Drachten began as a small community on the east side of the Drait River. There, early settlers started draining the land to use it for agriculture. As the process of draining progressed, residents began to move further eastward in order to use the drained land—former peatbogs—for agriculture.
Around 1200 A.D., a small stone church was built. It was used for 200 years afterward, until rising waters drove people even further east.
By 1550 the Dutch peat reserve had been exhausted. Consequently, demand grew for peat from Friesland. The wealthy began to buy large plots of peatbog in order to turn them into peat and exploit them in large quantities. In 1641, wealthy residents of The Hague secured permission to dig a canal in Drachten. The canal made the peat drier, and hence more usable, and it allowed for the transportation of the peat, usually by ships(skûtsje:flat bottem barge) along the canal.
The peat industry of Drachten lasted for 200 years. When it ended, the poorer workers stayed behind; some became small farmers, but most of them had no success.
Recently, Drachten received international attention for a traffic experiment known as shared space, a concept pioneered by Hans Monderman. Almost all traffic lights and signs have been removed in the city centre in an effort to improve traffic safety, based on the theory that drivers pay more attention to their surroundings when they cannot rely on strict traffic rules. Previously the city centre had an average of 8 accidents per year. Since the new system was introduced in 2003, this has been reduced to effectively 0.
The German town of Bohmte adopted a similar scheme in September 2007.