Which US city covers the largest area?

Population aside, some of the largest cities in the US sprawl outwards instead of upwards, covering vast areas.

By Silvia Pellegrino

So we know where most people live in the US in terms of that being an indicator for the largest cities. But what about those cities not stacked with skyscrapers, but are much more spread out? These are the largest US cities by area.

alaska - large cities
Anchorage: Alaskan cities dominate the top ten. (Photo by Karel Stipek/Shutterstock)

1. Sitka, Alaska – 2,870 square miles

Sitka is located in south-eastern Alaska and it is the biggest Alaskan settlement. It is also the only city in south-eastern Alaska that faces the Pacific Ocean.

Originally, the area was inhabited by Tlingit Indians, but then it was explored by a Russian expedition in 1741. Old Sitka – or Fort St Michael – was established in 1799 by Aleksandr Baranov, who then became the first Russian governor of Alaska. However, the fort was then destroyed by the Tlingit in 1802.

Today’s city was founded initially as Novo Arkhangelsk – New Archangel – two years later, when Baranov moved the headquarters of the trading company Russian-American Company there. The settlement took the name of Sitka in 1867, when Alaska was acquired by the United States. Sitka was the territorial capital until 1906.

The city had an important role in the Second World War, as the US government built a naval air base there, which swelled the population to nearly 40,000 people. Alongside the augment in population, Sitka thrived also in its economic activities. The principal ones are fishing, canning, lumbering, and tourism. Alongside these, Sitka is also a regional healthcare centre.

It is the largest US city by area.

2. Juneau, Alaska – 2,701 square miles

Joseph Juneau and Richard Harris were the founders of this city. At first, the town was called Harrisburg, then it was named Rockwell and then the present Juneau. In 1880, the founders discovered gold and prospectors quickly moved to the area. In fact, within a year from its foundation, Juneau had a population of several hundred.

The city was finally formed and integrated in 1900, when it was named the territorial capital. Sixteen years later, the Alaska-Juneau gold mine was built, though it ceased operations in 1944. There was also an oil boom that facilitated a number of capital-improvement programmes in the 1970s and 1980s.

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However, gold and oil are not the only activities that are central to Juneau’s economy. In fact, government activities employ around two-fifths of the total workforce of the city. Fishing and forestry are also important, as well as tourism, as Douglas Island – connected to Juneau by a bridge – is a popular skiing site.

Juneau homes a little over 32,000 people, with a density of about 12 people per square mile, even if it is one of the largest US cities by area.

3. Wrangell, Alaska – 2,542 square miles

Wrangell is many things. It is the third-oldest community in Alaska, the second-oldest community in south-east, and the only city in Alaska to be ruled by four nations and under three flags: Tlingit, Russia, the UK and US.

Wrangell has been inhabited by the Tlingit people and their ancestors for thousands of years, since before all the glaciers in the area melted. However, the actual city of Wrangell was officially founded in the 19th century by Russians. In fact, they started trading for furs with Tlingit in 1811.

Baron Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel, head of Russian government interests in Russian America, ordered for a stockade to be built near the clan house of Chief Shakes in 1834. This house was located in today’s Wrangell Harbour, and the stockade was built at the location of today’s city, at the mouth of the harbour.

Since then, commerce was based on military activities and mining. In the 20th century, fishing took over; however, its invasive nature caused severe damage to the sea fauna. In the 1050s, in fact, the state decommissioned all fish traps in Alaska. Fishing is still the city’s primary industry, as well as tourism and forest services.

4. Anchorage, Alaska – 1,704 square miles

The Russians established a mission in 1835 in the area that constitutes the modern-day city of Anchorage. However, the actual city was founded in 1914 to act as the headquarters of the Alaska Railroad running north to Fairbanks.

In the 19th century gold was found in the area, which caused its population to surge very quickly. Anchorage started as an agricultural hub since, during the 1930 Dust Bowl drought devastated agriculture in most of the central continental US, settlers from the American Midwest were given federal assistance to move to the Anchorage area to build an agricultural community.

However, by the 21st century, this sector was in decline. Therefore, the city became a key aviation and defence centre, thanks also to the construction of Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base during the Second World War.

These days, its economy is primarily based on defence projects and the exploitation of natural resources like oil. Thanks to the presence of the University of Alaska and Alaska Pacific University, the population is relatively young. And being Alaska’s most populous city and the state’s chief commercial centre, tourism is significant too.

5. Jacksonville, Florida – 747 square miles

Florida became part of the US in 1821, when plantations had become important economic centres along the river.

Jacksonville is named after the territory’s first governor, Andrew Jackson, who actually never lived there but became the seventh president of the US. The town was established in 1822, and later became part of an established commerce network, exporting cotton, lumber, oranges and vegetables.

Jacksonville, after recovering from the Civil War, was completely revolutionised following the Great Fire of 1901. Concrete and stone became the new construction materials, a public library was built in 1905 and the new industry of film production came into the city around the same years. The city became a major transportation hub as well.

Today, the major industries in Jacksonville are:

  • advanced manufacturing
  • aviation and aerospace
  • finance and insurance
  • information technologies
  • life sciences
  • distribution

6. Anaconda, Montana – 735 square miles

in 1883 Anaconda was established by Marcus Daly, one of the three ‘Copper Kings’ of Butte, Montana. The Copper Kings were:

  1. William A Clark
  2. Marcus Daly
  3. F Augustus Heinze

It was born as a site for a new factory to treat ores from Daly’s mine. The town was originally called Copperopolis, but another Montana town was already called that, so they settled on Anaconda.

Anaconda, even if it lost its role as capital to Helena, ended up becoming one of Montana’s most important cities. This is also due to the smelter continuing to expand capacity over the years, and in the 1920s a 585ft-tall smokestack was added to it, making it one of the tallest surviving free-standing masonry structures in the world to this day.

However, the last of the Anaconda smelters closed in 1980, forcing the city to go through a difficult transformation into a tourist destination, hosting several annual golf festivals every year.

7. Butte, Montana – 716 square miles

Before it was one of the largest US cities by area, Butte was born in the late 1800s as a silver mining camp. It was the first major city in Montana and the largest city west of the Mississippi River between Chicago and San Francisco.

Butte has a rich history, from being born as a mining camp, to the rise of the Copper Kings and the birth of the labour movement, to the industrialisation and decline of mining, resulting in a present characterised by an environmental and urban renaissance.

This Montana city has always had the reputation of a place where anything was possible, with saloons and red light districts, such as the Dumas Brothel, which was open until 1982. It is also a melting pot of cultures, such as Slavic and Cornish, as well as Scandinavian traditions.

While the city still has many prominent visual reminders of mining, the environmental effects of those times of industry are being actively remediated and restored, thanks to the federal Superfund programme and a unique State of Montana lawsuit against the responsible companies. This resulted in over $1bn towards environmental restoration in Butte, which started in the 1990s and is still going on today.

8. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – 607 square miles

Oklahoma City’s original land run spanned 400 acres and it was opened for settlement in 1889. Overnight, it gained 5,000 inhabitants.

Two townsite companies claimed various plots of land, each making its own map. On 23 April of the same year, a meeting was held and a committee of citizens was nominated to reconcile the opposing sides of the newest city. Each member, in fact, came from a different state in order to form an impartial group. There was 14 of them, part of the citizens’ committee, with the job of mapping the streets and alleyways of the US’s newest community.

In the same year, 1889, President Harrison issued a proclamation that opened the unassigned lands to settlement. Today, this area comprises the first six counties in central Oklahoma.

Fast-forward to 1949, the City Planning Commission issued a comprehensive plan, estimating that the population growth would continue to increase. The success of business and industries in Oklahoma City was due, mostly, to the partnership of the Chamber of Commerce and City government officials.

Its industries, in particular, focused on oil within city limits, which brought many investors to the city, who launched the energy industry, which is still the main source of economic gain in the 21st century.

9. Houston, Texas – 599 square miles

Houston, also the fourth-largest city in the US based on population, was founded in 1837 after Augustus and John Allen had acquired the land to establish a new town.

The town developed quickly, becoming the capital of Texas for a short period of time. The town itself became a regional transportation and commercial hub, even though it was part of an independent nation until 1846 when the US formally included Texas.

It served as a regional military logistics centre, and it took a long time to recover from the Civil War. However, it grew consistently, going through the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era in the 1900s. These two historical moments made Houston’s evolution into a real industrial city possible.

In 2001, a few neighbourhoods were destroyed by Tropical Storm Allison, but the city rebuilt quite quickly.

Today, nearly one in three manufacturers in Texas are based in Houston. Houston is an important industrial base with access to global markets, and over 230,000 industrial workers specialising in fabricated metal, machinery and chemical manufacturing.

10. Phoenix, Arizona – 516 square miles

Also number five on the population ranking, Phoenix is the anchor of the Phoenix metropolitan area, also called the Valley of the Sun, which is in turn known as the Salt River Valley.

Born in 1867 as an agricultural community, it is based near the confluence of the Salt and Gila Rivers. Phoenix was incorporated as a city in 1881, and it became the capital of Arizona in 1889. It has a hot desert climate; however, its farming community has thrived for centuries.

The large city is divided into urban villages, each of which has a planning committee appointed directly by the city council. In addition to these villages, Phoenix has a variety of commonly referred-to regions and districts, such as Sunnyslope and Uptown.

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