Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Billings (Montana) Gazette can truly claim to have risen from the ashes—the ashes of a fire that consumed its printing plant the night before its maiden edition on May 3, 1885. Displaying frontier grit and resourcefulness, the newspaper's first editor, J. D. Matheson, rescued enough type from the ruins to compose a single sheet, nine by twelve inches, printed on both sides. By the following week the fledgling journal was up to four pages.

The Gazette itself was created from a melding of three earlier newspapers, the Herald, the Rustler, and the Post. The latter had been started three years earlier, in 1882, in the neighboring town of Coulson by Abel Kelsey Yerkes, the "Poet of Sourdough Creek." When Yerkes moved his publication to Billings in July 1882, only a handful of buildings dotted the alkali flats by the Yellowstone River, and there were only 500 residents in the town (named after Frederick Billings, former president of the Northern Pacific Railroad). By the following January there were 1,200. The overnight boom led to the enduring nickname the "Magic City."

The Gazette rode the growth curve, purchasing the town's first linotype machine in 1901. It editorialized for a better water supply and stronger fire protection. It chronicled the raw energy of the emerging agricultural and railroad center and its denizens, among them Calamity Jane and Liver-Eating Johnson.

After consolidation with the Billings Evening Journal in 1908, the newspaper was published under both names until 1916, when the Journal name was dropped. Both morning and evening editions were published. The same year the Anaconda Copper Mining Company purchased a controlling interest, as it did with papers in Anaconda, Butte, Helena, Livingston, and Missoula, thereby launching nearly a half century of company-controlled journalism in Montana. The paternalistic ACM treated its employees well and chose to ignore its foes, clamping a lid on news critical of the company or inimical to its interests.

The newspaper grew, expanding its distribution boundaries, first along railroad lines, then more broadly across eastern Montana and northern Wyoming as road networks built up. By 1927 the Gazette was the city's largest year-round industry, employing 112 persons and with an annual payroll of $200,000. In 1934 it reported the highest circulation of any daily newspaper in the state, a distinction it still holds. By 1941 there were 20,374 subscribers, and the paper was rolling out as many as five different morning editions.

Finally realizing the incongruity of a mining and processing company owning a string of newspapers, acm sold them all to Lee Newspapers of Davenport, Iowa, on June 1, 1959. Lee president Don Anderson promoted the Gazette's Duane "Doc" Bowler to managing editor in 1960 with orders to "make a newspaper of it." Under Lee ownership, which continues to this day, the Gazette grew even faster. The newspaper moved out of its old offices (jocularly referred to by local newspapermen as the "Fourth House," in reference to three houses of prostitution that had once shared the same corner) to its present headquarters in 1968.

Today, the Gazette's circulation is about 60,000, covering one of the largest regional newspaper distribution areas in the United States, and the newspaper has an editorial staff of eighty. The "phoenix of the Plains," 115 years old at the turn of the twenty-first century, has proven its staying power.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Billings, Montana.

Clemens P. Work

University of Montana

Cooper, Myrtle E. From Tent Town to City: A Chronological History of Billings, Montana 1882–1935. Billings MT: Friends of the Library, 1981.

Gransbery, Jim. "Gazette Rises from Ashes." Billings Gazette, May 5, 1985: H4.

Wright, Kathryn H. Billings, the Magic City and How It Grew. Billings MT: Reporter Printing and Supply Company, 1978.

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