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.

Billings: heart of the Midland Empire

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The irrigation ditch at Hesper Ranch, where the irrigated empire of eastern Montana began in the late 19th century.

Billings, due to a young energetic staff at the city’s major history museum, the Western Heritage Center, gave me my first opportunities to learn and embrace the amazing landscape of Montana.  In 1982 the museum was finding its way; it was not the community institution that it has become some 30 plus years later.  Board members in 1982 were

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Western Heritage Center (the historic Parmly Billings Library), Billings, in 2006

interested in possibly recreating the old river village of Coulson, of which not a trace was left.  I explored the issue, recommended no, and then suggested that actually the founding and development of the town was a fascinating story–with a cast of characters.  Well, only a few people (Lynda Moss the education director then and David Carroll the exhibit curator) were fascinated with what I found, but I was a convert, and ever since I have been exploring the Midland Empire of Billings and Yellowstone County.

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The Big Ditch, at Eastern Montana College (now MSU Billings)

Irrigation, those man-made slivers of life that slice through eastern Montana, was one important key to the story.  When Frederick Billings, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, helped to established the “town on paper” called Billings in 1882, he soon discovered that while there was coal in the Bull Mountains to the north there was little land worth his salt for agricultural development, and Billings was nothing if not an energetic, progressive farmer back at his home in Vermont.

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The city’s centennial statue of Frederick Billings, which stood by a parking garage when I began my Billings history work in the 1980s. Due to the good efforts of Lynda Moss and others, it was appropriately moved to the grounds of the historic Parmly Billings Library (Western Heritage Center) over a decade later.

He counted on Benjamin Shuart, the local Congregational minister (who was supported by his wife Julia Billings) to be his man on the ground, checking into the agricultural potential.  Everyone understood that only water would make the ground bloom, so the construction of the Big Ditch began.  It ran through Shuart’s property he managed for the Billings family,

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

Early dwelling at Hesper Farm, 2011

known as Hesper Farm.  When Billings lost faith in Shuart, and his own son Parmly unexpectedly passed away, Billings turned to one of his son’s workers, and friends, I. D. O’Donnell, to make his land valuable and to give life to the town that was named for him.  O’Donnell, self taught in the value of land, irrigation engineering, and the possible miracle crop of sugar beets, became the Oracle of Irrigation for not only the Yellowstone Valley but for all of the northern plains.

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O’Donnell expanded the ranch at Hesper Farm and turned into a private demonstration farm for the entire region, a place of beautiful cottonwood trees and modern barns.

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His enthusiasm and connections attracted other investors, and soon caught the attention of the new U.S. Reclamation Service, which made the Huntley Project its second one across the West.  Amazingly the very simple farm-vernacular building that housed the project’s office at Ballatine still stands, a little building that really conveys a huge story of a federal program that transformed a region.

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IMG_1295O’Donnell’s empire depended on others for capital, none no more so dependable that Preston Moss.  Moss also looked to the Midland Empire, and built his grand mansion in pursuit of that dream.  The Moss Mansion became a house museum in 1983.

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Not far away I. D. O’Donnell also had his town house, on a more modest scale but grand as far as many homes in the “new” Billings.  This Queen Anne house, like the Moss Mansion, were listed in the National Register in the 1980s, and the Moss-O’Donnell story

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became better known.  And the legacies extend to places not often thought historic.  That place would be the Billings Sugar Factory, a huge sprawling complex of where town meets farm, ironically located about halfway between downtown Billings and the old Yellowstone River townsite of Coulson.  Sugar beets made the valley bloom, and the landscape still shows those marks today.

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Backdrops to Montana History: The Irrigation Ditch

Coming to Montana in 1981 from the wet, humid South, I thought little of irrigation as a moving force in history.  To my mind, irrigation was about sprinklers keeping suburban lawns nice and green in the summer.  I cared little for that, and thought no more about it.

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Milk River system, Tampico, Valley County

Realizing that irrigation had shaped the history of the United States was another of those primary contributions living and working in Montana brought to my understanding of history.  In the 1984-85 historic preservation survey of the state, I noted a few key systems and thought about their significance.  But in the time since, I came to understand irrigation as one of the key components of an engineered landscape, that literally reshaped the state and made towns, cities, and ranches possible in the early 20th century.

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Big Hole Valley

Early Montana settlers, especially the pioneering irrigator I.D. O’Donnell of Billings,  understood by the turn of the century that there would never be enough water to make Montana an agricultural paradise.  Men could not conquer nature–but they could build a machine that could harness it, even replace it.

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This irrigation effort in Valier took advantage of the 1894 Carey Act.

So with the financial assistance of the federal government, first with the Carey Act of 1894 and then the vastly more important Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the transformation of Montana through irrigation took place in the first third of the 20th century. 

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The U.S. Reclamation Service Office at Ballatine, Yellowstone County.  Championed by I.D. O’Donnell, the Huntley project was the second USRS project in the nation.

The engineered landscape represented by irrigation is everywhere in Montana.  I will pick up this theme in later postings but end today with another image that evokes the impact, even beauty, of the man-made streams that crisscross the state.

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Madison County, along Montana Highway 249