Aitkin owes it early growth to the logging industry. When it was founded in 1871 (when the Great Northern Railroad built a station here), it was the northern-most settlement on the Mississippi River. The town’s primary industry was supplying the nearby logging camps which housed upwards of 2,000 men. All those men needed a place to relax, which explains why the small city had over a dozen saloons and several brothels in the early years. For about forty years, an average of 226 million board feet of lumber moved down the Mississippi past Aitkin, peaking in 1904 at 500,000,000 board feet before ending just six years later as the forests were depleted.
The city is named for William Alexander Aitkin (1785-1851), a man of Scottish descent who worked his way down from Canada in the early 1800s to work in the fur trade. Aitkin was, by all accounts, a man well-adapted to life as a backwoodsman, even though his family in Scotland seemed quite worried about his well-being in the wilderness (he was from the big city of Edinborough). By 1831 he was put in charge of an American Fur Company trading post at the confluence of the Sandy and Mississippi Rivers. After his post was sold, Aitkin had a dispute with his new bosses and got fired in 1838, so he set up a rival post. When Aitkin died in 1851 (he was probably in his early 60s), he left behind at least two dozen children. He had been married at least 6 times, all to women from American Indian tribes.
James Warren Tibbets was one of the first settlers, getting started with a 160-acre homestead grant after the Civil War. He served as the first sheriff and the first postmaster. He and his family was quite hospitable; they often provided temporary lodging at their house for men who were making their way to a logging camp. It wasn’t always an ideal place to live, though; one summer he had to send his family to live in Elk River because the mosquitoes were so bad in Aitkin.
The Mississippi River in this area meanders through the bed of glacial Lake Aitkin; the distance from Grand Rapids to the City of Aitkin is less than 50 miles as the crow flies but if you travel by the Mississippi, you’ll cover 120 miles. Fifty years of regular steamboat service began on this route in 1871 with the sternwheeler Pokegama. The steamboats primary mission was to supply the area’s logging camps, but they also provided passenger service; the route had 25 regular stops but locals could flag down a boat at any point. There wasn’t much river traffic downriver of Aitkin, just occasional trips to Brainerd or Pine River.
The area has always been prone to flooding. Following a major flood in 1950, the US Army Corps of Engineers built a six-mile canal north of Aitkin that diverts water when the river is high. The canal has kept the City of Aitkin from being inundated, although surrounding areas have still been flooded by high water, some as recently as 2012.