The origin of the Sauk name is not entirely clear. The Sauk nation never lived this far north from what I’ve read, but there is a story that five Sauk Indians fled here after killing someone; they supposedly lived in the area for a while before they were killed by Dakota Indians. Another source suggested that the name comes to us from the Ojibwe language, where Sauk means “a meeting place”, which could be a reference to mouth of the Sauk River at the Mississippi, or maybe it’s just that this area had significance as a meeting grounds for the Ojibwe. I’ve checked a couple of sources, though, and I have yet to find one that says “Sauk” means “a meeting place” in Ojibwe. Guess I’ll keep digging.
Europeans first came to the area to establish a trading post. Phillip Beaupre established a post near the mouth of the Sauk River in 1845 that changed hands a few times. The village was platted in 1854 by a group that included Jeremiah Russell, who is sometimes called the Father of Sauk Rapids. Russell was from the Northeast US, like many of the first settlers. Before he came to Sauk Rapids, Russell worked as a clerk to the sutler at Fort Snelling and as a trader.
The little village saw some steamboat traffic from Minneapolis (62 boats reached Sauk Rapids in 1858), but this was pretty much the end of the line because of the rapids. Sauk Rapids also had ferry service across the river, a stage coach stop, and, later, a railroad station. The village was named the Benton County seat in 1859, but calls for a more central location were eventually heeded; county government offices were moved to Foley in 1901.
The biggest early industry was the sawmill, which processed timber coming down river from the pine forests. Granite mining was an important local industry beginning around 1880. For decades, big plans were floated to build a dam for water power at Sauk Rapids. The most promising effort was led by Sauk Rapids Water Power, which was chartered in the 1860s and, in 1872, presented a plan for building a dam. Contributions from some subscribers raised enough money to build a wing dam in 1873, but that was as far as the effort got. The company went out of business and their property was sold off at a foreclosure sale in 1880. The first dam in the area was eventually built upriver at Sartell in 1907.
Sauk Rapids is perhaps best known for a natural disaster that nearly wiped it off the map. On April 14, 1886, a tornado ripped through the area, destroying property in St. Cloud before destroying every business in Sauk Rapids save one, killing 38 residents and injuring nearly twice as many. Some witnesses claimed the Mississippi was sucked dry by the winds. While many people claim the tornado was the reason that St. Cloud became the commercial center of the region instead of Sauk Rapids, the reality is that St. Cloud already had a larger population and more industry. The failure to build a dam on the Mississippi to generate power was a bigger factor in the town’s slow early growth than the tornado.
The town center has been redeveloped many times over the city’s history, so there aren’t a lot of original buildings left. When the new Highway 10 bridge was built, the center again saw significant redevelopment in the form of a couple of strip malls. Sauk Rapids eventually got the growth it desired, but it came about 100 years later than expected and has been primarily residential. From 1960 to 2010 the city’s population tripled from 4,038 to 12,773.