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History of the Sartell Paper Mill

Photos courtesy of the Stearns History Museum

SARTELL — March 17th, 1908 – The Watab Dam for the Sartell Paper Mill finished

The Watab Pulp and Paper Company was formed by a group of investors from Wisconsin and the company began constructing the paper mill in Sartell in 1905.  The original plan was to build the mill in Sauk Rapids, but the company thought the cost was too high for that location.  So, they moved further upstream and built on the east side of the Mississippi River.

This first mill produced newsprint for Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers.  Employee wages varied, with the more dangerous jobs getting higher wages.  Workers earned between $1.25 – $3.00 per day, depending on the job.

Photo of the construction of the dam in 1906

Construction on the dam to power this paper mill began on April 19, 1905.  It cost around $40,000 to construct.  The dam itself was finished on March 23, 1907, and the final piece, the apron dam, was completed on March 17, 1908.

Several lives were lost in the construction of the dam and mill.  The first death was the 12-year-old son of Karl Mathie, one of the officers of the Watab Company, who was buried under several tons of earth when the bank he was playing near collapsed on top of him.  At different times during the construction, five men drowned, and one or two were killed in other ways.

The paper mill in 1980

In 1946, the mill was purchased by St. Regis Corp.  This company operated the mill for many years and grew its operations in 1982 with a $400 million expansion.  In 1984, St. Regis signed a merger with Champion International Corp.  The mill changed hands again in 2000 when it was purchased by International Paper (for $7.3 billion) and the last time in 2006 when it became the current Verso Paper Sartell Mill (purchased for $1.4 billion).

The mill employed 485 people and had a capacity of producing 850 tons of paper per day, prior to a major permanent layoff in December.

The explosion and fire on Memorial Day 2012 killed one worker and injured four others.  The plant has been shut down since that day.  The announcement that the plant would not reopen came on August 2nd, 2012.

Thanks to Sarah Warmka and the Stearns History Museum for their help with our series “This Date In Central Minnesota History.

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