Transformations of Montana Avenue

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Billings c. 1882.  All historic images courtesy of Western Heritage Center.

At the time of my field work for the Montana state historic preservation plan in 1984, I had already gotten myself deep into one Montana place–Billings, the seat of Yellowstone County, and its early history.  I have to blame June Sampson, David Carroll, and Lynda Moss at the city’s Western Heritage Center for my initial immersion–they along with board members wanted a research report about both the town of Coulson, the short-lived precursor to Billings along the Yellowstone River, and the early history of Billings, the railroad town.

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Billings birdseye view, detail, 1904.

Starting in 1982, I began  to drive to Billings, explore the landscape, dig into archives and museums, and talk to people, which of course meant in 1982, when the city was a mere 100 years old, there were a few children of the founders still around for interviews.

McAdow store 2011

At first the competition between Coulson and Billings captivated me, particularly the efforts of regional merchant Perry W. McAdow to transfer his business dominance from Coulson to the new city of Billings by placing his store on Minnesota Avenue, on the south side of the Northern Pacific Railroad, rather than on Montana Avenue, on the north side of the tracks, where development was controlled by one of the west’s leading capitalists, Frederick Billings.

Perhaps it is symbolic, or even appropriate, that McAdow’s first store on Minnesota Avenue still stands–but its best days long ago passed away, leaving it today as a junk store in 2011, or in 2015 the Big Sky Blue Gallery.  While, on the other hand, a grand statue of Frederick Billings–who never lived here but did come to visit his son Parmly–stands on the north side of the tracks, and helps to mark Montana Avenue as the predominant commercial street in Billings.

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No doubt, Montana Avenue, and the north side of the tracks became the public face of Billings.  Not only did a range of two to three-story commercial blocks populate a long stretch of the street, here too was the grand Classical Revival styled passenger depot of the

Billings 2006 002 NPRR depot

Northern Pacific Railroad.  And when U.S. Highway 10 was designated through the city in the 1920s–first known as the Yellowstone Trail–it used Montana Avenue to pass through Billings.  The bright, shiny, and busy appearance of Montana Avenue in this second decade of the 21st century, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon.  When I did the bulk of my research in Billings from 1982 to 1992, there was not much going on, outside of the Rex Hotel.  The depot was boarded up, and falling apart.

Listing Montana Avenue as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s began to change the street’s fortunes, along with the development in that same decade of the Western Heritage Center as a real cultural anchor and heritage tourism lure, and then the investments by new entrepreneurs who convinced city officials to revisit sidewalks, add plantings, and make the street more pedestrian friendly.  It has been a bit amazing to see this transformation in the past decade as Montana Avenue became an “it” place–and shed its forgotten, tired past as a railroad corridor.

 

Billings’s historic cemeteries

For 90 years, Billings residents have marked and told the stories of its first cemetery–that of the short-lived Yellowstone River settlement of Coulson (c. 1877)–and of those early pioneers buried on the southern rimrocks overlooking the valley.  This early effort of preservation and interpretation was led by leading Billings civic capitalist, I. D. O’Donnell, himself one of the first settlers of the region.  He led the creation of both the monument

to Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly (a project that now is getting a major renovation) and the monument to the Coulson, or “Foothill,” Cemetery.

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In the 1920s, after his retirement as the chief of irrigation for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, O’Donnell took up a greater interest in local history.  He interviewed many of his fellow early citizens, creating the collection Montana Monographs that you can still read at the Parmly Billings Library, and taking steps to restore the forgotten Coulson cemetery and Kelly gravesite.

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The obelisk monument made of river rock became the city’s initial historic site–or historic spot as the monument stated–and it fed right into the romance of the west as portrayed in movies, popular fiction, and radio:  the image of “Foothill,” where men died

 

with their boots on, from gun fights or other stereotypical frontier violence.  The reality was far different–most, such as Ellen Alderson, the wife of early merchant and hotel operator John Alderson, died from diseases, accidents, and not violence.

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In the last 30 years, the sprawl of the modern city to the east has surrounded what was once a quiet, even forlorn space. Efforts from the city to provide improved parking and walkways in recent years are positive improvements at the cemetery.

The historic driving tours of Billings always include a stop, or at least a mention, of the Kelly grave and Boothill Cemetery.  But on the eastern side of town, along Central Avenue, is just as important of a historic cemetery, the Mountview Cemetery–which expanded c. 1920 out of the earlier Billings Cemetery, established during the town’s initial settlement in 1882.

Many visitors appreciate the beauty and landscaping at Mountview Cemetery but it seems that few consider it to be a historic site.  But to my mind, it is certainly the most significant historic cemetery in Billings for here lie the graves–many understated to be sure–of a group of civic capitalists who built not only Billings but led the development of the Yellowstone Valley in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

O’Donnell (d. 1948) is buried here as is his grand collaborator in the early 1900s Preston B. Moss (d. 1947)–their homes still stand next to each other in downtown Billings as does the home of Henry W. Rowley, the engineer who came with the Minnesota and Montana Land Company to build the Big Ditch in 1882 and who stayed to work with his colleagues to build the city.  A. L. Babcock was not tight, let’s say, with O’Donnell, Moss, and Rowley, who brought the Billings Sugar Company into existence in the first decade of the 20th century, but Babcock was a Republican political leader and major investor in his own right, as downtown landmarks attest.

In the earlier Billings Cemetery you find the Civil War veterans markers for Alonzo Young, whose Young’s Point was an early Yellowstone River landmark (now approximately the location of Park City) and the previously mentioned John Alderson, who ran the National Hotel, the two-story log building that put Coulson “on the map” back in 1878. The contributions of Young and Alderson, buried here side by side, are forgotten today–which is truly unfortunate.

The defined family plots, either by property cast-iron Victorian fences or by low stone walls, are a key architectural feature of the earlier cemetery, as well as some of region’s famous stone carved Odd Fellows grave markers, such as that for the Bundys, located just beyond the grave of early settler Thomas McGirl.

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This brief overview does not do justice to the  city’s historic cemeteries.  Certainly I gave Boothill consideration in the 1984-1985 and even wrote about it in both of my books on Billings history.  But Mountview is a historic landscape that only now I recognize–and I hope to do more exploration in the future.

Montana’s oil landscape

Fallon Co? MT 7 oil fieldThe last post addressed Montana’s famous ranching landscape.  Intermixed with the ranches, especially in the eastern third of the state, is a very different landscape of technology, one of pumps, storage facilities, pipelines, and refineries–the oil landscape of 20th and 21st century Montana.

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Billings is the largest city in Montana, and oil refineries along the railroad lines, are a major reason why.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Billings was not close to being the largest town in the Yellowstone Valley–both Glendive and Livingston held that honor.  But due to its railroad network, and the rise of oil from the 1940s onward, Billings had far surpassed any place in the Yellowstone, and, in fact, had become the largest city of the northern plains.  Go up on the bluffs overlooking the city and it is easy to see how oil has impacted this place.

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Yellowstone Co Billings from rims 19 oil

Billings boomed in the mid-20th century because of oil–and the impact spread throughout the county.  The former Cenex refinery at Laurel–the next railstop to the west–dominates the town’s exit on Interstate Highway I-90.

 

Yellowstone Co Laurel Refinery 2

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Yellowstone County is the distribution center for oil and petroleum in Montana.  The production areas can be found in almost any eastern county, where companies have established wells that pump crude non-stop–there are few oil fields here but plenty of pumps within the fields of Montana.

Musselshell Co US 87 oil wells at MT 244

Sheridan Co Homestead oil well

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 2 oil

Richland Co Hwy 200 to Fairview 1 oil

The number of pumps stretched across the landscape amazed me during the 1984-1985 state historic preservation plan fieldwork.  I didn’t really think of oil when I thought about Montana back then. The focus 30 years ago was not on the transformative boom that had begun ten years earlier but we did know enough to consider the earlier boom from the 1920s which began at a place called Cat Creek in what became Petroleum County in central

 

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Petroleum County Courthouse in Winnett is listed in the National Register.

Montana to the similar 1920s boom, which lasted a good deal longer, in east side of the Rockies next to the Canadian border in Toole and Glacier counties.  Cut Bank, the seat of

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Glacier County, still bragged about its role as the “north oil center” in 1984.  To the south of Cut Bank at Kevin, you can still find both active and historic resources associated with the region’s oil production.

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Toole Co Kevin 8 oil

The towns of Kevin and Oilmont, however, have lost hundreds of residents since the boom–their deteriorating buildings tell a common Montana story of boom and bust, the patterns of extractive industries everywhere.

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The former Oilmont School.

Now I wonder what will be the fate of the sudden boom towns of the fracking excitement of the early 21st century.  When I planned my fieldwork for the revisit to the Montana landscape, I decided that I must go to the eastern counties first–places like Plentywood, Sheridan, Culbertson, etc., because they would be the next to transform due to the Baker

Roosevelt Co Bainville fracking

field expansion.  Fracking I found–like in Roosevelt County above–but fractured communities–not so much, as I have discussed in earlier posts.  And now the boom has subsided–for how long? International markets will decide.

Toole Co Kevin oil storage

No matter what happens, Montana’s oil landscape will remain, past and present, and become one of the layers of history that speaks to how technology and international markets shaped the Big Sky Country.

 

 

Billings: a few more words, for now

HPIM0190.JPGI always have more to say about Billings, the centerpiece of the Yellowstone valley and Montana’s largest city.  I have been thinking about it, and exploring its history, since 1982, a time when hardly anyone in the history field (except for Dr. Lawrence Small at Rocky Mountain College) was paying attention. But for now–until I get back in May for new fieldwork–I want to place Billings aside, but offer some words about how historic preservation and adaptive reuse–at least what I have witnessed since 1982–have impacted the city.

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

Dedication plaque at Parmly Billings Library (now Western Heritage Center), Billings

When I began my first project at the Western Heritage Center, that historic library building and the old county jail, turned into the Yellowstone Art Center, was about it, for historic preservation, in Billings.  There also was the county museum, which was early resident Paul McCormick’s “town” cabin since moved to the airport and used as the county museum, and The Castle, Austin North’s downtown residence turned into a store. Many thought that was plenty–few thought that even the Classical Revival landmark of the

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Northern Pacific Railway depot deserved much attention.  Luckily, three women that I met in those days, Senia Hart, Ruth Towe, and Lynda Moss, thought otherwise.

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Former Hart-Alpin department store, Billings

Hart, whose husband had built the Hart-Albin store into a regional brand name, was distressed by the apparent death of downtown Billings.  Everyone, and many businesses, wanted to relocate to either the Heights or at Rimrock Mall.  Traffic shifted away from downtown into the suburbs and interstate.  Hart saw a robust still viable building stock, and thought otherwise.  I heartily agreed.  Everyone back then liked to show off the Rex Hotel as a sign of the future.  The old flea bag railroad hotel had been transformed in downtown’s best restaurant by the early 1980s.

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Hart was not the only business woman or man devoted to downtown–it took many to keep it alive, such as Alberta Bair.  Her donation for the conversion of a historic Art Deco theater into a modern performing arts center interjected new life into downtown.

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In the 1990s the first historic district was created along Montana Avenue, with the Rex Hotel as a real anchor to encourage other new investment.  To say that Montana Avenue has worked in the decades since would be a major understatement.

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Success didn’t come immediately–for a long time, the Rex stood alone, but the depot got new life, most buildings were repaired, or restored, and by the 21st century a new wave of adaptive reuse gave new opportunities to once forgotten industrial buildings around the district.  Montana Avenue, and downtown Billings, once again became a destination.

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Montana Avenue in 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

CTA Architects building, 2006

Encouraging CTA and others to see downtown in new ways back then was State Senator Lynda Moss (who served 2005-2013)–she got introduced to the potential of downtown as the director of the Western Heritage Center, in some ways bringing the story full circle.  Moss though pushed investors and residents to think about the south side of the tracks downtown, and the potential of Minnesota Avenue.

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Previously neglected building south of tracks in Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

Minnesota Avenue, Billings

And then came the news that the once lap of luxury hotel–but closed for some years– in downtown Billings was also receiving a new life.  The 2011-2012 restoration of the Northern Hotel–I haven’t had a chance to visit the final result yet–marked the close of a decade of real, sustainable change in downtown Billings.

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Northern Hotel, Billings, 2011

Yet, at the same time, it took us back to the city’s roots.  Banker Preston W. Moss had championed the need for a luxury hotel, to attract business and further investment.  More than anyone, Ruth Towe, made the preservation of Moss’s story, and his mansion, to be a life task.  I had the chance to listen to many of the Moss Mansion group’s plans and

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dreams back in the 1980s.  Their legacy today is not just the city’s primary historic house museum, but also a renewed interest in the historic downtown residential neighborhoods.  Billings has a rich collection of domestic architecture, and the good condition of those places today, like the ongoing renovation and expansion of the McKinley School, tells anyone that downtown Billings is alive and well.  Individuals like Ruth Towe willing to work with others can make a difference in historic preservation.  I have seen it in my professional career in Billings.  There will be much more to be said about this place in future postings.

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The Art Deco style of the Babcock Theatre is yet another downtown historic preservation anchor.