Elk River is located in Sherburne County, Minnesota approximately 34 miles northwest of Minneapolis. It is situated at the meeting of the Mississippi and Elk Rivers. The city has been dubbed as the “Energy City” since 1997 when the Minnesota Environmental initiative selected it from 30 other cities vying for the title.
In 1851, Ard Godfrey, a native of Orono, Maine, saw the potential of the water power of the Elk River and built a dam and sawmill. His dam created the first lobe of Lake Orono (called the Mill Pond), which extended from the present day dam to Orono Cemetery Point. In 1855, the area by the dam was platted and the town of Orono (known as Upper Town) was created.
In the latter half of the 19th century, agriculture replaced lumber as the base of Elk River’s economy. Grist mills and a starch factory, which took advantage of the potato fields to the west, were built.
The Orono-Elk River area continued to grow until by 1860 it had reached a population of 723 people. These early settlers typically came from New England. Elk River’s population continued to grow following a slow period caused by the civil war. The majority of people moving to Elk River by that time were from Northern Europe.
By 1870, Elk River swelled to a population of 2,050 and became the county seat in 1872. Around this same time, the railroads replaced the rivers as the main focus of transportation and the Lower Town (the present day historic downtown area) replaced Upper Town as the focus of commerce.
The Orono Dam was destroyed by an ice storm in 1912, but hydropower gave a new incentive to dam the Elk River in 1915. This new dam created the four lobes of Lake Orono as we know it today. In 1916, the Village of Elk River received electricity for the first time. The entire township of Elk River would not get electricity until after World War II.
In 1974, the village of Elk River changed to the City of Elk River by 1978 the township was consolidated with the city to establish one unit known as the City of Elk River today.
Energy plays a major role in the life of Elk River residents. The first rural nuclear powered plant went online in 1960 as Great River Energy’s (GRE) site in Elk River. By the 1980s, the plant was converted to burn refuse-derived fuel. This innovative method helped the city to become popularly known today as “Energy City.” By the 1990s, Elk River and Sherburne County were considered as two of the fastest growing corridors in the state and in the country. This population growth and the area’s high commuter rate factored into the ultimate approval and implementation of the Northstar Commuter Rail service from Minneapolis to Big Lake, which began service on November 16, 2009.