Anoka sprouted up because of its ready access to water transportation. Joseph Belanger, with help from a few others, erected a trading post for William Aitkin on the peninsula between the Rum and Mississippi Rivers in 1844. Belanger and his crew lived at the post through a couple of winters (Aitkin never did) before Aitkin abandoned it and the men relocated downriver to Mendota.
The origin of the city’s name is not entirely clear, although it seems that Joseph Belanger was the first person to use “Anoka” to refer to this area. In the 1905 county history, Albert Goodrich seemed pretty confident that the word was from the Ojibwe language although the translations he provided don’t seem very convincing (An-o-kay’: having it done, or has it done or An-o-keh’: He is working or is at work). Belanger claimed that the word simply meant “river that works.” Other historians have asserted that the word is really derived from the Dakota language (A-no’ka, meaning on both sides, although it is used only as part of the adverb A-no-‘ka-tan-han, meaning on both sides or from both sides).
Settlers trickled into the area in sufficient numbers to justify a post office by 1853; in the fall of that year, one Mr. Larned picked up the mail at St. Anthony (Minneapolis) and carried it to Anoka in his hat (there weren’t any packages from Amazon to worry about at that time).
Logging began along the Rum River in the late 1840s (when the Red River Ox Cart Trail was still active) and by the 1860s, it was lined with sawmills, employing about 500 men who cut 350,000 board feet of lumber every day. In spite of the sawmills, Anoka was still largely rural, which may be why voters twice rejected attempts to incorporate (in 1858 and 1869) before consenting in 1878.
Most of the sawmills closed in the 1870s as the nearby forests were denuded. Some old mills were converted to other uses; one became the Reed & Sherwood Manufacturing Company, which produced sashes and doors until 1946.
Residents crossed the Mississippi River via a ferry from 1856 until 1884 when the first bridge was built, then Anokans could take a streetcar across the river, and, by the early 1900s, all the way to Minneapolis.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Anoka was a fairly big city, with a population around 4,000, home to small manufacturing, farming-related industries, and psychiatric hospitals (Dr. Kline’s Sanatorium and Anoka State Hospital). Anoka never experienced the explosive growth common to its neighbors, but the city grew steadily after World War II, peaking around 18,000 residents.
The city has been strengthening the town center in recent years, which has a growing collection of places to eat and shop.