North Country population slips downward

Hamilton County’s population has dropped by more than 1% since 2010. First day of school at Indian Lake Central School in Hamilton County. Photo of the Day, 9/7/12: George DeChant.

New US Census data released last week shows many counties in the North Country taking another significant hit to their population.

The drops aren’t precipitous, but the latest numbers continue a trend that many local government leaders have described as disturbing.

Essex County lost nearly 600 residents over a two-year period, from 2010 to 2012, according to Federal estimates.  That’s a decline of roughly 1 percent.  Clinton County, meanwhile, lost more than 500 people, reflecting a .6% erosion.

One region that’s been heavily debated in recent years is Hamilton County, where the number of residents declined by just over 50 people.  That may sound trivial, but the population there is now under 4,800 — for the entire county.

Other counties in the region, including Franklin, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Warren, were essentially flat or saw modest increases.

The one North Country county that bucked the trend was Jefferson, home to the Fort Drum Army base, which grew by more than 4,000 residents.  That’s a 3.5% increase.

On his blog, Watertown Mayor Jeff Graham noted that Jefferson County has more than 120,000 residents, a big milestone.

“We are whiter, poorer, less educated than the average New Yorker,” Graham writes, “but our per capital retail spending is above average, likely a reflection of Canadian shoppers.”

Census figures also show that North Country residents tend to be significantly older than New York state as a whole, with far more residents over 65 and far fewer young people, under the age of 18.

The significance and impact of the region’s gradual demographic shift has been hotly debated in recent years, with some local government leaders arguing that rural communities face serious decline.

Others, including some environmental activists, have asserted that the numbers reflect a relatively stable population when compared with parts of central and western New York that have seen much steeper declines.

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56 Comments on “North Country population slips downward”

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  1. tootightmike says:

    There are many places; very small villages, almost forgotten hamlets, and crossroads with names, in which there remains no reason to stay. Far too many North Country residents hop in their cars each morning and drive off to a job twenty or thirty miles away, leaving only the dog as a resident. The money spent on transportation to work, the hardware, or the grocery store far outweighs any imagined savings in property taxes, and except for snow plowing and mail delivery, folks end up having to pay extra for any other services.
    It’s one thing to live out on a working farm or forest, and quite another to stay on in some old beaten down place where the biggest industry is mowing the lawn.

  2. Mervel says:

    I mean what is the response to 12% unemployment and poverty supposed to be?

  3. The title’s deceptive. It says “North Country population slips downward” but only one county in the North Country saw a population decrease. And given that said county’s drop was only 50, it’s pretty much certain that the overall NC population INCREASED.

    So the real question is despite the horrible, apocalyptic descriptions, why is the NC’s population increasing? Day-to-day life has never been easy in the Adirondacks, even before the advent of the villainous APA… yet the population keeps going up… to the point where the Park’s population has grown nearly 15% since 1970*. Not huge, perhaps, but endangered species trend downward, not upward.


  4. Paul says:

    Some of this just seems like silly semantics. The population of the earth is declining but if you look at the entire galaxy it is increasing! How is the seasonal population counted?

  5. Paul says:

    “Census figures also show that North Country residents tend to be significantly older than New York state as a whole, with far more residents over 65 and far fewer young people, under the age of 18.”

    If you are interested in long term population trends I would be more concerned about this statistic than a head count.

  6. Peter Hahn says:

    People move to get jobs (young people at least). The jobs now are either in the major urban areas (e.g.NYC) – high tech jobs and service sector jobs, or they are in the energy extraction rural areas (e.g. fracking). Personally, I would much rather live in an area that was connected to the high tech/service industries via high speed internet connections, than a fracking zone.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    It should be noted that the trends mentioned above include just about all of the rural areas in the USA.
    One thing is certain. If we start closing our schools to save on taxes, the drop in population will be catastrophic. It will be a death spiral.

  8. Will Doolittle says:

    The Park Agency has looked at populations of towns in the park, town by town, discussed exhaustively in this post by Protect the Adirondacks!:
    The population of the Adirondack Park, according to the APA, is falling, which is the same conclusion reached by the last exhaustive study of the park done town by town, the APRAP study. So if you’re looking at counties, it’s a different story, because places like Warren and Saratoga and Clinton counties are part in, part out of the park and the parts that are in aren’t growing, in general, while the parts that are out are. But if you want to say something about population in the Adirondacks (Brian MOFYC?), perhaps you should check with the APA or Protect the Adirondacks! first.

  9. Brian Mann says:

    Brian (MOFYC) –

    The latest Census numbers I’ve seen show the populations of Clinton, Essex, Hamilton and Warren counties declining over the last two years.

    That’s four big, important counties that make up a sizable chunk of the Adirondack-North Country, some losing between 1-2% of their populations over a 24 month period.

    -Brian, NCPR

  10. dave says:

    “We are whiter, poorer, less educated than the average”

    I wonder if the Tea Party will soon be suing him for trademark infringement.


  11. dave says:

    “The latest Census numbers I’ve seen show the populations of Clinton, Essex, Hamilton and Warren counties declining over the last two years.”

    And other rural counties, Brian? How are other rural counties in NYS and across this country doing?

  12. Will: the Almanack analysis I linked to was based entirely on APARP numbers, as you recommended, and assessed municipalities located entirely within the Blue Line.

  13. Paul says:

    Peter is right. People don’t move to an area for their avocation they move there for their vocation. I wouldn’t have time to hunt, fish, or hike during the week anyway. I am way too busy writing silly comments here. I may as well stay down here where the population is growing (Dave, BTW this a rural NYS county).

  14. Brian Mann says:

    Dave –

    As I report in the blog post, some North Country counties are also flat, and one — Jefferson County — is growing significantly because of Fort Drum.

    I also reference the fact that some people think our population is relatively stable compared to other parts of NY state.

    But as a reporter who covers the North Country — and the Adirondacks primarily — I think it’s important not to overstate or misunderstand the significance of that kind of “context.”

    Yes, the North Country might not be as bad off as some places; and the causes of our population decline (and aging) are open to debate.

    But while meaningful, none of those “detail” questions affect the fundamental lived experience in these small towns that are losing people, institutions, services, schools churches, etc.

    Hamilton County has now dropped below 4800 people — and 1 in 4 of those residents are over the age of 65. How is that going to work going forward?

    Meanwhile, Essex County lost roughly the equivalent population of the town of Essex — in a two year span. That’s important information in a county that is already thinly populated.

    –Brian, NCPR

  15. Paul says:

    There are a lot of kids in that picture are we sure there is a problem in Hamilton county? I guess the people of reproductive age know what they need to do. Get busy!

  16. Will Doolittle says:

    Brian M, thank you.
    Brian (MOFYC), Are you missing the point or avoiding it? You said the population of the Adirondacks keeps going up. That is false, if you are talking about the Adirondack Park. The population of the Adirondack Park is going down. That is not open to debate, but is a matter of figures, carefully compiled by APRAP, and more recently, by the Adirondack Park Agency. Those figures have most recently been endorsed by Protect the Adirondacks! in the link I provided. Are you disputing their figures, or are you using a loose interpretation of the word “Adirondack” that includes places like Plattsburgh?

  17. tootightmike says:

    I’ll state my point another way. Why do folks want to live in a place where the only jobs are cutting trees, hauling gravel, or building a house for the out-of-towners? What is accomplished when we all work in what might be seen as service sector jobs?
    I grew up in the outermost suburbs of an industrial city in Ohio. When I was a young man, I worked as a carpenter, building thousands of houses for people who wanted to get out of the city. I enjoyed the work, and I made good money for my age, but from my perspective now, forty years later…What did we accomplish? We built fairly ugly, limited lifespan, energy in-efficient, tract homes for white folks who wanted to get far away from black folks. We built thousands of crisp, clean crackerbox houses on some of the best farmland in North America. While I’m sure that some nice families had some nice times in those homes, the perspective of age makes me question value of that work I did way back then, and whether it had a positive or negative impact on the world.
    Best I can come up with is; at least all those folks didn’t move here.

  18. tootightmike says:

    If the population of the Adirondack North Country is falling, that’s OK with me. I don’t actually see that as there is another shabby trailer, on every road I can think of, every year. If folks move away, it’s because they see something they want somewhere else.
    I’ve met a good number of young folks over the last few years, who have come here…because of what they see here.

  19. Paul says:

    The bad news is that it appears that Tupper Lake might have to shut its school down in a few years if they don’t get more state aid:–outlook-for-Tupper-Lake-schools.html?nav=5008

    The good news is that the state is close to buying two more parcels of land to add to the Forest Preserve:

    What in the world is going on up there?

  20. newt says:

    Tupper Lake’s school board president might be on to something. If school districts started throwing up their hands and closing doors, or at least planning to, it just might get the attention of the Gov. Cuomo and the state. I guess this would save a lot of local of taxes, which would make Cuomo look good. On the other hand he might like being known for having to oversee the choise between the state running local public school systems or having large swaths of the state without school systems at all.

    If I were the Tupper Lake School Board, I’d send State Ed. a letter asking for guidance regarding dissolution of a school district, and make sure it got adequate press coverage. What do they have to lose?

  21. Peter Bauer says:

    Interesting posts.

    The 2012 estimates don’t get us town level data, which you get in the decennial Census, or the full Census Tract data, also part of decennial Census, which is what the APA used to refine data on populations in and out of the Park. The 2012 estimates are really just estimates and while they involve some new sampling they’re heavily weighted on statistical analysis of past trends, most specifically 2000-2010, combined with the new sampling.

    So, we saw a population drop within the Blue Line 2000-2010. But, this should be viewed against increasing population figures 1980-2000 for Park counties AND Park towns. The 1.3% drop in 2010 still shows us well on the plus side if you look at 1980 as a starting point (2000 was the all-time high for Park counties AND towns). Remember that the NYS population has largely been flat since 1980.

    So what accounts for what is happening with the Park’s population now? Here’s one idea based on looking at towns. Look at Brighton, which lost 247 people 2000-2010. That was a time of increasing enrollment at PSC (and PSC enrollment shapes Brighton — it has the Park’s lowest average age by far because of PSC). So, are people leaving in droves from Gabriels and Rainbow Lake and Easy Street? I don’t think so. I think the population drop is likely linked to the closure of Camp Gabriels.

    Then look at Dannemora, which lost 251 people 2000-2010. Again, how much of this is from a drop in the prison population there? I think it’s worth looking at the Sunmount population and how that impacts the loss in Tupper Lake.

    You add all this up and you start to get pretty close to the overall figure of the Park’s lost population 2000-2010 just from shifts in the Park’s prison population. So, here’s a thought. Overall we have a stable population in Park, not growing a lot, not losing a lot. It could be that the growth from 1980-2000 was heavily influenced by the state’s expanding prison population in those years and it could be that the Park’s population drop is driven by the state’s declining prison population.

    Now, that does not explain Hamilton County — there’s a lot going on there that bears closer scrutiny. But Hamilton County has many unique facets that separate it from other Park counties.

    Here’s the full PROTECT post reference above: where we tried to look at Park population questions in the context of New York and the US.

    In the post we noted that there were other sections of New York, specifically the whole block of 8 western NY counties, that lost population 2000-2010. No APA and Forest Preserve is these places. So by all accounts they should be booming, but they’re not.

    We also noted the correlation between the maps that showed metropolitan areas (large cities, think New York or LA) and micropolitan areas (small cities, think Plattsburgh and Malone) in the US and areas estimated as growing in 2012. There is tremendous similarity and overlap. The areas of population loss were almost all rural.

    Looking across the US it’s hard to find any rural areas that are projected to be growing.

    And, again, all those places have no APA or Forest Preserve so the streets should, by all accounts, be paved with gold.

    Clear national trends show that metro areas are growing and rural areas are declining. Is this trend accelerating? There are some regional particulars for sure, but in the face of a larger trend of steady rural population decline, it’s worth noting that our region is holding its own.

  22. Will Doolittle says:

    They’re state schools, so the state cannot allow them to close. The state has an obligation to educate all students and would have to step in if Tupper Lakers threw up their hands.

  23. Paul says:

    “You add all this up and you start to get pretty close to the overall figure of the Park’s lost population 2000-2010 just from shifts in the Park’s prison population.”

    Peter on this same note does the establishment of the prisons in Ray Brook have anything to do with the rise in population that you describe between 1980 and 2000? Or are there any other prisons that added inmates during that time as well?

  24. Paul says:

    Will, can they send them to Saranac Lake and meet those obligations. The park is not going to have a great time recruiting people to live there if the schools are on the verge of collapse. This is one of the first thing that a young family will consider before they move.

  25. Mervel says:

    We need to be realistic about our value to the state. Closing a school system of 500 kids in rural nys is simply not going to make many ripples when he is dealing with a school system that literally contains over one million children, the largest school system in the USA. I would bet that the Gov is probably focused on that school system and others like it in the state, I mean I would if I were a politician.

    It is our job to react and respond to these changes in our demographics, we can’t expect the state to save the day it is dreaming at this point to do so. We need to plan what our communities look like as they shrink and how to live within that smaller size.

    I would be more concerned about the imbalance within the ages than the total number. Unbalanced demographics to me are a bigger concern.

  26. Paul says:

    If the establishment of those prisons accounts for the bulk of that population increase the whole theory that “park” and its public lands somehow are keeping the region afloat seems to go out the window. Look at Lake Placid, there the opposite is true. It is actually the conversion of state lands to developed recreational facilities (Whiteface etc.) that lead to much of the economic base in that region.

  27. Pete Klein says:

    Since the state does allow home-schooling, the state couldn’t step in if everyone decided to home-school their children.
    I’m not an advocate of home-schooling but I know I would prefer it if the only other choice were to see my children bused a long distance to a school in another town or even worse to another county.
    No, I don’t have any children in school now. If there were not a school in Indian Lake when I moved here, I would not have moved here.

  28. Ken Hall says:

    Paul says: “The population of the earth is declining but if you look at the entire galaxy it is increasing!

    How could anyone who has reached the legal age of an adult seriously believe the Earth’s population of humans is decreasing? Here is a link to a population meter, similar to the popular US Indebtedness meters, which should clarify how far from decreasing the human population is – -. In actuality the human population is increasing exponentially, same principal as compounding interest if you are fortunate to be getting interest on your savings. In round numbers since the 1st of January 2013 the number of humans on the Earth has increased by 16million; does that sound as if the population of the Earth is declining?

  29. Walker says:

    “Will, can they send them to Saranac Lake and meet those obligations.”

    I don’t think it would be as easy fit. That would be a 60% increase in Saranac Lake enrollments: SL is presently at 1401, and Tupper was at 850 in 2011, presumably a bit smaller today.

  30. Paul says:

    Ken that was a fake example, pointing out that you can always move to the next level. I know what is happening with the worlds population. Get a grip.

  31. Paul says:

    “I don’t think it would be as easy fit.” No it would be a disaster.

  32. Mervel says:

    Pete is correct; the secondary effect of this is that even fewer families with children will want to move here. It is kind of a death spiral. It will become very difficult to attract and recruit professionals to work at the colleges or the Trudeu Center or places like that when you have to admit that there is a failing local school system or no local school system and no private options.

  33. Mervel says:

    At some point they may have to start thinking outside of their traditional modes of thinking; they may have to actually consider private fundraising from foundations, local universities, institutions, other government entities and the wealthy who live among us. A school system is important to have an actual normal community. I don’t think a community really will exist very long without a school system in any real sense of what a community means or is; just drive around and it is pretty clear.

  34. Will Doolittle says:

    Schools aren’t charities, Mervel, they’re an obligation of the state. I agree communities without schools aren’t viable. But the state cannot and will not allow schools to close in communities that have no other viable public school options. Closing is not an option for Tupper Lake’s schools — not metaphorically but literally. It is not an option.

  35. dave says:

    “I think it’s important not to overstate or misunderstand the significance of that kind of “context.””

    “But while meaningful, none of those “detail” questions affect the fundamental lived experience in these small towns that are losing people, institutions, services, schools churches, etc.”

    Don’t overstate context? Details are less important because they do not affect our lived experience? These are distressing statements from a journalist.

    Rural communities all across this country are experiencing population problems.

    That is a fact.

    It is not some, “oh by the way” footnote to a story like this. It is the very context that informs everything about a story like this. Without properly stating that context, your reporting reads as if this is a unique “Adirondack issue” – and that is, frankly, dishonest. This is not an “Adirondack issue”, this is a rural America issue.

    Continuing to frame it the way you do, by down playing the factual context of the issue, does nothing other than feed the narrative of despair and doom and gloom about this area.

  36. Ken Hall says:

    Paul, My apology; I failed to recognize the irony in your voice, a not uncommon occurrence for me.

  37. Paul says:

    Ken, no problem. The rise in the worlds population is a large problem for sure. I understand that. I should have said for my crazy example: the planets population is on the rise but overall the galaxy is losing population. Maybe it is???

  38. Paul says:

    I would really like some info on the rise in population between 1980 and 2000 and the prison population. Did that have any impact?

  39. tootightmike says:

    Ken and Paul, I’ve been thinking about this recently; we need some new punctuation marks that could be used to denote irony and sarcasm. I suppose it’s possible but it’s really difficult to convey certain parts of language to print. And I hate emoticons.

  40. mervel says:


    I think it is uncharted waters. Now it may be that if the school cannot pay its bills and truly does become fiscally insolvent then the state would eliminate the local school board and take over operation of the school. What would that mean? I don’t think we know, has it happened in NYS before? I don’t know?

    The thing the state could do is take control of the school and at that point and simply say yes you have access to public schools we are eliminating this district and your children will be part of other districts depending on where you live, thus we have completed our obligation we will of course continue to mandate busing.

    I think it is a very interesting situation. But with 800 kids total for an entire district? Give me a break that is the starting point problem right there; 800 kids is one medium to small grade school in NY, it is not a district.

    I think that is the message we are getting from the state. Downstate people pay a LOT of money to send their kids to private schools that have per -student costs the same as ours and are the same size.

  41. mervel says:

    Now to avoid that it could think outside of a dependency mentality on the state. It could try to raise some local money, Potsdam is already doing this. If local businesses cared they could contribute, if the local very wealthy people cared about having a school they could look into how to contribute. I know it is not required and I know the state has an obligation; but what that obligation is is determined by the state, not us.

  42. mervel says:

    Do local people really care or not? The other option is raise taxes enough to pay the gap.

    I just don’t find begging the state for more money to be a compelling plan or a sustainable plan.

  43. Will Doolittle says:

    You talk as if you have proven the point. Have you? First, you have to say how you are defining rural. Second, you have to show that the common experience across the country in those places you are defining as rural is of declining population, struggling economy, schools on the brink. Maybe that is the case, I don’t know. But it is not enough, for me, for you to state it is the case. Other places will, by definition, have different circumstances than northern New York. There is a value to considering our case in isolation — because no other situation is quite the same.

  44. Will Doolittle says:

    And Brian’s point, that it in no way helps people in Tupper Lake to tell them that other rural places are struggling, too, is true.

  45. Brian Mann says:

    Dave –

    The In Box has — even in this brief post — provided ridiculous amounts of context for this issue. And we haven’t embraced any of the contextual errors or dishonesty that you suggest.

    A quick search of this blog under “demographics” and “population” will show this beyond question.

    My article in “Adirondack Life” also demonstrated a nuanced understanding of and argument about the meaning of these trends.

    Meanwhile, your framing of the post, that it somehow centers on the Adirondack Park or repeats some kind of gloom and doom narrative, is just plain old fashioned straw-man hokum.

    The post wasn’t about the Adirondack Park – a lot of it focused on communities outside the blue line.

    Which brings me to my actual argument when I talk about the limitations of “context.”

    I think there are people who want to keep quibbling over theoretical and contextual aspects of this stark demographic trend, essentially trying to obfuscate or argue away some very real problems.

    I understand why. Some community leaders have used these numbers politically, to argue in favor of things that environmental groups and others don’t like. So this is touchy stuff.

    But in the end, none of that hullabaloo reflects the factual “lived” reality in many North Country communities.

    The story on any given day isn’t “rural America” or “global economic shifts” or the fight over the forest preserve or APA regulation.

    The real story is the local church closing. The grocery store shutting down. The school being shuttered. The ambulance squad unraveling.

    The real story is a far-flung rural population in Hamilton County struggling to find ways to cope with the fact that 1-in-4 residents are over the age of 65.

    The real story is continued data points — independent, verifiable — that show those troubling trends continuing.

    –Brian, NCPR

  46. Walker says:

    Brian, it’s all very well to point to these issues, but it is disingenuous to imply that there is necessarily some set of changes that we could be making that could reverse these unfortunate trends. Nothing we can do would make the Adirondacks urban. If people are leaving rural areas, well, we’re going to have to deal with the repercussions. But let’s not pretend that there’s anything very effective we could do to stop the slow loss.

  47. Brian Mann says:

    Walker –

    What you’re saying is just factually wrong.

    There are a lot of incredibly smart policy makers, activists, local government leaders and environmentalists who are working in the field of rural revitalization.

    And in many parts of the US their efforts have produced real success.

    There are also many parts of the US — including small towns — that have gone through phases of decline followed by revitalization.

    New technology, shifts in cultural values, changing economic dynamics, new uses for natural resources — they all factor in, creating new opportunities.

    I’ve written before that some communities in the North Country will certainly fail. That’s a given. Some are likely already below the threshhold of sustainability.

    But there are a lot of other communities in our region that are seeing real success right now because of incredibly innovative work.

    If they had embraced your point of view, they’d be dead in the water right now.

    Instead, we’re seeing a new farm movement in Essex, biotech and the arts in Saranac Lake, the growth of tourism in Old Forge, broadband in Keene, biofuel development in Massena, the revitalization of Titus Mountain.

    None of these are silver bullets. Not all will work. Not every small town will survive.

    But to be clear, I’m not simply “implying” that there are constructive, creative changes that can help reverse these trends in many communities.

    I’m arguing it without reservation.

    –Brian, NCPR

  48. Walker says:

    I’m all for “constructive, creative changes” in our communities, but I do have some doubt that they have the potential to substantially reverse the population trend. I would be glad to find that I am mistaken!

  49. Paul says:

    Walker, just look at places where it has worked. To say that a place can’t be more urbanized is just crazy. Many people would probably not like to see it happen (perhaps me included) but it is certainly possible. Head to China if you need some proof. Or look at many places in the inter-mountain west if you want some examples closer to home that require more in-migration to make it work.

  50. Paul says:

    “new uses for natural resources”

    This certainly worked for Lake Placid when they took Whiteface mountain and other state owned land and turned it into something that thousands of tourists a year now come and use (and spend).

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