Sartell got its start as a small town on the Mississippi River, relying on lumber and a paper company for its existence. The present site of the city was originally dubbed "The Third Rapids" as it was the third set of rough waters that French fur traders encountered as they traveled north from Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.
In 1905, construction was begun on both the Watab Pulp and Paper Company as well as on the Sartell Dam across the Mississippi near the "third rapids." Both projects were completed in 1907 with the dam having claimed the lives of seven workers. Watab Pulp and Paper Company would be rebuilt and expanded through the years, passing through multiple ownerships and eventually emerging as Verso Paper's Sartell mill, the city's largest employer.
It was in 1907 that residents of the town decided it was time to incorporate. Several influential people felt the town ought to be named "Wengert" after a local businessman. Another man lobbied to have the town named "Oberly" after himself. However, because of his many relatives and generous contributions to the community, the town was incorporated as "The Village of Sartell" in honor of Joseph B. Sartell. From 1907 until 1973 there was a Sartell on nearly every City Council, the most prominent being Ripley B. "Rip" Sartell who was mayor for 31 years.
The town continued to grow slowly and developed a number of businesses and a "downtown" on the east side of the Mississippi River along U.S. Highway 10. In the 1960s the highway was re-routed, greatly contributing to the demise of the downtown area. Despite not having a downtown the city continued to grow and the pace of the growth increased in the 1970s. From 1970 to the present, the city's population has grown from 700 to over 10,000.