Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Billings, located in south-central Montana, is the state's largest city, with a population of 89,847 in 2000. Billings is the seat of Yellowstone County (2000 population, 129,351). To the north of the city stands the Rimrocks, a sandstone formation that rises approximately 300 feet above the Yellowstone valley; to the south lies the Yellowstone River. With abundant game and the Yellowstone River, the site of present-day Billings was a center for hunting and trading well before homesteaders established a permanent settlement there in 1877. The original town of Coulson was served by steamship but was overshadowed when a town site was chosen along the newly developed Northern Pacific Railroad in 1881. The city was named for Frederick Billings, president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Early historical figures include Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.

As the largest city within a 500-mile radius, Billings is a major regional service center for the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountains. Economic activities include medical and retail services, oil refining, agricultural processing, telecommunications, and tourism. Educational institutions include Montana State University. Billings and Rocky Mountain College. Billings is also the location of regional offices of federal and state agencies.

Billings and Yellowstone County have experienced substantial growth in recent years, predominantly on limited available river valley farmland. In general, environmental issues, including land use, water resources, and wildlife management, are controversial. City and county governments are challenged by the prospects of planning and growth management in a state with little historic success in those endeavors. In addition to low-density suburban development on the city's edge, downtown Billings experienced significant redevelopment in the 1990s after a two-decade decline in retail and business activities. The city center is now home to numerous art galleries, museums, and restaurants.

Annual events include the North American Livestock Exposition and the Montana Fair, the largest annual agricultural fair in the state. Billings is home to several museums. The Western Heritage Center, a regional history museum, is located in the original Parmly Billings Library building, a structure that was designed by the Frederick Billings family to replicate the library at the University of Vermont. The Peter Yegen Jr. County Museum, which focuses on frontier history, is located at the top of the Rimrock cliffs, immediately adjacent to Billings Logan International Airport. The recently renovated and expanded Yellowstone Art Museum is located in the former county jail and is one of the largest contemporary art museums in the western United States.

Attractions within an hour's drive of Billings include the Pryor and the Beartooth Mountains, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the Bighorn National Recreation Area, Pictograph Cave State Park, and Chief Plenty Coups State Park. Thirty miles east of Billings stands Pompeys Pillar National Monument, where William Clark chiseled his first initial, last name, and the date, July 25, 1806, in the sandstone formation. This is the only remaining physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The site is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and has been recommended for status as a national monument.

See also MEDIA: Billings Gazette .

Mark Guizlo Montana State University-Billings

Small, Lawrence. A Century of Politics on the Yellowstone. Billings MT: Rocky Mountain College, 1983.

West, Carol Van. Capitalism on the Frontier: Billings and the Yellowstone Valley in the Nineteenth Century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Winks, Robin. Frederick Billings: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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