History About Billings, Montana

Billings, the largest city in Montana, has a rich and storied history. Nestled against the Rimrocks and overlooking the Yellowstone River, Billings has transformed over the years from a fledgling railroad town to the thriving metropolitan area it is today. Join me as we explore key events and people that have shaped “The Magic City.”

Founding as a Railroad Town

Billings was founded in 1877 as a railroad town and named after Frederick H. Billings, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The railroad was constructing a new transcontinental route from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest. The president of the Northern Pacific Railroad spotted potential in the Yellowstone Valley area due to the river and nearby coal mines. He commissioned the town which was first called Clark’s Fork Bottom before being formally named Billings in 1882.

Some key events in Billings’ early days:

  • 1877: First building constructed in Billings, called Shack Town
  • 1878: Billings’ first store opens
  • 1882: Billings officially named after railroad president Frederick Billings
  • 1883: First church erected
  • 1884: Telephone services established

As the railyards were built up, Billings became a hub of activity. Saloons, hotels, and brothels popped up near the railroads to cater to rough-and-tumble railroad workers. The fledgling town was by no means tame – gunfights, shootouts, and brawls were common occurrences. Nonetheless, the town continued to grow as an important railroad center.

Transformation into a Regional Hub

In its early days, Billings’ economic growth was tied to the railroad industry. However, as the population increased, Billings also became an important hub for area cattle ranchers and farmers. Its location along the Yellowstone River made it a prime spot for the cattle trade.

With its rapid growth at the turn of the 20th century, Billings soon outpaced other regional centers like Bozeman and Miles City to become the main hub of activity in Montana prior to Word War I. Some key events during this transitional period:

  • 1903: Billings Polytechnic Institute founded, now Rocky Mountain College
  • 1906: Billings Public Library opens
  • 1909: Billings becomes Montana’s first city to open a public airport
  • 1912: Billings Depot expands to become one of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s largest terminals

This period solidified Billings’ regional importance in ranching, transportation, education, arts, and more. From its rough-and-tumble origins, the city was cultivating more refined cultural offerings like its library and college. Nonetheless, it maintained its “Wild West” spirit.

Prosperity and Hard Times in the Early 20th Century

In the first decades of the 20th century, Billings experienced both soaring economic growth and devastating setbacks.

Major new developments included:

  • 1912-1914: Billings experiences an “Oil Boom” when oil and natural gas are discovered nearby
  • 1920s: Major downtown buildings constructed like the Northern Hotel, Babcock Theatre, and Montana Power Company Building
  • 1927: Billings Logan International Airport completed

However, the city also weathered agricultural depressions and recessions in the 1920s. And the most devastating blow came in August 1932 when massive floods caused extensive damage in Billings’ downtown area as the Yellowstone River overflowed.

World War II Spurs Economic Growth

World War II proved to be an economic boon for Billings. Rise Field, located just on the city’s border, formed a major air base that trained over 3,000 bomber crews during the war.

With airfield activity and rising wartime production demands, Billings’ population swelled. Downtown, new stores and businesses opened to meet new economic growth. One lasting effect of the war years was increased air travel through the municipal airport, spurring expansion.

Post-War Growth and New Industry

After World War II ended, Billings continued to expand in population and economy.

Key post-war developments:

  • Oil refineries built, tapping into Montana’s oil resources and driving employment
  • 1951: Rimrock Mall opens as one of Montana’s first shopping malls
  • Mid-1950s: Television comes to Billings with the launch of station KULR
  • 1960s: Interstate 90 completed near Billings, improving access
  • 1970s: Energy crisis hits nation; oil industry and related jobs decline in area

A major economic shift came in the 1970s when falling oil production reduced oil-related jobs. In response, Billings worked to diversify its economy by attracting new industries and employers. Its population broke 100,000 by the 1980s as it added banking, healthcare, and other professional services jobs.

Recent Decades

In recent decades, Billings has contended with economic ups and downs but maintained steady population growth. Major recent developments include:

  • 1980s Farm Crisis hurts Billings’ regional economy reliant on agriculture
  • 1990s-2000s: Service sector grows, especially finance and healthcare
  • 2000s: Meth epidemic and accompanying crime sprees trouble city
  • 2010s: Brewery industry expands with over a dozen brew pubs operating today
  • 2015: Rimrock Auto Arena opens, attracting big name concerts and shows

Today, Billings ranks as Montana’s fastest growing city, on pace to reach 130,000 residents by 2030. Its diverse economy includes healthcare, retail, manufacturing, finance, education, and technology. With the great variety of business and entertainment amenities, Billings continues to cement its role as Montana’s metropolitan hub.

Key Industries in Billings Over the Years

Over the past 150 years, certain industries have remained crucial to Billings’ economic livelihood while others have declined. This table shows key sectors over time:

EraKey Industries
Late 1800sRailroad, ranching/cattle trade
Early 1900sAgriculture, oil/natural gas, education
Mid-1900sMilitary/air travel, oil refining and distribution
Late 1900sFinance, healthcare, retail
TodayHealthcare, retail, finance, brewing, tourism

Notable Figures from Billings’ Past

Many individuals have left their mark on the Magic City over the years. Here are six key figures from Billings’ formative eras:

Charles Broadwater

A civil engineer who founded Billings’ first bank and financed early city infrastructure like electricity and water services in the 1880s-90s.

Clyde Ice

Owned a car distribution business which brought the first Ford dealership to Billings in 1917, spurring auto transport in the city. Later served as Mayor from 1947-48.

Margaret Whitworth Herrig

A suffragette who spearheaded campaigns for women’s right to vote in 1911 and helped establish the Eastern Montana State Normal School to train future teachers.

Dr. Laurence L. Bryan

A physician who established Billings’ first civilian hospital in 1909 which laid the foundation for today’s Billings Clinic healthcare network.

Harry Jackson

Famed Western artist from Chicago who made Billings his second home and captured its frontier spirit through his sculptures around the city like the Davis Boot found outside the airport.

Joan Baez

Folk singer who was born in Staten Island but spent time in Billings as a teenager attending high school. She often reminisces about memories in Billings sparking her musical interest.

Historic & Cultural Sites to See in Billings

As a long-standing hub of activity in Montana’s Yellowstone Valley, Billings offers many historic and cultural attractions that provide insight into its vibrant past:

Moss Mansion Historic House

Historic home built in 1903 that offers tours showcasing turn-of-the-century life for wealthy residents when Billings was the booming “Queen City of the Plains.”

Western Heritage Center

Showcases major collections related to frontier life like native artifacts of Plains Tribes and exhibits about Chief Joseph and Custer’s Last Stand.

Yellowstone Art Museum (YAM)

Montana’s oldest contemporary art museum with a 15,000 piece collection and regular visiting exhibitions.

Alberta Bair Theater

Named for Billings local and former Metropolitan Opera star Alberta Bair, this is a top-rated regional theater hosting musicals, comedy acts, symphonies and more.

Dude Ranches Around Billings

Given Billings’ cowboy culture, many authentic dude ranches operate close by that offer a taste of Western ranch living with horseback riding, chuckwagon dinners, and cowboy sing-alongs. From the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch to the 777 Ranch to the Rainbow Ranch Lodge, experience Montana’s famed Big Sky country just minutes outside town.

Brewery Tours

One of Billings’ booming homegrown industries is craft beer with over a dozen breweries now operating around town. Take a tour along the “Billings Beer Trail” for samples of unique Montana-made beers and ciders.

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  • Start out going northwest on Main St toward N 28th St. Take the 1st right onto N 28th St. Turn right onto Grand Ave, then quickly turn left to merge onto I-90 W toward Sheridan. Follow I-90 W for approximately 70 miles, then take exit 442 for Blue Creek Rd toward Billings. Turn right onto Blue Creek Rd and the destination will be on your right after about 0.3 miles.
  • Head west on Main St toward N 29th St. Turn right onto N 29th St, followed by a slight left to merge onto I-90 W. Stay on I-90 W, driving for roughly 70 miles, before taking the Blue Creek Rd exit on the right. Take the ramp onto Blue Creek Rd and go straight for 0.3 miles until you arrive at 3910 Blue Creek Rd on your right.
  • Start by getting on I-90 W from Main St. Drive on the interstate for about 70 miles then take exit 442 to merge onto Blue Creek Rd. As soon as you exit, turn right to continue on Blue Creek Rd. 3910 Blue Creek Rd will be around 0.3 miles down the road on your right side. The travel time should be just over an hour from downtown Billings.