In the early 1850s, the area is now Carver County was opened up for settlement. The earliest settlements occurred along rivers which were the transportation arteries of the time as well as sources of power for mills.
In the fall of 1856, the first road between Minneapolis and Watertown, Territorial Road, was built by Caleb Lewis and a portable sawmill was set up along the river to provide lumber to build the town. Due to rich soil of the area, there was a heavy migration of farmers and settlers.
Much of the country, including the Watertown area, was covered by the “Big Woods.” The heavily timbered land had to be painstakingly cleared before crops could be grown. Mail service was established in Watertown in 1857 and the first school was built in 1859.
Watertown was surveyed and platted in 1858 on land owned by Caleb Lewis. The townsite was first given the name Rapids Waters but changed when it was discovered that another townsite in the county had a similar name. The name Watertown was chosen because of the abundance of water in the area and Lewis had been originally from Watertown, N.Y.
The advent of farm machinery in the 1870s and the subsequent increased level of agricultural activity in the surrounding area prompted Watertown to experience a “boom.” During this period the town had three hotels, three general stores, a hardware store, drug store, three blacksmiths, three wagon shops, a bell foundry, plow factory, a brewery, two confectionary stores, four shoe making shops, two harness shops, three farm machinery shops, two furniture making shops, an undertaker, jewelry store, seven saloons, public hall, a jail, two physicians, two lawyers, and four churches.
Watertown’s first industry, milling, continued to be an important part of the economy with the saw mill and a grist mill operating in the mill reserve area south of the downtown.
Watertown’s boom period ended when in the mid-1870s the railroad that had been planned to go through
Watertown was rerouted. The village was now cut off from the most important mode of transportation of that period which forced many of the industries and businesses to leave town. The railroad did not reach Watertown until 1915.
The city managed to survive this setback by maintaining some of its businesses and attracting new ones and on Feb.26, 1877, Watertown was incorporated.
The food processing industry became an important element in Watertown’s economy in the early 1900s. A canning factory was built in 1918 which was taken over in 1927 by the Minnesota Valley Canning Company and later renamed the Green Giant Company. A creamery was also built during this period.
Watertown experienced steady growth throughout the first half of the 20th Century by acting as a retail trade and service center of the surrounding area and by retaining traditional and new small scale businesses and industries. Watertown also developed as a community by making many civic improvements. Central sewer and water system was installed in the 1920s. The public library was established in 1939. In the late 1950s, Watertown Community Hospital was built and continued operation until 1979. A new wastewater treatment plant was completed in 1994 and a new city hall in 1996.
In the past few years, Watertown has experienced a population growth that is directly related to its proximity to the job opportunities in the metro area. While Watertown has been able to maintain a sizeable employment base within the city, much of the new residential growth has been the result of people living in Watertown while commuting to jobs elsewhere.
Watertown’s future should reflect its past and present. The city is able to maintain its small-scale businesses and industries due to a stable employment base. Watertown is thriving as a bedroom community for its residents who work elsewhere.
See also: Watertown Area Historical Society, Carver County Historical Society