Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/644

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Certainly in Massachusetts, in which State I have carefully examined the returns of the towns at every Federal census, and in some of the other New England States probably, this decrease of the population of the smallest and most purely rural towns—that is, of those which had in 1890 less than 1,000 inhabitants each—has been going on steadily ever since 1840, and they now have less population than they had ninety years ago. The next larger towns, still purely or nearly purely rural, but more favorably situated, being those which had in 1890 between 1,000 and 2,000 inhabitants each, increased steadily and with a reasonable degree of rapidity until 1850. During the decade between 1850 and 1860 there was a barely perceptible increase, and since 1860 the decrease has been continuous. In the aggregate all the towns having less than 2,000 inhabitants each, comprising as they do 179 of the 351 towns and cities in the State, had a larger population in 1820 than they have to-day.

In the early days of the century, railroads there were of course none. Even canals as yet existed principally on paper. The cost of land carriage was on the average probably at least twenty-five times as great as it now is. Articles whose bulk was large as compared with their value, as is generally the case with agricultural products, could not profitably be carried great distances overland. Under ordinary circumstances, if they could not be consumed or reach navigable water within a hundred and fifty miles or less of the place of their origin, they were practically valueless. Under such conditions the proximity of most of the New England country towns to the seacoast and to the commercial and manufacturing centers gave them an enormous geographical advantage, which went far to compensate for the comparative sterility of much of their soil. Now, however, when it costs less to bring a barrel of flour or a bushel of wheat from Nebraska or the Dakotas than it did eighty years ago to wagon like articles a hundred miles, those advantages which were once so great have become of little practical importance. Were the decrease of rural population confined only to New England and to such portions of the other older States as had a soil below the average of productiveness, the phenomenon would have a very obvious explanation. It could be said that when a farm in the valley of the Mississippi or the Missouri produces with equal labor and capital twice as much as a similar farm east of the Hudson, and when it costs comparatively only a small fraction of the market price at Boston or New York to transport the Western product to those cities, the Eastern farmer must abandon the unequal struggle. But while the generally harsh and forbidding character of much of the New England soil is doubtless one of the reasons why most of its country towns have to-day less population than they had when the election of