The Deer Lake area was settled by George Nichols in 1867, who came to cut pine. The railway came through the area in 1898, and a sawmill was established in 1900 and operated until 1905. A coal mine was opened in 1910 and lasted for only three months.
During World War I, the area was surveyed for shale oil deposits and approximately 388 km5 was found but never developed.
Between 1922 and 1925, a hydroelectric station was built at Deer Lake by the Newfoundland Products Company and Sir W. G. Armstrong Whitworth and Company. The canal system used by the hydroelectric station helped to expand the woods operations in the area.
Since the 1920s, Deer Lake has grown into a major area for the lumbering industry, as well becoming a service oriented centre. It was incorporated as a town in 1950.