Whether by jet plane, the maternity ward or behind the wheel of a U-Haul, Wake County’s 1 millionth resident arrives Friday.
The milestone is the inevitable result of a growth spurt that began in the 1960s. The founding of Research Triangle Park in 1959 and the arrival of IBM in 1965 started an influx of people that spawned the new suburbs of Cary and North Raleigh, said Ernest Dollar, executive director of the City of Raleigh Museum.
“It really changed the entire landscape around Raleigh – culturally, socially and economically,” Dollar said.
Wake’s population had grown in fits and starts since the first census takers counted 10,198 residents in 1790. But since 1960, the county’s population grew an average of nearly 40 percent a decade, more than twice the rate before then.
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Wake had 169,082 residents in 1960; Cary and Morrisville combined have about that many people today. In 1960, the census classified about 37 percent of Wake’s population as rural; in 2010, it was 6 percent.
With more people have come changes. The county’s population has become more racially and ethnically diverse, more affluent and more educated. About 13 percent of us were born in another country, compared with less than 1 percent in 1960.
Back then, the racial breakdown of the county was divided between blacks and whites, with only a few hundred residents listed as Native American or Asian; Hispanic wasn’t even counted in the census then. Today, more than 6 percent of us are Asian and about 10 percent are Hispanic.
Don't like the crowds?
So now we are 1 million in Wake County. And, at times, it feels like nearly all 1 million are ahead of us on Interstate 40 or taking up all the parking spaces at Crabtree Valley Mall. But for such a populous county, there are still many places to get away from the teeming masses without leaving home. Here are a few of them:
Umstead State Park
Some of the trails can feel crowded on weekends, but it’s not hard to get into the back country of the 5,795-acre park. Get deep into Umstead on a weekday morning, and you may see only a handful of other people.
The lake provides most of the drinking water for the county, and the land around it is mostly owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. So get out on a boat or hike a trail along the shore and it’s easy to forget you’re in North Carolina’s second-most populous county. (Mecklenburg County hit 1 million last fall.)
The Neuse River
Especially when the leaves are on the trees, there are stretches along the river that feel a long way from civilization. Rent or borrow a canoe, or try the Neuse River Trail, which follows the river from Fall Lake to the Johnston County line.
Yates Mill Pond
This 18th-century grist mill is a relic from Wake’s agrarian past, across the road from the pastures where N.C. State University’s dairy herd grazes. The trail around the pond is tranquil, and the water spilling over the dam almost drowns out the traffic on Lake Wheeler Road.
Harris Lake County Park
The New Hill area, near the Shearon Harris nuclear plant in Wake’s southwest corner, is still rural. This 680-acre park takes up a peninsula that juts out into the Shearon Harris reservoir.
Of course, you can also simply take a ride in almost any direction in Wake County and be surprised by how quickly you’re out in the country, particularly south and east of Raleigh.
Grab a can of soda or tea at the Riley Mart, at the intersection of Riley Hill and Edgemont roads, north of Wendell, and then head north, past fields of tobacco, soybeans and sorghum, and you’ll get a feel for what North Raleigh looked like a century ago.
Staff writer Richard Stradling