Fast-growing Nashville about to become Tennessee's largest city

Thousands gather for a prayer rally with evangelist Franklin Graham on the plaza across the street from the state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Tennessee's biggest cities

The 2015 population estimates by the Census Bureau 1. Memphis, 655,770 2. Nashville, 654,610 3. Knoxville, 185,291 4. Chattanooga, 176,588 5. Clarksville, 149,176 Source: U.S. Bureau of Census, July 1, 2015 population estimates

After nearly 120 years as Tennessee's largest city, Memphis is on the verge of surrendering that title to fast-growing Nashville, census estimates released Thursday show.

As of July 1 of last year, Memphis clung to a 1,160-person edge in population - 655,770 to 654,610, according to the estimates. The gap, which had totaled almost 12,000 just a year earlier, closed as Memphis lost 712 residents and Nashville gained 9,881. As recently as the 2010 Census, Memphis had about 45,000 more residents than Nashville.

In East Tennessee, Chattanooga also moved closer to Knoxville in size, although the Scenic City still had 8,403 fewer residents than Knoxville last July, according to the census estimates.

Chattanooga ranked as America's 137th biggest city last year and has grown more than 3.7 percent since the 2000 census. Knoxville was the 129th biggest city in 2015 and grew just under 3.6 percent since 2000.

Tennessee's fastest growing major city was Murfreesboro, which grew 15.7 percent in the past half decade. Atlanta grew 10.4 percent from 2000 to 2015, while Nashville increased by 8.5 percent in the same period.

Cleveland, Tennessee grew at a healthy 6.3 percent rate from 2000 to 2015, but Dalton, Georgia grew at a much slower 2.2 percent pace in the same period.

The latest census numbers, which cover municipalities and other "sub-county" areas, reaffirm a continuing lack of growth not only in Memphis but in many of its wealthy suburbs. Four of the six suburban municipalities in Shelby County sustained slight drops in population, with only Bartlett and Collierville registering modest increases.

But if the figures show Memphis is not growing, they also confirm that it's not in rapid decline, said John Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis.

"We can take pride in that we've at least been stable, which is more than a lot of cities can say," Gnuschke said.

Memphis became the state's largest city with the 1900 Census, when its population surged to 102,320 compared to 80,865 for Nashville. That achievement, which marked a dramatic rebound from the yellow fever epidemics that devastated the city during the 1870s, touched off wild celebrations that included parades and dancing in the streets.

"My sense is, it has always been a point of pride for Memphis that we were larger than Nashville," said Wayne Dowdy, senior manager of the history department for the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. "It was a tangible way that we could argue that we were more significant than our sister city."

Today, comparisons between the two cities are complicated by their differing forms of government.

In 1962, voters in Nashville and Davidson County approved the nation's first fully unified metro government, meaning the city's and county's boundaries - except for a few satellite communities - became the same for population purposes. Memphis is one of seven municipalities within Shelby County, which remains by far the state's most populous county with more than 938,000 residents.

Nashville's metro area, with a population of 1.83 million, is much larger than the nine-county Memphis area, which has an estimated 1.34 million people. A 10-county region encompassing Nashville is expected to grow to a population of 2.6 million by 2035, according to projections by the local planning organization.

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.

Contact Tom Charlier at or 901-529-2572.