Frederick. Photo by Mr. T in DC.

The US Census webpage is a treasure trove of interesting information about cities. Want to know where the most dense neighborhoods are, or what percentage of residents of an area are immigrants? It’s all there. One of the most fascinating pages lists the 100 largest cities in the country at the time of each decennial census, starting in 1790.

It turns out several cities in the region that we think of as relatively small or unimportant places in 2010 have illustrious histories and were, in their heyday, places of national importance.

The table below lists each city in the District, Maryland, or Virginia that appears on the top 100 list at any point prior to 1950 (about the time metro areas supplanted cities as the most telling measure of urban population), along with its peak rank and the equivalently-ranked metro area as of 2008.

Historical Members of the Top 100 Club

CityPeak Rank (Yr)Current Equivalent Metro Area
Baltimore2 (1830)Los Angeles
Washington9 (1820)Washington (same rank now if excluding Baltimore from metro area. Currently 4th if Baltimore is included.)
Norfolk10 (1800)Boston
Richmond12 (1810)Phoenix
Alexandria17 (1810)San Diego
Georgetown19 (1820)Tampa Bay
Petersburg21 (1790)Denver
Frederick49 (1820)Salt Lake City
Lynchburg59 (1840)Albuquerque
Portsmouth62 (1840)Allentown, PA
Hagerstown77 (1830)Poughkeepsie, NY
Fredericksburg79 (1840)Toledo, OH
Annapolis90 (1830)Des Moines, IA

Of course, the country is a lot bigger today than it was in the middle of the 19th Century, so perhaps it’s not exactly accurate to say that in 1820 Frederick, MD held as strong a place in the national consciousness as Salt Lake City does today. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to consider how these things change over time. Who knew that Baltimore once might have challenged New York as America’s dominant economic center, or that Boston wasn’t always the only “big city” in Massachusetts?

There may not be much practical application for this, except as a reminder that all things change, but at the very least it’s a fun set of facts for anyone interested in cities.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado and lives in Trinidad, DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post. Dan blogs to express personal views, and does not take part in GGWash's political endorsement decisions.