Montana History:  Billings




Links Page 


  The largest city in Montana, Billings lies along the Yellowstone River between the mountains and plains.  Frederick Billings was an early president of the Northern Pacific Railway.

Frederick Billings

One of 11 children from Woodstock, Vt., Billings was born September 27, 1823.   After attending the University of Vermont and studying law, he was admitted to the bar in Woodstock in 1848.  The next year he visited California during the gold rush and formed a law partnership with Archibald C. Peachy.  In the ensuing years, he traveled between the East, California and England on business, and during the Civil War his influence as a prominent Unionist helped California remain on the side of the Union, although he refused a nomination to Congress.  Billings was considered for a member of Lincoln’s Cabinet.

He became associated with the Northern Pacific in 1869 by purchasing 1/12th interest, and was director of the lines by 1870.  The line collapsed three years later, and Billings in 1879 became its president, resigning in 1881.

In the wake of the financial collapse of 1873, building track in the west was difficult, and Billings appealed to Congress for funds in 1878 to construct line in the Missouri-Yellowstone sections.  Turned down, he raised $2,500,000 in private capital for bonds secured by a mortgage on the land sections, including a 25,000 acres land grant for mile of track laid. Billings completed the line  with such funding, and in 1883, September 8th, the East and west portions of line were completed, meeting together at Gold Creek, Montana.  General Ulysses S. Grant was on hand to help drive the gold spike to complete the link.

That same year Billings married Julia Parmly of New York City. The Parmly Billings Library (history) is named after Parmly Billings, their eldest child (one of seven) who died at the age of twenty-five.  Julia gave a $10,000 donation to help build the Congregational Church, the first church in Billings.

The city of Billings was named after Frederick Billings, Senior.

Origins of the City of Billings

A railroad town, Billings was laid out in 1882 by the Minnesota & Montana Land & Improvement Company which had purchased Northern Pacific grant lands in the area. The grant consisted of alternating sections of land for forty miles on either side of the tracks in the territories, including the territory of Montana. 

Soon after its founding in 1882, Billings became known as the “Magic City," a nickname given to the city because it grew so quickly that it sprung up as if by "magic."  Prior to May of that year, only three buildings (a railroad building, a store and a house) graced the townsite in the present-day downtown area on Montana Avenue between 28th and 29th streets.  But within 30 days of the town being opened for settlement, 5000 lots were sold.  By the fall of 1882, there were 155 places of business, 99 homes, 6 railroad buildings, 25 tents and one church.


Montana History Net is produced by Bruce Gourley.  Photographs, except Clark signature, copyright Bruce Gourley.