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.
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.
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.
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
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.