Tales Spun Along the Tracks: A History of Downtown Billings

By Chere Jiusto

Downtown Billings Study Team
Downtown Billings Historic and Architectural Survey
Fall-Winter 1998


 Downtown has always been the heart of the Magic City, where the story of Billings began. The sturdy brick business blocks and tall buildings tell a long and interesting story, each like a page inscribed by many writers over the course of a hundred years. Tales from two centuries are spun along both sides of the city’s railroad tracks. South of the tracks, it is a tale from the 19th century: of dreams that rumbled in on a railcar. North of the tracks, a story from the 20th century: of homesteaders with high expectations brought to the plains on bands of steel rail.

To walk the streets of downtown Billings is to walk through those times again. On Minnesota Avenue, a little nondescript building may be the oldest business building remaining. Burned out early in its history, it somehow escaped demolition and rubs shoulders with buildings of somewhat lesser age — once-graceful brick and iron storefronts from the late 1890s and turn-of-the-20th-century. Strung along the tracks in an architectural procession, warehouses of the 1910s formed the tie between the railroad and farmers, ranchers and manufacturers who labored in fields and factories as Billings came of age on the prairie. Numerous hotels and small business blocks from the same era relate stories of weary travelers who spilled into town looking for the future – a piece of ground to call home.

Birth of Billings

“Billings is situated on the north bank of the Yellowstone River, at a point on the Northern Pacific railroad 915 miles west of St. Paul and about midway between that city and the terminus of the road at Puget sound. The town is located upon a gently sloping plain at the eastern extremity of the most beautiful of Montana valleys – the Clark Fork bottom – north of the town a line of rugged cliffs, the bank of a once wide Yellowstone, divides the bottom lands along the river from a higher plateau.”

Born in 1882, the city of Billings was a rail hub founded by the Northern Pacific Railroad on a site originally known as Clark’s Fork Bottom. The location was steered by a plan to develop freight hauling up Alkali Creek to Ft Benton and beyond into the productive Judith and Musselshell Basins. Still, this inauspicious spot, three miles from fresh water on the alkali flats above the Yellowstone River may not, at a first glance, seem the most desirable location to start a town.

Nearby Coulson, five years old and perched on the river’s edge just to the northeast, appeared a far more likely site. Settlers moving east from the Gallatin Valley had farmed the flats around Coulson since 1877, and rejoiced at the news that the railroad was coming their way. In the end, though, Clark’s Fork Bottom edged out Coulson, to the great disappointment of those living in the settlement.

The reason lies in a twist of geography. During westward expansion, railroads were given financial support by the U.S. government to build through the remote territories. When the Northern Pacific charter was drawn up, the company was granted lands along their route in a checkerboard pattern (an unprecedented forty sections to the mile in Montana, the Dakotas and Idaho). Every other section along the line became railroad land alternating with property held by the federal government to be claimed or sold to the general public. When the United States Government Land Office surveyed the Yellowstone Basin, this pattern was interrupted. At a spot where two townships lined out, by coincidence two sections of railroad land “lay side by side, instead of cornering together as they did elsewhere.” With equal amounts of land to either side, the railroad stood to make a hefty profit from land sales to hopeful settlers. Shrewd Northern Pacific officials were able to double normal profits by siting a town across a plot of ground twice as large as what the railroad normally could own. The rail line was run close to the township lines at the exact center of the platted town, and Billings, named for past NP president Frederick Billings, was born. Coulson residents’ dreams of being the next “Denver of the Prairie” faded like the sound of a train whistle blowing out of town.

In an arrangement common during the era of railroad construction, capitalists linked to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company controlled and profited on townsite development. At Clark’s Fork Bottom, Northern Pacific conveyed two sections of land to sales the Montana and Minnesota Land & Improvement Company. In turn M&MLI established the Billings Townsite Company, to lay out a town and sell off town lots. Not surprisingly, the largest stockholders and incorporators of M&MLI were and Heman Clark (general contractor for the NP) president, Frederick Billings (former NP president), Thomas Oakes (NP vice-president). Clark also became the first president of the Billings Townsite Company.

Billings railroad ancestry is seen in its townsite configuration. Unlike mining towns of the region whose contours traced the haphazard routes of streambeds and ore bodies, railroad towns were orderly geometric affairs. Laid out on rectilinear grids, the rail lines formed the spine of the townsite, with streets for businesses and homes projecting away at right angles. Billings’ layout copied those of Bismarck and Jamestown, ND. However, taking advantage of the unique way that Billings straddled two sections, Clark platted the town to include two main commercial streets, paralleling and fronting onto the rail line. These twin streets, named Montana and Minnesota for the mother company that gave them life, formed the commercial center of the new town.

On April 1, 1882, Heman Clark arrived at Billings. Detailing the creation of the Billings townsite, what he described was basically an instant city planned to hold 20,000 inhabitants. Eight or nine sawmills, a 16-mile irrigation system, rail spurs to nearby mines and money for the first bank in town came with the package. The railroad’s promise to pump massive capital into the town “lit the fuse of a crazed land boom” , and when M&MLI agent G. B. Hulme joined Clark the following week, the land rush was on. Hopes ran high and speculation was rampant. By June 1, the burgeoning population was estimated at 500, yet almost six times that number, 2900, reportedly vied to purchase town properties, to the great frustration of locals. Lots that first sold for $150-$250 almost overnight resold for tenfold that amount. Meanwhile, other lots were rented for $50/month to business owners who operated out of hastily thrown up tents. Skirting the townsite, real estate investors who had the jump on most ordinary buyers (Frederick Billings held the lion’s share), bought up sections like hotcakes. Some, such as Foster and P.W. McAdow platted their own additions to the community. These lots immediately went on the market; in many cases selling ahead of the railroad’s own lots.

Meanwhile, work on the approaching NP line continued at breakneck pace. Henry Villard, then president of the NP, was pushing hard for the transcontinental connection. While rail crews built east from Portland, others continued west up the Yellowstone valley. In August 1882, the line was completed to Billings, and on September 8, 1883, spike-driving celebrations at Gold Creek, Montana forged the final link in the NP’s chain across the continent.

Building the New Town

 By May 1882, there were three buildings on the spot destined to become Billings. They were headquarters to lodge railroad survey crews, H. Clark’s townsite office and mercantile, and a lone residence. Immediately, the building of town began. Many of the first structures were tents that sheltered hustling new businesses and town residents. Alongside them, cabins of rough-hewn log sprouted in about equal numbers and rapidly replaced the tents. By mid-June the first year, 79 tent shelters were in use, 81 houses were complete and another 75 homes were underway. Buildings to house new arrivals were hastily constructed south of the tracks, while commercial buildings and hotels were planted close to the hub of railroad activities. To keep order in the midst of the flurry, it was decreed that all dwellings be kept off the middle of streets. In September 1882, E.V. Smalley reported in the Century Magazine that:

The new town, when I visited it, consisted of perhaps 50 cheap structures scattered over a square mile of bottom land…Many people were living in little A tents or in their canvas-covered wagons, waiting for lumber to arrive with which to build houses.

When it could be gotten, milled lumber was used, garnered at first from a sawmill in Coulson or shipped in 20 miles from the west. Lumber was costly though, so in Billings, as in thousands of frontier towns across the western territories, many original buildings were constructed of log. Frugal merchants striving to achieve a look of permanency applied false lumber fronts to their businesses, typical in western towns.

Sources of brick and stone were also developed by late that first year. Equipment for the Heffner Stone Quarry arrived at Coulson in 1882, one step ahead of Billings’ townsite developers. Up in the shadow of the rims, Heffner Stone workers were soon sawing out giant blocks of sandstone for foundations and walls of the town’s more permanent buildings. Meanwhile, two brickyards opened on the outskirts of town.

CW Horr reportedly erected the first brick building in 1882; [PHOTO P-3] and the town’s first sturdy business block was constructed in June 1883. Built of brick, the building was the first in town to feature a plate glass storefront. Boston investor Captain Henry Belknap, who also held ranching interests in Wyoming, financed the Belknap Block.

Streets of the new town “were unpaved, sidewalks were but mere paths beaten down by human footprints, and oil lamps in glass enclosures on corner posts was the municipal lighting system of the time.” Lining the streets were modest tents, shacks and buildings. Beyond the Montana-Minnesota business corridor, one rapidly moved into the residential areas, where small gable-roofed houses of log and wood quickly became home to the growing community.

The building boom continued, and by the end of 1883, the newspaper reported some 400 buildings, occupied by over 1500 citizens. Maps of the day reveal that downtown encompassed about a nine-block area, split about evenly north and south of the railroad tracks. However, on the south the buildings were all of wood frame construction, while to the north, brick buildings were already beginning to edge out first generation frame buildings. Beyond downtown, the area south of the tracks became the first large residential neighborhood.

On November 19, 1888, a visiting reporter described Billings’ progress through her first half decade.

In January 1882, Billings was a bright prairie. Today it is a sprightly, live, energetic and aggressive town of 1,500 inhabitants. It has certain metropolitan characteristics such as a splendid system of water works, electric lights, graded streets, efficient fire department, excellent schools and churches, good society, an intelligent class of people, wide awake and quick to respond to any demands upon their purses in the interest of the community.

The future of the town depended on growth, and the railroad and business community promoted the young city at every turn. Billings’ population was reported frequently, in articles and pronouncements intended to draw settlers. The official U.S. Census tally of residents made in 1890 showed the population faltering at 836, but slowly number crept up and ten years later, the census counted 3,221. Despite high hopes, Billings’ economy was slow to ignite, slow to draw major investors and large industry.

Toward the century’s turn, the population spread into the flats north of the downtown and the north side neighborhood became increasingly attractive. Homes of prominent citizens such as A.L. Babcock, David & Kate Fratt, and Charles M. Bair (whose home at 3rd & Broadway was known as “one of the finest in Billings” in its day) helped to anchor the neighborhood. These were frame and sometimes brick homes, scattered in the blocks north of the tracks.


 The first train rolled into the city August 22, 1882 and from that day forward, reaching the town was relatively easy. In the comfort of a NP coach, one could travel from St. Paul to Billings in a few days.

Completion of the railroad marked the demise of other means of transportation, which took longer and were far more arduous. By steamboat the closest one could get on the Yellowstone was Huntley, about 15 miles down river to the east. And for a time, daily coach connections ran from Fort Benton on the Missouri River, 200 miles away. However, the days of steamboat travel were ending by the time Billings was born. The third alternative, an overland journey, took weeks or months.

Because the railroad company judged the first depot in town inadequate, passengers en route to Billings disembarked at the Headquarters Hotel. This hotel, built to lodge Northern Pacific field engineering crews, was enlarged and moved trackside at the foot of 28th Street North in October 1882 to serve as a temporary depot. At the end of that first year, its doors were thrown open to the public and two other hotels – the International and the Park – were completed and accepting lodgers. One of the early arrivals, Mrs. T.W. Polly remembered that “it was the custom to shoot up the town for arriving ‘pilgrims’. Cowboys, drinking and shouting, riding full gallop in slush and mud, did all they could to act wild.”

Nearby, an express freight depot and office were built at 26th Street and Minnesota Avenue. The railroad served as a point of departure as well, particularly for livestock and agricultural goods from outlying ranchlands and farms. In the late summer of 1882, the Floweree & Lowry Cattle Co. trailed 2000 head of sheep from central Montana, to the railhead at Billings. This first shipment of sheep rolled out of Billings in September that year, marking the city’s future as one of North America’s primary rail shipping points for sheep.

Billings was the economic hub for an enormous region. Early on, “all northern Wyoming depended on Billings for merchandise. Heavy wagons, with 18-20 horses, freighted to Wyoming, Judith basin and Lewistown. Pack strings and ox teams also transported needs of neighboring communities.” And indeed, much of the economy of Eastern Montana and Northern Wyoming revolved around the Billings market.

In town, liveries and blacksmiths serviced carriages of the day. Cothron & Todd, at 1st Avenue and 28th Street North, was one of the first liveries in town. The Dark Horse Livery was located for many years on Billings’ South Side.

Between Billings and Coulson a small street railway was established. The first car, horse-drawn and 10′ long, made the trip on May 23, 1883, making it the first in Montana. The line was recreational and figured prominently in the plans of manager John J. Alderson’s and company officer P.W. McAdow’s scheme to sell swamp land along the route. They touted the line as a connection between the McAdow and Alderson Additions to Billings proper. Operating between 8:00 a.m. and 10:15 p.m. the schedule between towns was reportedly somewhat erratic but the line was initially popular – in part due to the free beer at the Coulson end of the line, next door at Ash & Booth’s Brewery. Coulson promoters clung to the hope that the street railway would keep that town alive. However, it also carried shoppers from dwindling Coulson into bustling Billings. And when even the free beer couldn’t keep the streetcar line from folding in early 1885, the hopes for Coulson’s future and land sales faded.

On March 3, 1891, Congress ratified a treaty with the Crow Nation that opened lands in the Clark’s Fork and Pryor Creek valleys to settlement by whites. The following January, these lands were added to Yellowstone County. In 1893, Burlington and Missouri Railroad secured a right of way from Sheridan, Wyoming across the Crow Reservation.

The move connected the Burlington to the Northern Pacific line at Huntley, breathing new life into the faltering NP line by connecting it through Billings to Denver, Kansas City and St. Louis. The consolidation of the railroads anchored the business of town down to bedrock. And it ushered in an era of business growth and the bright future Billings’ boosters had been promising.

Farming and Ranching

In September 1883, Frederick Billings, NP president Henry Villard, and former US President Ulysses S. Grant stopped over in the year-old city of Billings en route to drive the golden spike at Gold Creek. There they were greeted by displays of local crops, livestock and minerals, along with the Fort Custer U.S. Army band.

Livestock reigned in the young Billings economy and was a lynchpin industry in the Montana Territory. At the full swing of the open-range cattle era, Billings sat dead center in a tremendous inland cattle empire. Mild winters in the early 1880s enabled large ranches of central Montana to fatten thousands of head of livestock. The new railhead in Billings gave them a gateway to eastern markets. The first year alone, nearly 20,000 cattle were shipped out of Billings. After cattlemen took a hard pounding through the winter of 1886-87, however, sheep growing increased and soon millions of pounds of wool — up to 13,000,000 pounds through 1910 — was leaving Billings annually.

The first large experimental farm near Billings was established by Congregational minister B.F. Shuart, acting secretly as an agent for Frederick Billings. Shuart bought up small homestead farms in the valley, creating the 620-acre Hesper Ranch. With butter and milk a scarcity, Shuart planned a dairy and was first to market butter in the area. The farm was also first to plant alfalfa, and to raise sheep on this feed.

Dairy farming on a larger scale made a slow start. Most families kept their own milk cows, and for several years cow herders would gather up the cows each day and drive them out to pasture. In April 1887, T.C. Armitage shipped in a railroad car filled with Holsteins and started the area’s first full-scale dairy farm.

Shuart’s relations with Billings soured and in May 1892, management of the ranch turned over to M&MLI official, I.D. O’Donnell. O’Donnell had broad ranching experience, and had worked for E.G. Bailey (Frederick Billings’ nephew) prior to his Billings career. Bailey and O’Donnell were recruited to build Hesper into the showcase farm of the Billings’ vicinity. They set about the task, raising hay, grain, vegetables, apples, sheep and cattle. O’Donnell, who bought out Bailey’s interest in the farm a few years later, was the mastermind behind the beginning of Billings’ sugar beet industry in the early 1900s.


 Areas south and northwest of Billings held rich metal ores, and attracted miners and investors. By early January 1883, 90,000 pounds of silver bullion from mining districts in the Judith and White Sulphur areas had passed through Billings by rail. That summer, another 200,000 pounds came from the Cooke City mines. In addition, coal reserves in the Bull Mountains and the Clark’s Fork valley drew investors who pushed for a branch rail connection to Billings. By 1887, the promising Red Lodge coalfields were linked to Billings via the Rocky Fork and Cooke City Railroad.

Manufacturing for the building trades continued apace. With a stone quarry, brickyards, foundry and two lumber mills there was a steady supply for the growing town. Thanks to the railroad, these manufacturers could also ship their materials to other towns on the line. JR Hathaway’s Montana Lumber Co. boasted it was “the largest … between Fargo, North Dakota and the Pacific Ocean. And manufactured building materials from other places could reach the Billings market.

The processing of agricultural products was also established. Hulking warehouses and factories for wool scouring, meat processing, tanneries, stock shipping and flour milling all sprang up close to the railroad tracks.

Culture & Entertainment

 Dance houses and gambling saloons threw open their doors on Billings’ main streets. At first recorded count in 1883, there were 11 saloons and 3 billiard halls on the main strips. Beyond these bawdy amusements members of the emerging community sought to cultivate other forms of entertainment. The first theatrical production was staged in July 1882, by the Boston Comic Opera. The opera troupe rode in on the mail stage to perform in a makeshift theater lit by “kerosene lamps and a fair sprinkling of tallow dips”. An enthusiastic crowd sat on borrowed chairs and planks in an unfinished saloon.

Other diversions that year included Mel Powers’ Variety Theater advertising “A Galaxy of Stars”, the Billings Social Club’s first dance and the following June, Dan Costello’s circus came to town. From December 1883 until it burned in 1885, the Myers Block on Montana Ave. housed an entertainment hall that doubled as a roller skating rink.

On February 3, 1896, A.L. Babcock opened the Billings Opera House on Montana between 25th and 26th Streets. The sumptuous theater seated 800, and brought high caliber performers to the city. Performers like Maude Adams, May Sargeant, John Griffith and Madam Helena Modjeska, all widely known in their day, were among those in the bright lights of the Opera House stage.

Prostitution was an inevitable part of Billings’ society during the early years. “Social clubs” and “sporting houses” flourished near the rail yards, and were frequented by rail workers, cow hands, and undoubtedly, a wide cross section of other gentlemen. Early Sanborn maps of Billings unabashedly labeled a solid lineup of “female boarding houses” along a 2½-block stretch of Minnesota Avenue.

There were many memorable women in the trade. Kit Rumley was reportedly the town’s “first lady of the night”. Ollie Warren, owner of the Lucky Diamond sporting house, was one of the best known. She also ran cattle in Wyoming, and was proprietor of Billings’ Virginia Hotel. But Ollie was best remembered for her flamboyant 4-horse coach and flashy sidesaddle rides through town.


 The first school classes began in October 1882 and were held in makeshift rented spaces. A log school building, completed on First Ave N, between 24th and 26th Streets opened to students in September of 1883. The following summer a school board was elected, and School District #2 was created. The first permanent school building – North School — was built on land donated by MML&I on 4th Avenue between 29th and 30th Streets. With a $4,000 donation from Frederick Billings, the school officially opened in February 1886.

Meanwhile across the tracks, the South School was located at N 29th St and First Ave South. Completed and opened in February 1893, it served the large residential neighborhood on the south side of town. South School was a brick building similar to its northern sister across the tracks.

A library association was founded in 1882, and a reading room opened with several magazine subscriptions provided by Heman Clark. The first winter witnessed the formation of a local literary society, which hosted musicals, readings and spelling bees. In October 1901, the Parmly Billings Memorial Library was dedicated on land leased to the city for $1 per year. A civic gift from Frederick Billings, Jr., the library is a lasting memorial to his brother Parmly who died of sudden illness in 1888 at age 25.


 The Montana Territorial Legislature created Yellowstone County in January 1883, and on January 24 Billings became the official county seat. On March 3, 1883 the first county commissioners met.

After several failed attempts, Billings’ voters approved a city charter in April 1885 and incorporated the town. The first City Hall and firehouse was built on Minnesota and the northwest corner of S 27th St. In the1890s, City Hall was located on the west side of Broadway and included a fire station. And in April 1903, Billings’ new city hall and fire station was dedicated at N 28th St and 1st Ave North.

The local court was held first on N 26th St half a block off Montana Avenue. The building burned in 1885 and a brick courthouse was erected on N 27th St and 1st Ave North. In 1903, voters approved a new courthouse and jail, and it was constructed two years later in the 200 block of 27th at a cost of $125,000.

Clubs & Organizations

 Boosting Billings was high on the list of priorities in the early days and a series of business groups was organized in the city. Expanding the road base to Billings’ outlying market areas and luring desirable businesses to town were among the shared goals. In November 1882, the first Citizen’s Committee formed, to raise money to build a road to connect ranchers and miners in the central Montana region to the Billings hub. This was followed by a Board of Trade in March 1883 “to facilitate and promote the business interests and general welfare of Billings.” They championed improved rail and road connections, particularly north to the stock raisers in the Musselshell. Through the first decade the business community promoted and contributed substantially to road and bridge building efforts, in hopes of expanding their trade.

A number of fraternal organizations also held meetings in town. The BPOE Elks lodge #394 was founded in December 1897 with A.L. Babcock the first Exalted Ruler. The Masons Ashlar Lodge #29 at Billings, organized in July 1883 and met for years on the second floor of the Belknap Block.

Postal Delivery & Newspapers

News traveled rapidly to the burgeoning community of Billings, via postal delivery and newspapers. The first postal deliveries to town were routed through Coulson, for although Billings Post Office opened June 13, 1882, service there did not begin for two months. The Billings Post Office was initially located in a false-front building on Minnesota, then moved directly across from the railroad depot on Montana Avenue. In later years it moved to the rear of the First National Bank Building, to the Losekamp Block and to the 200 block of Broadway.

In April 1882, the five-year-old Coulson Post renamed itself the Billings-Coulson Post in anticipation of the new townsite. Republican in its leanings, it was founded by Abel Yerkes, the so-called “Poet of Sour Dough Creek.” The Post moved to Billings after a rival newspaper- the Billings Herald – set up shop in the townsite and offered up the Democratic view of the news. Presses at a third newspaper, the Daily Rustler began to roll in November of 1884. In the spring of 1885, all three papers consolidated under the Gazette Publishing Co., the very day of a raging fire that destroyed their headquarters along with much of downtown.


 Billings’ “First Bank”, was organized in May 1882 by Stebbins, Post and Mund. H.H. Mund, bank manager, became one of Billings’ most prominent boosters. In 1884, Stebbins and Mund reorganized as the First National Bank, and that November, they moved into a permanent stone-and-brick building. In January 1896, P.B. Moss was elected president of the bank.

In May 1886, Billings’ second bank, the Bailey and Billings Bank, was formed by Parmly Billings and cousin, Edward G. Bailey with financial backing from Frederick Billings, Sr. Colonel A.L. Babcock reorganized that bank as the Yellowstone National Bank in April 1891.


 Water was one of the most urgent needs in the young town. The townsite on Clark’s Bottom was three miles up and away from the Yellowstone River and for the first years, drinking water was available by delivery only, pay as you go for 25 or 50 cents a barrel. Several proposals were raised for well digging, and in 1883, the Montana Artesian Well Company drilled a dry well to a depth of nearly 900 feet before going belly up. During the summer of 1886, the shortage of fresh water was resolved, when the Billings Water Power Co. completed a canal and water works on the Yellowstone, which pumped a million gallons of water daily into the city.

Meanwhile, the Billings Land and Irrigation Company began construction in 1882on a “Big Ditch” for irrigation in town and the surrounding farmlands. Head engineer H.W. Rowley planned a system with 9 wooden flumes and 5 drops. The first water trickled into the ditch in July of 1883. In the years that followed, the irrigation system was greatly expanded to water thirsty area farms. By 1894, Northwest Magazine reported 278 miles of canals with lateral ditches adding hundreds of miles more. And when area farmers purchased the canal in 1900 with backing from P.B. Moss, it wound through farmlands from 10 miles below Park City to the Billings city limits.

Billings Water Power Co. switched on electric lighting in town in 1887. The city’s first telephone system (under discussion since 1884) came on line in October 1890. It operated under various names including Independent Telephone Co and Automatic Telephone Exchange (owners E.B. Hungerford, A.L. Babcock & Charles Spear) until 1914, when it sold to Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph. At the turn of the century, when a long distance exchange opened to Big Timber, Livingston, Bozeman and Butte there were some 200 subscribers.

Fires and Floods

Fires were a constant danger in frontier towns. Log buildings, wood stoves and oil lamps (often given to exploding) led to frequent blazes. Buckets and axes were a poor match for the fires that routinely consumed large numbers of buildings. In 1883, Billings’ first school buildings burned while the new brick school was under construction. The following July, the entire block (110) fronting Montana Avenue between 26th-27th Streets in the heart of downtown burned to the ground. On May 3, 1885, a fire broke out in the Farmer’s Hotel and razed most of the 2500 block (111) along the north side of Montana, a dozen buildings including the offices of the Billings Gazette. Two months later, block 110 again went up in smoke.

Following these blazes, fire companies were organized, and locals promoted building with fire resistant materials. Still smarting from their losses, the Billings Gazette championed the cause of better fire protection for the city. Yet in 1890, the town’s first hotel, the Headquarters Hotel on 28th Street North and Montana, burned along with the old depot and telegraph office. The blaze gave opportunity for the extension of 28th Street, which was renamed Broadway. [PHOTOS – P-6-Broadway blocked by HQ Building and P-7- HQ bldg. fire]

Spring thaws in a number of years turned the streets of Billings into a muddy quagmire, “too deep to wade and hardly enough to swim.” Thawing garbage and livestock carcasses turned into a health hazard. At the end of the hard winter of 1886-87, warm chinook winds sent sheets of water washing through town. Wooden sidewalks floated off their moorings, and the flooding was so deep that many businesses and homes at the center of town were inundated giving many in town “a decidedly humid outlook.”

Early Businesses

After the railroad and the land office, many of the earliest businesses in Billings were those that moved lock, stock and barrel from the nearby town of Coulson. Among these were the Coulson Post, Yellowstone (formerly Coulson) Bottling Works and P.W. McAdow’s General Store. McAdow & Covely opened a store at Minnesota and 27th Street to vie with that of Heman Clark just up the street. These major businesses helped anchor Minnesota Avenue in the fledgling downtown. An early fire damaged McAdow & Covely, on what became known as McAdow’s Corner. It was repaired some years later and still stands today, one of the earliest and most significant historic buildings in the downtown area. [PHOTO – P-8-2702 Minnesota]

Yegen Brothers began their business empire in a small store and bakery in 1882. The business failed after the rail workers moved on, but they started anew and by 1885, their business had regrown. Occupying the entire 2800 block on Minnesota Ave., the Yegens expanded to include wholesale groceries, dry goods, hardware, furniture and farm implements. These buildings still stand but have been drastically altered. Today, the building that best commemorates the Yegen’s business empire is their ca. 1920 office across the street at 2 S Broadway. [PHOTO-P-9-Yegen Bros. Office]

While some entrepreneurs opened their businesses to the citizens of Billings, others shipped their goods out from Billings into the hinterlands. Heman Clark freighted merchandise from Billings northwest into the Judith Basin of central Montana, and south to Greybull in the Yellowstone Valley. By hauling wool to the railhead on the return trip, Clark profited on both ends.

Three brothers — Charles, Henry and James — established Chapple Drugs. The store was located on the first floor of the Belknap Block, on Montana and 28th St. North. Henry and James were both doctors, and until St. Vincent’s Hospital was opened in 1898, they provided emergency health care out of the back of the store.

The Grand Hotel, erected by J.J. Walk and O.W. Nickey on the corner of First Avenue and North 27th St., opened in 1886 and “immediately became the social center of town”. Ten years later, in January 1896, George Benninghoff and his sister Julia took over the business.

Bottling works and breweries were strong local businesses but the small operators were eclipsed in March 1899 when the Billings Brewery opened across from the NP depot on Montana. The building was a towering Romanesque factory, at one time crowned by a huge illuminated sign depicting beer flowing from a tilted bottle into an empty glass. Known as “the beer that made Milwaukee jealous”, the brew was sold from “Wyoming to Lewistown” and from “Livingston to the Dakotas.”

A.L. Babcock completed the Yellowstone Valley Flouring Mill in May 1895. Grinding flour under the “Billings Best” logo, the mill had a daily output of 150 barrels. When the mill, located just south of the railroad tracks, burned in May of 1900, Babcock continued operations in the old depot building.

Ethnic Groups

 The railroad and the new townsite drew settlers from far and wide. Many of the new arrivals came from other countries (the 1900 census recorded a quarter of the population foreign-born), creating a cosmopolitan mix of people and cultures in early Billings. Mrs. Joseph Sansome, an Englishwoman, arrived in Billings in 1883. She and her husband migrated first to Toronto, Canada, but soon were caught up in a “westward fever” drummed up by newspapers, magazines and widespread talk of the great opportunities awaiting settlers who came west. Joseph Sansome and his brother made the move to Billings and the wives and families followed 8 months later. When they arrived on a dark November night “it was 48° below zero…We had no idea where our husbands were living or working when we stepped off the train. We stayed at the Headquarters Hotel for three days until we finally located them.”

The Northern Pacific employed many Chinese on their rail crews, and many took up resident status in the new city of Billings. A police officer of the day remembered there were some 90 people, mainly “laundry and restaurant employees, born in China and with families still in China. The Chinese lived close together, primarily at the east end of the townsite near Minnesota Ave. Sam Lee, one of the most prominent Chinese businessmen, owned much of block 189 including the L & L Building which still stands at 2624 Minnesota Avenue.

Billings in the 20th Century

In 1909, the Great Northern Railway built through Montana to Billings and beyond. That same year, Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act, allowing people to lay claim to 320-acre farms (double the previous size). What had been a steady flow of settlement suddenly became a raging torrent. In the heartland of dry farming, Billings was both a farm and rail hub. And from October 25 – 29, 1909, the city basked in the homesteading spotlight when it hosted the 4th Annual Dryland Farming Congress. Railroad magnates Jim and Louis Hill brought along Hardy Webster Campbell, father of the “scientific” approach to farming, who preached the dry farming gospel to participants from all the western states, Canadian provinces, Mexico and Russia.

Dryland farming formed the foundation of homestead practices in the Dakotas and Montana, and drew thousands of hopeful farmers onto the dry prairies. In the five years that followed, 10,000 homestead claims were filed in the Billings Land Office, and an estimated 30-40,000 people moved onto the agricultural frontiers of eastern Montana. Outside of town, some 100,000 acres were put into cultivation, while greater Yellowstone County reported 2½ million dry acres were tilled for homestead farms. By the 1910 census, Billings’ population had shot to 10,031 ranking it the 6th fastest growing community in the nation. In 1920, the census numbered 15,100 in town; and in 1930, the number had crept to 16,332.

At the height of the railroad and homestead era, Billings was a bustling railroad hub on the route of some 20 trains. Near the tracks, the agriculture boom catalyzed local manufacturing. J.D. Matheson, editor of the Weekly Times, first urged local farmers to experiment with growing sugar beets in April 1890, and after I.D. O’Donnell demonstrated on Hesper Farm that beets could be productively raised, Billings’ sugar beet factory opened in 1906. Just 5 years later they produced 60 million pounds of sugar. By 1914 the crop was valued at over $1,500,000.

Near the tracks, warehouses and processing facilities for agricultural products proliferated. On Montana Avenue, dairy farmers opened a depot for processing and pasteurizing milk. They ran 5 milk wagons through town. In 1914, the Billings Creamery produced 40,000 pounds of butter. Armour Wholesale Meats established a cold house near the tracks and about 1912 moved into a large new brick warehouse on Minnesota Avenue. The Billings Brewery building was converted to a cannery in 1927.

Newly landed farmers clamored for much needed goods — hardware and farm implements sold briskly during this era. In November 1908, Billings Hardware (formerly Babcock’s Hardware) broke ground for a new and expansive building located at Montana and North Broadway. Up the street, were the Connolly Bros., Saddle and Harness Makers. They opened shop in 1913, and after 7 years in business, bought a lot 25′ wide on Montana, and built a brick building in April 1920. Still in the 2900 block of Montana, Connolly’s is one of the city’s oldest businesses.

Banks abounded in Billings, each a monument to local prosperity. By 1905, there were 6 banks in town, with a combined capital of over half a million dollars. In late 1912, the Bank of Montana (later First Northwestern National) was formed with offices at Montana and 27th St. North. In September 1916, another bank – Security Trust and Savings – opened. Shortly thereafter, it moved to First Ave. North and North 27th St. where it remained for 35 years. The Montana National Bank, a Neo-Classical building erected in 1917 at 201 N. Broadway, is the last of these buildings to remain intact downtown.

Downtown was transformed during this “modern” era, and buildings of the late 19th century gave way to new, larger buildings that reflected the prosperity of Billings in the early 20th century. The presence of the Burlington and Milwaukee Railroad along the 5th Avenue North right-of-way drew downtown development that direction, and northern portions of downtown became increasingly urban.

On March 24, 1909, a new downtown “Union Depot” serving the NP, Great Northern and Burlington lines opened to the public. Hotels large and small sprouted at the heart of downtown to serve travelers to Billings. Most prominent were the Northern and the Grand Hotels. H.W. Rowley and P.B. Moss built the Northern, at First Ave. North and Broadway. Begun in May 1902, the original 69-room hotel opened in February 1904. Additions in 1914 and 1916 enlarged the building, all of which burned to the ground September 11, 1940. Nearby, the Grand Hotel expanded with a large annex addition in the 1910s. And reportedly following fire damage in 1920, the Benninghoffs replaced the original portion of the hotel with a more modern building. Only the annex was spared.

Later owners added two more stories. Both hotels remain today, and are two of the most commanding on the Billings skyline.

Smaller hotels also grew up in the shadow of the depot. Along Montana in the depot district, several small hotels were erected during the second decade of the 20th century. The Eagle, McCormick, Rex, Lincoln and Carlin are among those that still remain.

A sign of changing times, Guy Stapleton & Son broke ground on Dec 8, 1904 for a large store, after clearing away the old Cothron & Todd stable. The growing Hart-Albin store (founded in 1902 at 2617 Montana) was to occupy the ground floor of this “monster building of four stories.” The move was in part calculated to take best advantage of the consistent northward trend in downtown expansion. In 1911, a new Federal Building at First Ave. North and North 26th St. was begun. Completed in January 1914, it housed the post office, courthouse, and a booming U.S. Land Office. In 1912, the Montana Power Company constructed the Electric Building, aglow at night with recessed panel lighting. In May 1918, the Hart-Albin Building was completed and opened for business at Broadway and Second Ave. North.

Homes and older commercial buildings in the way of the boom were quick to go. In August 1916, James Ash razed the old Allen Lumber Co building at North 29th St. and First Ave. North, to construct a three-story new brick building. And two of the city’s oldest houses — P.W. McAdow’s home at Montana and North 31st St. in July 1919, and Heman Clark’s home at North 31st St. and First Ave. North in April 1923 – were removed to make way for Wiggenhorn Brothers new wholesale drug store. The Fratt family home was moved from Second Ave. North and North 29th St., to build the David Fratt Memorial Building at a cost of $150,000. (Architect J.G. Link took the home as partial payment of his fee and moved it to 142 Clark St.)

At the same time, desirable neighborhoods rose up on the edge of the expanding downtown. A stone mansion and carriage house (“The Castle”) built by Austin North in the 600 block of North 29th St. helped to set the pace in this fashionable northern part of town. On the western side of town P.B. Moss built a red stone house on Division, and I.D. O’Donnell built a large new home at First St. West and Clark St. in 1904.

In the spring of 1904, lumberman W.J. Youmans bought Billings’ first “self-propelled buggy” (automobile). The following year, the town’s first auto dealership opened and the first car driving in from Red Lodge to Billings made it in 5 hours. Drivers could fuel up at the Yegen Brothers or even the Billings Laundry, pumping the same fluid used to dry-clean clothing for 70 cents a gallon.

Automotive businesses proliferated. Soon, auto showrooms, tire shops, service stations, garages, even auto wrecking companies, were squeezing out the horse and buggy set.

Agricultural equipment became mechanized, and threshers and tractor dealers staked out space in the warehouse zone.

Freighting companies also set up shop in the business district. Bruce Cook Transfer and Storage was one of the longest operating. Located at Broadway and 3rd Avenue North, his horse-drawn delivery wagon made the rounds from 1904 to 1956.

After thirty years slumber, streetcar transport was revived in town on March 1, 1912, when Billings Traction Co. introduced 6 battery-operated cars. The Edison-Beech cars wove around town at 8 mph., and were temperamental. The batteries needed a recharge at the end of each 12-hour shift. Occasionally, passengers and passersby were enlisted to push cars whose batteries had run low, while on snowy days, the cars were almost inoperable. [PHOTO -P-15 Streetcar on Montana Ave]

The Billings Chamber of Commerce redoubled its efforts to promote the assets of Billings, creating exhibits to travel the country and firing off articles to the print media. At the end of 1917, they reported a population of 17,901. The Chamber reformed in 1919 as the Billings Commercial Club and purchased the Elks Club building at 301 North 27th St. where, just 6 years before, President Howard Taft had given a speech from the balcony. [PHOTO -P-16 Elks Bldg.]

After the turn of the century, theater venues expanded; by 1916 there were half a dozen large theaters downtown. When the old Opera House on Montana Ave. burned that September, a new $150,000 Opera House was built right away. Locals pushed for a new location (Montana was by this time a bit seedy) and a site on North Broadway and Second Ave. North – formerly a tennis court – was chosen. The newly reborn Babcock Theater opened December 23, 1907 with the play Blue Moon. Designed by prominent Seattle theater architect, Edwin W. Houghton, it seated 1250 and featured a $20,000 Wurlitzer Organ.

After the turn of the century, the building boom continued at a steady pace. In 1907 alone, five large buildings were in the works: the Opera House for $150,000, the YMCA for $85,000, a Masonic Temple for $90,000, the Smith Building for $50,000, and a major Northern Hotel Annex for $100,000.

In April 1891, another newspaper started up — the Weekly Times. Judge J.D. Matheson was the editor/owner. The Democratic paper was sold in 1898 to Micajah C. Morris who took it from a weekly to a daily by 1904. It was located on First Ave. North & North27th St., site of the present-day Sheraton Hotel. P.B. Moss founded the Billings Evening Journal in June 1906. It merged with the Billings Gazette in 1908. In July 1907, the Billings Times (formerly the Weekly Times) moved into a building at 2919 Montana Ave. It went back to weekly publication and remains in print to this day.

Small merchants thrived in this bustling downtown scene. Fashions and luxury items could be had on just about any street. Before prohibition came in 1917, indulgences such as liquor and cigars were easy to find. In fact, local cigar making became good business — between 1905 and 1910 there were 6 union shops that kept a steady supply of hand rolled cigars to all area saloons. Three were located on Minnesota and one was on Montana.

Fires continued to plague parts of downtown and the warehouse district. The old Yegen Tannery burned in March 1917. In June 1919, the Cole-Williams block at 2716 Montana burned in the town’s most devastating fire. Billings Sash and Door warehouse burned in January 1922. The Hardware Building warehouse (which held goods for Billings Hardware, Firestone Tire, Baker Transfer & Storage) burned in 1930. The McCormick-Rowley Building burned in May 1932. The Billings Packing plant burned in May 1934. In February 1935 two fires just a day apart destroyed the second floor of the Marshall-Wells Wholesale Hardware store, and then the Babcock Theater was completely gutted. The fire, thought to have been the result of a carelessly dropped match, destroyed the organ and the entire interior of the building. The theater was rebuilt by August 7, with a new interior created by A.B. Heinsberger, a renowned designer from California credited with many elaborate theater interiors of the 1920s and 1930s.

Toward the end of the homestead boom, oil production began on the outskirts of town. The Elk Basin oil field on the Montana-Wyoming border was located in mid-1915, and by the following year, the first well near Billings was drilled. Soon the Montana-Wyoming Oil Journal was in print to report on the latest developments from the oil fields. Just 6 years later, natural gas was also discovered in the basin, and plans for a pipeline to the city were discussed. This industry helped pull Billings through the “bust” end of the homestead cycle and through the 1940s and 1950s became a lynchpin of the local economy.

Famous Persons

In the history of Billings, there are a number of noteworthy individuals who played a role in shaping the future. During the founding years, these people were often were associated with the NP railroad and got a head start on others through this connection. Such men as Frederick Billings (former president), H.W. Rowley (surveyor & engineer), I.D. O’Donnell (engineer) and Heman Clark (general contractor) were on the spot at the birthing of the town, and took advantage of their position to speculate on land purchase.

The town’s foremost father, Frederick Billings, was one of Billings’ biggest boosters. Former president of the NP when the town got its start, he was an attorney in San Francisco, with a heartfelt attachment to his namesake. Although he never lived in Billings, until his death in 1890 he supported growth of the community, giving money to various civic causes and thus improving the value of properties he held throughout the city and surrounding country. After he died, the family made its most lasting contribution – a public library. The building was a memorial to Billings’ son, Parmly.

Henry W. Rowley came to Montana in 1880 as a surveyor and engineer for the NP railroad. He surveyed water systems for new towns along the line, including the 40-mile Big Ditch on the upper bench for Billings Land and Irrigation Co. He became a business leader, designing and controlling the city’s water and power systems, and later an organizer of Billings Realty Co, Billings Traction Co., and the Merchants National Bank. During the early 20th century, Rowley and business associates P.B. Moss and I.D. O’Donnell shaped the Billings agricultural economy, building Billings’ sugar beet factory and creating the Suburban Homes Company. With P.B. Moss, Rowley also expressed exuberance for the downtown, erecting the Northern Hotel in 1902, one of Billings leading hotels and most prominent buildings.

I.D. O’Donnell, came to Coulson in 1882, and went to work for E.G. Bailey as a ranch employee. He then became manager of Frederick Billings’ ranch near Billings. In 1887, he took charge of building MML&I’s irrigation canal. In 1892 he and E.G. Bailey became partners in purchase of the Hesper Farm; he bought out Bailey eight years later. The farm led the agricultural development of the region, pioneering the growing of alfalfa, raising of sheep, large-scale beet cropping and sugar production. He was a founder of the Billings Sugar Company, and was associated with the Merchants National Bank, Suburban Homes Company, Billings Creamery, Billings Foundry and Manufacturing and the Big Ditch Company. He served as the first president of Billings Chamber of Commerce.

Perry W. “Bud” McAdow was a leading pioneer businessman in Montana territory who managed to be present at the birthing of several important Montana communities. He was in on the first gold strikes at Gold Creek, Bannack and Alder Gulch. At Alder Gulch, he set up a sawmill, and in 1865 in the Gallatin Valley, he founded the first gristmill in the Territory. McAdow moved eastward and established the townsite of Coulson on his land. When the NP charted its way up the Yellowstone Valley, he remained committed to Coulson but hedged his bets by investing in the nearby townsite. An unabashed profiteer, he sold land between the towns during the settlement land boom; and he built in the new town as well. The site of his early business in Billings on Minnesota Avenue remains today one of the oldest standing commercial buildings in town.

Albert L. Babcock was a 21-year old Illinois grocer when he read of Billings and came to the townsite in 1882. An entrepreneur with diverse investments, he first established a hardware business, Babcock & Miles. Miles moved on in 1892, and in 1903 A.L. Babcock sold out to Billings Hardware Co. From 1895 on, Babcock’s Yellowstone Valley Flouring Mill was a keystone in the local economy. He was a founder and president of the Yellowstone National Bank; and in 1895 organized the Billings Telephone Co. Babcock contributed to Billing’s cultural atmosphere as well, as owner of both the Billings Opera House and the Babcock Theater. He was equally involved in politics. A republican, Babcock served as chair of the Yellowstone County Commission, and 6 terms in the Montana State Senate.

The Yegen Brothers, who began with a tiny dry goods store, by the turn of the century had built up the equivalent of a modern day mega-store, offering in two solid blocks all manner of dry goods: hardware, harnesses, buggies, furniture, clothing, notions, and wholesale groceries. Like many early capitalists, the Yegens were active in matters beyond the day to day running of their stores. Born in Switzerland, the brothers Christian and Peter came to Billings in the founding year via North Dakota. Here they began with a small bakery, and ultimately built a business empire, dealing wholesale and retail in merchandise, groceries, hardware, and equipment. Eventually, they founded a bank, and remained influential in Billings for years. Chris Yegen served as mayor between April 1899 – May 1901.

There were other investors who arrived in later decades that read the cards of future Billings and saw potential. It was their belief in the town’s future, and their substantial investment in downtown buildings that served to solidify the downtown both visually and economically. George Benninghoff who purchased the Grand Hotel in 1896 staked his hand on Billings continued growth. When the original hotel became outmoded, he rebuilt on an even grander scale, evidence of his unflagging optimism about Billings’ future.

Preston B. Moss was a Missourian who arrived in Billings in 1892, and became an influential financier as the young city entered the 20th century. In 1896 he was named president of the First National Bank, a post he held for 18 years. During his tenure he supported expanded farming in the Yellowstone Valley. Moss helped establish the Billings Sugar Factory, and was a partner in the Suburban Home Company. He was also an owner of the Billings Utility Company, and a partner in the Northern Hotel. And the sumptuous home he built on Billings’ West Side set the pace in that leading neighborhood. The Moss Mansion remains one of the finest residences ever built in the state of Montana.

Downtown Architecture

Billings architecture chronicled the life of the young town, marking changes in the community as it came of age. During the founding years, modest log and wood buildings reflected limitations of materials, resources and time. The buildings of this era were characteristic of frontier settlements: 1 or 1½-story buildings, shed or gable roofs, log or milled lumber construction. Commercial buildings often had false fronts; residences often displayed simple Greek Revival influences.

Just behind these came blocky stone or brick buildings designed to stand longer and be more fireproof, especially in the business district. Again, these were often low in height, window and door openings were arched, and stylistic treatments were limited.

However, within a few short years, these buildings were joined by more substantial structures. Commercial buildings of the late territorial and early statehood period sported Victorian high style. Renaissance Revival, Italianate, Romanesque, and other Old-World-inspired designs were in vogue and Billings was in step with the times. The downtown streets were soon lined with solid buildings of 1-3 stories. Entrances were often recessed within fully glazed storefronts, which maximized the window display area.

Good railroad connections enabled many materials to be shipped in, including exoticones. Glazed brick, unusual stone, and cast iron filled rail cars headed for Billings. In fact, a brisk business arose in cast-iron building parts – pilasters, cornices, and many whole storefronts were bought through mail order from Mid-West foundries. Today buildings on Minnesota Ave. such as the L&L Building and 2704 Minnesota still bear the nameplates of notable makers including the Mesker Brothers of St. Louis and Gillette Herzog of Minneapolis.

During the early 20th century, the Billings skyline changed as buildings became dramatically more vertical, and began reaching 4-6 story proportions. Facades reflected the prosperity and momentum of the day. Modern styles became popular. The NP Depot dressed out in Mission Style, the Elks Club in Colonial Revival, the Masonic Temple and Montana National Bank in Neo-Classical style, the Art Deco Kress Building, and most dramatic of all, the Classical illuminated Electric Building, all expressed the exuberance of the era. Finally, the City Hall is an excellent example of the stripped down look of P.W.A. modernism.

A few prolific architects left an indelible mark on downtown Billings. Most prominent was John Gustave Link. Bavarian by birth, Link studied architecture at the Royal Academy at Landau. He came to the United States in 1887, and settled in Butte, Montana in 1896. Link teamed up with Charles S. Haire in 1905 and the following year moved to Billings to establish an office.

More than any others, it was the vision of Link & Haire that shaped the buildings of downtown Billings. The firm was responsible for many outstanding designs spanning a period of four decades, from the Parmly Billings Library 1898 to the City Hall in 1938-39. In between there were well over a hundred buildings, including such notables as the Billings Brewery (1899), Northern Hotel (1902-04), Electric Building (1913), Stapleton Building (1904), Hart-Albin Building (1917), the New Grand Hotel (1921).

For years, Link & Haire was the leading architectural firm in the state, with offices in Billings, Helena, Missoula, Butte and Lewistown. They designed over 1000 buildings statewide, including 18 of the 56 county courthouses.

In addition, they trained and employed a number of young architects during their practice, and their influence was felt for many years. Following in his father’s footsteps, Elmer F. Link is credited with over 80 stores, warehouses and residences in Billings. Most active during the 1940s and 50s, E.F. Link took credit for the Fratt Memorial Building (1923) and the Greyhound Bus Terminal (1944) among others.

Reed and Stem of St. Paul designed the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot (completed in 1909). Charles A. Reed & Allen H. Stem were based in St. Paul, Minnesota and designed railroad stations all over the country. They created over 100 in all including Grand Central Station in New York City. Along the NP line Montana, they did the stations at Billings, Livingston, Helena, Missoula and Butte.

Elsewhere downtown, Bell & Kent designed the Yellowstone County Courthouse in 1902. The firm was awarded the contract for the Montana State Capitol in 1898, and designed a number of courthouses for other counties across the state at the turn of the 20th century.

Glenn Charles McAllister trained in architecture in Butte, and ran an architectural practice in Billings between 1901-03, and from 1905 on. In Billings he was particularly known for design of the Elks Club (Old Chamber Building) in 1903, and of the South Side Fire Station. He also worked in Sheridan Wyoming, designing among other buildings, the courthouse there.


It is over a century since Billings took root on the dusty alkali flats of Clark’s Fork Bottom. Now a bustling metropolis, it has lived up to the promises of town founders and railroad boosters. Billings still remains the largest town and a market hub for eastern Montana and northern Wyoming. Tall buildings and the business district of downtown Billings reflect the prosperity of the present, but continue to tell the older tales as well. The legacy of this past is what gives the town its own unique personality, and shapes its future.

Billings Historical Overview

In September 1998, I signed on with the Downtown Billings Architectural and Historic Survey. Sponsored by the City of Billings and the Western Heritage Center, the task was to select and research 20 downtown buildings and compile an overview report on downtown history.

In 1981, Johnson-Graham Associates conducted a Historic and Architectural Resource Survey for Billings. Through this effort, a preliminary inventory on a large section of downtown Billings was compiled and Billings’ Depot Historic District was created and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

This 1998 survey built upon that prior work, by studying in far more depth some of the best remaining historic buildings in the city’s business district. The focus was on buildings not recognized or Register-listed in the earlier survey. Recommendations of individual buildings to be studied this year were made following a review of existing documentation on downtown Billings, a site visit and a study team meeting with the Billings/Yellowstone Historic Preservation Commission (B/YHPC) and Linda Bourque-Moss of the Western Heritage Center. Happily, we were able to increase the number of buildings to be studied thanks to a donation of intern assistance from the WHC. The B/YHPC made the final building selections.

Buildings studied lie within a pre-determined study area, concentrated in the downtown area and easily visited along a walking tour route. The buildings were chosen based upon strong historic significance, architectural interest and high level of physical integrity. And with the exception of City Hall, they all date to the period between 1882 and 1930. To gain the greatest amount of new information about Billings’ historic buildings, those that were already documented within the Depot Historic District or listed separately in the National Register were not included in this survey.

In contrast to earlier research conducted downtown, this survey dug deeply into primary source materials to learn the early history of buildings being studied. Many, many hours spent poring over original deed records, city directories and historic downtown maps and photos enabled us to link up original property owners, histories and accurate dates of construction for each building.


For the building survey, information was drawn from the following sources:

  • Western Heritage Center: manuscript, archival and historic photo collections
  • Parmly Billings Library, Montana Room Collections: vertical files, scrapbooks of historic newspaper clippings, historic photo collections, city directories, manuscripts
  • Yellowstone County Courthouse: Clerk & Recorder’s Office, Tax Records, Deed Records
  • City of Billings: Water & Sewer Records, Building Permits, Historic Preservation Files
  • Montana Historical Society, Library: vertical files, historic newspapers, city directories, historic maps
  • Montana Historical Society, State Historic Preservation Office: National Register files, 1981 Billings Survey files, Montana architect files
  • Montana Historical Society, Photo Archives: Historic Billings views

To complete an overview on downtown history, in addition to the primary building research, two sources were invaluable. The first, Carroll Van West’s Capitalism on the Frontier is an excellent and comprehensive history of the foundations of Billings in the 19th century. The second, From Tent Town to City by Myrtle E. Cooper gives a chronology of news events that shaped Billings through its first half century.

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