Billings was nicknamed the "Magic City" because of its rapid
growth from its founding as a railroad town in March 1882. The city is
named for Frederick H. Billings, a former president of the Northern Pacific
Railroad. With one of the largest trade areas in the United States, Billings
is the trade and distribution center for much of Montana east of the Continental
Divide, Northern Wyoming, and western portions of North Dakota and South
Dakota. Billings is also the retail destination for much of the same area.
With more hotel accommodations than any area within a five-state region,
the city hosts a variety of conventions, concerts, sporting events, and
Area attractions include Pompey’s Pillar, Pictograph Cave, Chief
Plenty Coups State Park, Zoo Montana, and Yellowstone Art Museum. Within
100 miles are Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Bighorn Canyon
National Recreation Area, Red Lodge Mountain Resort, and the Beartooth
Highway, which links Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park.
In July 1806, William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) passed
through the Billings area. On July 25 he arrived at what is now known
as Pompeys Pillar and wrote in his journal "... at 4 PM arrived at
a remarkable rock ... this rock I ascended and from its top had a most
extensive view in every direction." Clark carved his name and the
date into the rock, leaving the only remaining physical evidence of the
expedition that is visible along their route. He named the place Pompy’s
Tower, naming it after the son of his Shoshone interpreter and guide Sacajawea.
In 1965, Pompeys Pillar was designated as a national historic landmark
and was proclaimed a national monument in January 2001. An interpretive
center has been built next to the monument.
The area where Billings is today was once known as Clark’s Fork Bottom.
Clark’s Fork Bottom was to be the hub for hauling freight to Judith
and Musselshell Basins. At the time these were some of the most productive
areas of the Montana Territory. The plan was to run freight up Alkali
Creek, now part of Billings Heights, to the basins and Fort Benton on
In 1877 settlers from the Gallatin Valley area of the Montana Territory
formed Coulson the first town of the Yellowstone Valley. The town was
started when John Alderson built a sawmill and convinced PW McAdow to
open a general store and trading post on land that Alderson owned on the
bank of the Yellowstone River. The store went by the name of Headquarters
and soon other buildings and tents were being built as the town began
to grow. At this time before the coming of the railroad, most goods coming
to and going from the Montana Territory were carried on paddle riverboats.
It is believed that it was decided to name the new town Coulson in an
attempt to attract the Coulson Packet Company that ran riverboats between
St Louis and many points in the Montana Territory. In spite of their efforts,
the river was traversed only once by paddle riverboat to the point of
the new town.
Coulson was a rough town of dance halls and saloons and not a single church.
The town needed a sheriff and the famous mountain man John "Liver-Eating"
Johnson took the job. Many disagreements were settled with a gun in the
coarse Wild West town. Soon a graveyard was needed and Boothill Cemetery
was created. It was called Boothill because most of the people in it were
said to have died with their boots on. Boothill Cemetery today sits within
the city limits of Billings and is the only remaining physical evidence
of Coulson’s existence.
When the railroad came to the area Coulson residents were sure the town
would become the railroad’s hub and Coulson would soon be the Territories
largest city. The railroad only had claim to odd sections and it had two
sections side-by-side about two miles west of Coulson. Being able to make
far more money by creating a new town on these two sections the railroad
decided to create the new town of Billings, For a short time the two towns
existed side-by-side with a trolley even running between the two. However,
most of the residents of Coulson ended up moving to the new booming town
of Billings. In the end, Coulson faded away with the last remains of the
town disappearing in the 1930s. Today Coulson Park, a Billings city park,
sits on the river bank where Coulson once was.
Named after Northern Pacific Railway president Frederick H. Billings, the
city was founded in 1882. The Railroad formed the city as a western railhead
for its further westward expansion. At first, the new town had only three
buildings but within just a few months it had grown to over 2,000. This
spurred Billings’ nickname of the Magic City because, like magic,
it seemed to appear overnight.
The nearby town of Coulson appeared a far more likely site. Coulson was
a rough-and-tumble town where arguments were often followed by gunplay.
Liver-Eating Johnston was a lawman in Coulson. Perhaps the most famous
person to be buried in Coulsons Boothill cemetery is Muggins Taylor, the
scout who carried the news of Custer’s Last Stand to the world.
Most buried here were said to have died with their boots on. The town
of Coulson had been situated on the Yellowstone River, which made it ideal
for the commerce that steamboats brought up the river. However, when the
Montana & Minnesota Land Company oversaw the development of potential
railroad land, they ignored Coulson, and platted the new town of Billings
just a couple of miles to the northwest. Coulson quickly faded away; most
of her residents were absorbed into Billings. Yet, for a short time, the
two towns coexisted; a trolley even ran between the two. But ultimately
there was no future for Coulson as Billings grew. Though it stood on the
banks of the Yellowstone River only a couple of miles from the heart of
present-day downtown Billings, the city of Billings never built on the
land where Coulson once stood. Today Coulson Park sits along the banks
of the Yellowstone where the valley’s first town once stood.
By the 1910 census, Billings’s population had risen to 10,031 ranking
it the sixth fastest-growing community in the nation. Billings became
an energy center in the early years of the twentieth century with the
discovery of oil fields in Montana and Wyoming. Then the discovery of
large natural gas and coal reserves secured the city’s rank as first
After World War II, Billings boomed into the major financial, medical and
cultural center of the region. Billings has had rapid growth from its
founding; in its first 50 years, growth was, at times, in the 300th and
Billings’ growth has remained robust throughout the years, and in
the 1950s, it had a growth rate of 66 percent. The 1973
oil embargo by OPEC spurred an oil boom in eastern Montana, northern Wyoming
and western North Dakota. With this increase in oil production, Billings
became the headquarters for energy sector companies. In 1975 and 1976,
the Colstrip coal-fired generation plants 1 and 2 were completed; plants
3 and 4 started operating in 1984 and 1986.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Billings saw major growth in its downtown core;
the first high-rise buildings to be built in Montana were erected. In
1980, the 22-floor Sheraton Hotel was completed. Upon its completion,
it was declared "the tallest load-bearing brick masonry building
in the world" by the Brick Institute of America. During the 1970s
and 1980s, other major buildings were constructed in the downtown core;
the Norwest Building (now Wells Fargo), Granite Tower, Sage Tower, the
MetraPark arena, the TransWestern Center, many new city-owned parking
garages, and the First Interstate Center, the tallest building in a five-state area.
With the completion of large sections of the interstate system in Montana
in the 1970s, Billings became a shopping destination for an ever-larger
area. The 1970s and 1980s saw new shopping districts and shopping centers
developed in the Billings area. In addition to the other shopping centers
developed, two new malls were developed, and Rimrock Mall was redeveloped
and enlarged, on what was then the city’s west end. Cross Roads
Mall was built in Billings Heights and West Park Plaza mall in midtown.
In addition, several new business parks were developed on the city’s
west end during this period.
Billings was affected by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in May;
the city received about an inch of ash on the ground. The Yellowstone
fires of 1988 blanketed Billings in smoke for weeks.
In the 1990s, the service sector in the city increased with the development
of new shopping centers built around big box stores such as Target, Wal
Mart, and Office Depot, all of which built multiple outlets in the Billings
area. With the addition of more interchange exits along I-90, additional
hotel chains and service industry outlets are being built in Billings.
Development of business parks and large residential developments on the
city’s west end, South Hills area, Lockwood, and the Billings Heights
were all part of the 1990s. Billings received the All-America City Award in 1992.
In the 21st century, Billings saw the development of operations centers
in the city’s business parks and downtown core by such national
companies as GE, Wells Fargo, and First Interstate Bank. It also saw renewed
growth in the downtown core with the addition of numerous new buildings,
new parking garages and a new MET Transit Center, and in 2002 Skypoint
was completed. Downtown also saw a renaissance of the historic areas within
the downtown core as building after building was restored to its previous
glory. In 2007, Billings was designated a Preserve America Community.
With the completion of the Shiloh interchange exit off Interstate 90,
the TransTech Center was developed and more hotel development occurred
as well. In 2010 the Shiloh corridor was open for business with the completion
of the Shiloh parkway, a 4.8-mile (7.7 km) multi-lane street with eight
roundabouts. More shopping centers were developed in the 21st century.
One of the new centers is Shiloh Crossing, which brought the first Kohl’s
department store to Montana. Other new centers include Billings Town Square
with Montana’s first Cabela’s, and West Park Promenade, Montana’s
first open-air shopping mall. In 2009, Fortune Small Business magazine
named Billings the best small city in which to start a business. Billings
saw continued growth with the largest actual growth of any city in Montana.
On June 20, 2010 (Father’s Day), a tornado touched down in the downtown
core and Heights sections of Billings. The Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark
and area businesses suffered major damage.
While the nation has been feeling the effects of a recession, Billings’s
economy has been strong. Construction and housing starts have been up
as well as large investments in the community by national companies and
major new road construction projects. The state’s economy is healthier
than most states but as western Montana is suffering from a crash in real
estate and the near demise of its timber industry, eastern Montana and
North Dakota are experiencing an energy boom due to coal and the Bakken
formation the largest oil discovery in U.S. history. Billings
is Montana’s oasis of economic growth. In August 2016, a 324-foot
high rise complex called the One Big Sky Center was proposed for downtown
Billings. If built, it would be the tallest building in Montana and Montana’s
first 300 foot plus building.