What makes a town a town?

by Eszter Hargittai on September 13, 2006

Buford, WyomingI’m now on on the West coast after spending a chunk of last week driving to Palo Alto from Chicagoland.* I didn’t have much time so I just got on I-80 and drove with few interruptions. I made a stop in one of the more populated parts of Wyoming: Buford. As you can see from the sign, the town has a population of two. It’s also noteworthy due to its high elevation, apparently the highest on I-80. I had no idea I was that high up had it not been pointed out on this sign as the roads on the way weren’t particular steep. In any case, I am curious, what makes a town a town? The Eisenhower Expressway Interstate System (I-80) goes by plenty (more than plenty, in fact) unpopulated areas with just a house here or there. So what makes Buford a town of two vs just a house attached to another town?

[*] For those not familiar with distances in the US, this is similar – in terms of distance, pretty much nothing else – to something like driving from Moscow to Madrid.

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Crooked Timber » » Road trip highlights
09.17.06 at 3:39 pm



Ken Houghton 09.13.06 at 5:08 pm

I drove from NJ to IN and back a few weeks ago. In PA is the spot that boasts “highest elevation on I-80 east of the Mississippi”; I believe it was ca. 2,550 feet.


a different chris 09.13.06 at 5:16 pm

>what makes Buford a town of two

Maybe it was once much bigger. Which is a typical pattern of especially Western towns created for resource extraction and then mostly abandoned. And 50 years can really just make temporary wooden “boomtown” structures just disappear.

But I can’t speak for Buford in particular.


fred lapides 09.13.06 at 5:24 pm

Choose: a town is a town if someone there says it is one. A town is a town if someone there has to pay taxes. A town is a town if they have someone appointed or elected or chosen to be in charge. A town is a town if it is legally so contituted by the state which it is in.

Question: what makes a mountain a mountain?


blah 09.13.06 at 5:24 pm

The procedures vary by state, but typically a city (or town or village) becomes “incorporated” by receiving a charter from the state.

Wyoming does have a lot of ghost towns.


A pie cooling softly on a windowsill 09.13.06 at 5:40 pm

In PA is the spot that boasts “highest elevation on I-80 east of the Mississippi”; I believe it was ca. 2,550 feet.

I have experience with this place because I know that when I pass it I have gone too far and missed my exit when driving from Dallas, PA to Pittsburgh. This has happened several times.

Post #3 is correct. Pennsylvania, for example, contains one town.

Everything else in Pennsylvania is either a “city”, a “borough” (both of which are incorporated and have borders), or a “township” (which covers all the less populated, unincorporated areas). A small town with no borders is legally considered a “village”.

The previous statement is true for New York as well, if you replace the word “township” with “town” and “village” with “hamlet”.

The real question is, who cares?


"Q" the Enchanter 09.13.06 at 5:40 pm

Last I drove through Buford, the resident there (who was behind the counter at the filling station there) alerted me to the fact that population was actually 1 because the other guy had left town.


unf 09.13.06 at 5:58 pm

Not to get all persnickety, but the Eisenhower Expressway is actually I-290. And I don’t think anybody who’s not from Chicago has any idea what the Eisenhower Expressway is.

Actually, it would be an interesting (to me, anyway) project to document how various metropolitan areas refer to their highways. Chicago tends to use names (both famous and obscure – e.g., the Dan Ryan), whereas the Bay Area uses numbers (101, 280, etc.).

I realize that this is the most boring comment ever written in the whole history of the Internets.


JR 09.13.06 at 6:14 pm

Buford grew up around Fort John Buford, which was built to protect workers on the transcontinental railroad from Indian attacks. It is a few miles from Laramie, and years ago everything and everyone moved to the city (pop. 27,000). Buford survives, so to speak, because of that “highest town” claim and as the location of the Buford Trading Post, a store that attracts business from drivers along I-80. So the sign is sort of an advertisement for the store, and the “Pop 2” is meant to be cute. It’s not really a town, although there is a Buford zip code (the zip code area apparently has 35 residents).

As for the altitude, eastern Wyoming is part of a very large plateau. You were climbing slowly but steadily from Chicago onward. For a nice interactive topographical map, see http://nmviewogc.cr.usgs.gov/viewer.htm


Eszter 09.13.06 at 6:31 pm

Re “Eisenhower Expressway” – Sorry, it’s the Eisenhower Interstate System to which I had meant to refer. I would never have thought to mention it had it not been indicated at so many of the rest stops. But I guess it refers to the whole system regardless of number.

That’s a neat map, JR, thanks.

Ken, 2,550, hah!

The descent on the West coast was anything but gradual. I’ll be posting photos of that on my Flickr account in the next day or two.


Francis 09.13.06 at 7:11 pm

Here in sunny California, municipalities come into existence by the decision of Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) pursuant to the Cortese-Knox-Hertberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000, Cal. Gov. Code section 53000 et seq.

no, you do not want to know any more.


Brian 09.13.06 at 7:24 pm

As far as local appellations for highways: I-376 is the Parkway East, and I-279, depending on which side of downtown you are on, is either the Parkway North or the Parkway West. There are insider names for the bridges, the tunnels (for some reason there is the Squirrel Hill *tunnel* but the Liberty *tubes*….) I think it’s all a plot to confuse tourists.


agm 09.13.06 at 7:28 pm

unf, that wasn’t boring at all. Cause it provides a nice contrast between the Interstate Highway system and US highways. US-290 starts in Houston and heads northwest towards Austin.

Yet back home people continually misidentify US-54 as Interstate 54, showing that we really need more publicity about this issue.


Ben Alpers 09.13.06 at 7:49 pm

unf (#7): As a native of the Bay Area, I always use numbers. And I’m always puzzled by Southern Californians who are, so far as I can tell, the only people in the U.S. who use the definite article with numbers to identify roads. Thus, while someone from the Bay Area will take “Highway 101” or simply “101,” someone from LA will take “the 101.”

Incidentally, there are now two Pennsylvania towns, the second being McCandless, PA in Allegheny County, which has been an incorporated town since 1975.

While we’re on this topic, anyone know why the major road in St. Louis called Kingshighway is written as one word?


mijnheer 09.13.06 at 7:55 pm

How big do you have to be? Mighty big. The slogan of Biggar, Saskatchewan, is “New York Is Big… But This Is Biggar”.


rea 09.13.06 at 8:13 pm

“In PA is the spot that boasts “highest elevation on I-80 east of the Mississippi”; I believe it was ca. 2,550 feet.”

The LOWEST point in Wyoming is the Belle Fourche River at 3,099 feet above sea level.


Gene O'Grady 09.13.06 at 8:17 pm

Mr. Alpers:

In 50 years in the “Bay Area” I almost never heard “Highway 101.” It was always “Bayshore,” or sometimes “The Bayshore.” A friend of mine who grew up on a milk farm in Half Moon Bay said that the cow with the label 101 was always known as “Bayshore Bossie.” And once upon a time the old Highway 17 from San Jose to Berkeley was “The Nimitz;” as it got connected to other roads and reconfigured “880” came into use since it became unclear just what was and wasn’t “The Nimitz.”

And I can beat Buford, population 2. I once locked my keys in the car in Rhyolite Nevada, population 0. Since the local mining company is a big user of cyanide they try to keep it down. Rhyolite had its boom ca. 1910, briefly having as many as 10,000 people. Since it was settled so late, it has the distinction of being a concrete ghost town, famously photographed by Edward Weston among others.


nick s 09.13.06 at 8:44 pm

A town is a town if it is legally so contituted by the state which it is in.

Yeppy: it’s all about incorporation, unless ‘town’ is a definition that doesn’t require incorporation. It’s especially notable in the case of cities, which is guaranteed to tickle Brits driving American backroads who pass between ‘city limit’ signs in 30 seconds flat.


Randy Paul 09.13.06 at 9:09 pm

For those not familiar with distances in the US, this is similar – in terms of distance, pretty much nothing else – to something like driving from Moscow to Madrid.

Facts like that and the fact that Western Europe can fit inside Brazil really show how tiny Europe is as a continent.


tinay12 09.13.06 at 9:20 pm

A coummunity of people makes a town. Now if Buford has two then it is about time that we should move there.


Eric Scharf 09.13.06 at 9:52 pm

Pluto is still a town in Wyoming.


jen r 09.13.06 at 10:23 pm


A friend of mine who is from Cincinnati but lived in Phoenix for a while uses “the” in front of interstate numbers. I think she picked this up in Cincinnati, but I’m not sure. I have also heard it done in Chicago traffic reports.


A pie cooling softly on a windowsill 09.13.06 at 10:23 pm

While we’re on this topic, anyone know why the major road in St. Louis called Kingshighway is written as one word?

It was named after someone who went by the name King Shighway?


Mr Ripley 09.13.06 at 10:27 pm

#13 –Naw, that’s common in Western New York too. Buffalonians will take “The 290” or “The 33.”

The fact that Southern California has taken up the practice kinda vindicates Dar Williams, though.


Anthony 09.13.06 at 11:58 pm

In California, at least, there are highway signs for settlements which are not incorporated cities. (California only incorporates “cities”, though there is the “City of the Town of Danville” because Danville really wanted to be a town.) On U.S. 50 (which crosses the Sierra Nevada south of I-80), there is a sign for “Strawberry, pop 10, elev (somewhere over 6000)”. There is no legal entity as Strawberry. It’s not even a CDP.

As for use of the definite article in front of freeway numbers, I always figured it was because Los Angelenos actually used names for most of their freeways, while Bay Areans mostly used numbers.


opit 09.14.06 at 12:00 am

North of the 49th in Alberta the minimum recognized population centre (this should be good for a guffaw) is a settlement : qualifying requires 6 residents.
Villages and towns, on the other hand, are a vanishing breed, as there are tax advantages to being part of a county (formerly “rural municipality”).


Ben Alpers 09.14.06 at 12:21 am

Gene O’Grady (#16) is 100% correct.

I picked my example very badly. Highway 101 was indeed always “the Bayshore.” And “the Nimitz” is another name that was frequently used in my youth.

Too many years spent away from the Bay Area, I suppose…


talboito 09.14.06 at 12:43 am

Maybe its “the Bayshore” down on The Peninsula, but to us in the East Bay, 101 is 101. I’ve heard of “the Nimitz”, but have never been entirely sure what it referred to except that it is near to Oakland.

Also, “the 5” is supposedly, only the’d after the Grapevine.


bmm6o 09.14.06 at 1:01 am

Yes, we denizens of SoCal use definite articles + numbers to identify our highways. What makes it more unusual is that official notices (traffic reports and the like) always refer to the roads by their official names. E.g. the San Bernardino Freeway, the Santa Monica Freeway (which, confusingly, are different parts of the same road).


Albert Andersen 09.14.06 at 1:04 am

As another life-long Bay Arean, I’ll agree that 101 is ‘101’. I’ve definitely heard it called Bayshore, but ‘101’ or ‘highway 101’ is the standard name. “The Nimitz”, in my experience, is just the stretch of 880 that goes up the East Bay from San Jose, and it’s usually just called ‘880’ except in some traffic reports. 17 is just ’17’.


BCist 09.14.06 at 1:11 am

Then there’s the San Diego freeway (405) which ceases to exists 50 miles from San Diego.

In Phoenix, everyone called the highways “I-10”, or “I-17”.


stostosto 09.14.06 at 1:40 am

In France they have several municipalities with a population of zero.


Eszter 09.14.06 at 2:13 am

Wow, who knew one could have such an extensive discussion about how people refer to highways. CT readership never disappoints.:-} I’ve been in the Bay Area for less than a week and I’ve already noticed that people tend to refer to 101 and 280 (locals, that is, I realize how outsiders refer to it is less relevant). But when it comes to the bridges, people tend to mention the names not the numbers, so San Mateo bridge, not 92 or “the 92 bridge”. That’s been my impression so far in any case.


bad Jim 09.14.06 at 3:37 am

The Warren, MacArthur, Nimitz: 24, 580, 17. Also the 50 and the 80.

Despite having thrived in the (east side of the) Bay Area from ’68 to ’77, I now need maps to find which road goes where. I wasn’t aware, for instance, that the Oakland’s ugly old chunk of the 17 (Nimitz) had been renamed the 880 until it pancaked in the Lomo-Prieta quake (which also took down the Embarcadero freeway stub, blessings be upon it at least for that.)

Occasional lengths of the 101 are historically congruent with El Camino Real, points along which are marked with signs recalling Junipero Serra’s missions’ bells. (I’d rather see dodecahedrons, commemorating Aristotle’s rejoinder to Alexander that there is no royal road to geometry, but sense is scarce.)

Look, everybody eventually refers to roads by their visible markers. When the kids learn to drive they talk about the 5 or the 55 or the 405, not the Santa Ana (or the Golden State) or the Newport (Costa Mesa) or San Diego (Santa Monica).

On the right coast I think they refer to the 95.

You leave from Saint Louis, Joplin, Missouri …


Chris Williams 09.14.06 at 3:51 am

‘What makes a town a town?’ is an argument that us urban historian have been banging on about for several person-centuries. The search for the urban variable continues. I’ll keep you posted.


a different chris 09.14.06 at 10:08 am

>The real question is, who cares?

Well, I guess it’s just something to chuckle over mostly.

But deep down, despite the trolls accusing all of us as being free-spending big government freaks, I suspect everybody vaguely believes that something like a “town” requires a at least a minimum set of bureacratic paperwork somewhere in the deepest recesses of the state’s filing system. And it seems like it could affect things in a legal way in terms of jurisdiction over a number of crimes and civil actions.

So having a town of two could well cost a state more than two-man years every fiscal cycle just to maintain the fact that it is, indeed, a town.

And that just seems wrong.


Sunita 09.14.06 at 2:09 pm

Ah, the Bayshore. I’m a Peninsula girl and I haven’t heard that for a while. No definite articles, ever. 280. 101. 17. 92. 380. Only 101 has a name (Bayshore). If they use definite articles, they’re Not From Around Here. It’s especially weird when it’s a freeway that only exists in Northern California. When someone refers to “the 101,” I assume they mean the part of the highway around LA.

17 used to go from Santa Cruz to Oakland. Then they finally fixed it up and widened it in the East Bay and renamed it Interstate 880. But it’s still 17 going over the mountains to the coast.

And no, bridges are never known by their numbers. The San Mateo is part of Highway 92, The Dumbarton Highway 84, The Bay Bridge Interstate 80, and the Golden Gate is 101. But call them that and no one will know what you’re talking about. When I describe our house in Belmont, I say, “from the East Bay, you take the San Mateo Bridge, stay on 92, get off just before 280.”

What? Discussions about highway and bridge nomenclature aren’t interesting?


Jonathan Edelstein 09.14.06 at 3:48 pm

On the right coast I think they refer to the 95

No, it’s just “95,” at least in my neck of the woods. On the other hand, it’s the Thruway, the Taconic, the Hutch. Definite articles are for names, not numbers.


nick s 09.14.06 at 4:07 pm

Facts like that and the fact that Western Europe can fit inside Brazil really show how tiny Europe is as a continent.

It’s basically the rump of Asia. Still, it takes a lot of convincing (and use of maps) to convince Americans that the continental 48 states are collectively smaller in area than Australia. Or Canada, for that matter.


Nabakov 09.14.06 at 4:21 pm

Doing it old school –
technically a hamlet is a village not big enough to afford a church and a city is any urban cluster big enough to put up a cathedral.


serial catowner 09.14.06 at 5:21 pm

Ah, Californians. The 101 (we just call it Hiway 101) goes north and north and north until it finally does a Klein bottle type of thing at Hood Canal.

That’s a heap of driving and for most of it you will definitely want to keep your mind on the road- it’s a long way down to the surf.


Mary Kay 09.14.06 at 11:56 pm

It has always been my theory that Southern Californians regard their freeways as the original, Ur-Freeways. The freeways of which all others are pale imitations, thus the definite article.

I have lived in a number of places in the US including Northern CA, but not Southern CA. Nevertheless I noticed on a recent visit to LA that I immediately began using the definite article when referring to freeways. It’s a most powerful gestalt.



Gene O'Grady 09.15.06 at 12:04 am

Apologies if I’m beating a dead horse.

I have heard “The Bayshore” over the years, but mostly from my mother’s (86 years old) generation. I’m old enough to remember when it was the “Bloody Bayshore,” and once worked on “The Old Bayshore,” which is worth checking out. If you imagine that kind of road as the main route between San Francisco and San Jose ca. 1958 you’ll know why it was bloody.

I have also regularly heard “The El Camino,” so go figure — I wonder if a German would travel auf dem the El Camino?”

In point of fact, while modern 101 parallels the old Spanish royal highway, in the SF peninsula El Camino is actually highway 82. And when it was newly open (and empty enough that I was once in a car going 107 miles per hour at four o’clock on a weekday afternoon)280 was frequently called “The Junipero Serra.” Further on, and by no means a highway by current standards, is California Highway 35, still commonly called Skyline. Many hears ago it was the way one traveled from San Francisco to Santa Cruz; when the San Francisco Chronicle once interviewed Yehudi Menuhin about his youth in San Francisco he reminisced about a two day trip down to the family cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

And Highway is “The Coast Highway,” so in point of fact you have five named routes heading south of San Francisco, The Coast Highway, Skyline, Junipero Serra, El Camino, and Bayshore.


kevin_r 09.15.06 at 4:29 am

“I had no idea I was that high up had it not been pointed out on this sign as the roads on the way weren’t particular steep.”

That’s why the railroad, then I-80 after it go through Wyoming rather than Colorado.


Kerry 09.15.06 at 8:51 am

That is just a few miles from where I attended the University of Wyoming.

You probably noticed that I-80 travels nowhere near the mountains in Wyoming. Easier on the car, much less pleasant on the eyes.


Mary V. 09.15.06 at 9:11 am

On the right coast I think they refer to the 95

No, it’s just “95,” at least in my neck of the woods.

Or, in my neck of the woods, “128.” But I think that usage may be on the way out.


Richard Welty 09.15.06 at 9:23 am

A lot of towns were built and then “retired” as the railroads were built. The towns existed as temporary railheads, but ceased to have any real purpose as the tracks pushed onwards (westwards in the case of Wyoming.) There are many references to this in David Haward Bain’s rather excellent Empire Express on the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.


glenn 09.15.06 at 10:25 am

Hey, if Ma and Pa Buford of Wyoming say they are a town, they are a town, dammit!


Gene O'Grady 09.15.06 at 2:00 pm

In response to Richard Welty, while his point may be true for some areas, my (limited) impression of Wyoming was that the railroad towns (Rock Springs, Green River, etc.) are still there, the towns are almost or fully non-existent in the West are the resource extraction towns — or some farm communities where they wore out the soil and left quickely.


Josh 09.15.06 at 3:47 pm

As a Southern Californian, I find myself referring to other people’s freeways with the definite article. For example, I grew up near “the 95”, which is wrong. But what about “the 101” which escapes definite article-dom the further you get from Southern California? Clearly, it is “the 101” in Hollywood and “101” in San Francisco, even in San Mateo. But what about in Santa Barbara? SLO? Should I say, “On my way up north, I only took the 101 to the 170 to the 5, but on my way back down I took 101 all the way?”

The named freeways thing really is perverse. First, only traffic reporters and people over fifty use the names. Second, the names and numbers diverge wildly. The 110 is the Harbor Freeway south of downtown and the Pasadena Freeway north of downtown. The “Hollywood Freeway” is the 101 until it switches to the 170, and the “Ventura Freeway” is the 134 until it becomes the 101 at the same time that the 101 ceases to be the “Hollywood Freeway.” I think it’s because the 170, which is a relatively short stretch of freeway even if you factor in the part of Highland Avenue that is considered part of it and was until recently ruled by CalTrans instead of LADOT, would feel small and insignificant if you took “Hollywood” away from its existence. I don’t remember: does I-95 have these kind of issues?


Richard Welty 09.15.06 at 4:12 pm

Gene O’Grady: certainly a few are still there, but some are entirely forgotten, or shrank to nothing and then were perhaps built back up later on a somewhat different basis.
The original reason for them was for temporary storage of supplies and workers, and as construction moved on, there wasn’t much reason left for many of them except perhaps as watering stations for the steam locomotives.


Gene O'Grady 09.15.06 at 6:06 pm

Everyone, please let me know if I am boring this weblog to tears.

Mr. Welty,

The reason I spoke about the small bit of Wyoming I am familiar with, and one of the reasons it may be an exception, is that the railroad apparently deliberately built its line following the lines of coal. Hence those towns in SE Wyoming like Rock Springs had a raison d’etre after they built the railroad.

If anyone is traveling I80 across Wyoming, I recomment Rock Springs as a stop. Apparently they won a law suit against the coal companies (or the railroads?) a number of years back for completely undermining the town and used the money for an attractive sports complex (only seen, not used) and conversion of the old courthouse into one of the most attractive museums of American life 1880-1940 I have ever visited.

Some may recall that in Dick Cheney’s pre-9/11 New Yorker interview he stated that after he dropped out of Yale the way he was able to get back on his feet was by taking advantage of the good-paying union jobs then available in Rock Springs — not to mention the free tuition at the state university. Talk about pulling up ladders!

Someone said that I80 in Wyoming avoided the mountains so less scenery — perhaps true, but watching the Uintas off to the south for a hundred miles or so is a fond memory.


Richard Welty 09.15.06 at 7:10 pm

That would have been one of the later rail lines, then. The route of the original Union Pacific was very much focused on the most tolerable gradient to the Wasatch Mountains, then going around the north side of the Great Salt Lake.


Eszter 09.17.06 at 2:15 pm

I overnighted in Rock Springs, actually.:) It was nearly impossible to find a place to stay. I even asked the folks at the various motels why there was so much traffic, whether it was a special time of year, or whether there was something special in town. (I had to do this in a way as not to offend in case there was something “obviously” special about the place.) Curiously, the staff just said it was one of the few towns on I80, but nothing special. Gene, it sounds like you know more about their town than they do.


bemused 09.17.06 at 10:32 pm

Hey Sunita, you live in my neighborhood.


Kenny Easwaran 09.18.06 at 1:31 pm

Hmm… in my four years at Stanford I picked up the habit of referring to “the 101” and “the 280”, and I do it for East Bay highways too (I still haven’t gotten used to the California term “freeway”). Which is odd, because everyone tells me that’s a SoCal thing. But I guess Stanford mixes the parts of California enough that you find SoCal people saying “hella” and NorCalers taking “the 280”.

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