was completed around 1958. Brockton, at the time had 60,000 people on a landmass the size to Lowell and Lawrence combined. Being located only 25 miles outside of downtown Boston in a still (today) very anti-growth Plymouth county...

    Became the City of Split-Levels that it shows up as on Bing Maps.

    My guess is there has to be one other piece. There likely was some sort of major employer locating down there or something for it to have grown so much in the 1970s, but I bet I got most of it.

  3. Another way to put that I guess would be Brockton's its own Chelmsford.