Billings is located in the south-central portion of the state and is the county seat of Yellowstone County, which had a 2013 population of 154,162 The 2013 Census estimates put the Billings population at 109,059 the only city in Montana to surpass 100,000 people. The city is experiencing rapid growth and a strong economy; it has had and is continuing to have the largest growth of any city in Montana. Parts of the metro area are seeing hyper growth. From 2000 to 2010 Lockwood, an eastern suburb of the city, saw growth of 57.8% the largest growth rate of any community in Montana. Billings has avoided the economic downturn that affected most of the nation 2008–2012 as well as avoiding the housing bust. With the Bakken oil play in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, the largest oil discovery in U.S. history, as well as the Heath shale oil play just north of Billings, the city's already rapid growth rate is escalating.
Billings was nicknamed the Magic City because of its rapid growth from its founding as a railroad town in March 1882. The city is named for Frederick H. Billings, a former president of the Northern Pacific Railroad. With one of the largest trade areas in the United States, Billings is the trade and distribution center for most of Montana, Northern Wyoming, and western portions of North Dakota and South Dakota. Billings is also the retail destination for much of the same area. With more hotel accommodations than any area within a five-state region, the city hosts a variety of conventions, concerts, sporting events, and other rallies.
Area attractions include Pompey's Pillar, Pictograph Cave, Chief Plenty Coups State Park, Zoo Montana, and Yellowstone Art Museum. Within 100 miles are Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Red Lodge Mountain Resort, and the Beartooth Highway, which links Red Lodge to Yellowstone National Park.
The downtown core and much of the rest of Billings is in the Yellowstone Valley which is a canyon carved out by the Yellowstone River. Around 80 million years ago, the Billings area was on the shore of the Western Interior Seaway. The sea deposited sediment and sand around the shoreline. As the sea retreated it left behind a deep layer of sand. Over millions of years this sand was compressed into stone that is known as Eagle Sandstone. Over the last million years the river has carved its way down through this stone to form the canyon walls that are known as the Billings Rimrocks or the Rims.
About five miles south of downtown are the Pictograph Caves. These caves contain over 100 pictographs (rock paintings), the oldest of which is over 2,000 years old. Approximately 30,000 artifacts (including stone tools and weapons) have been excavated from the site. These excavations have indicated that the area has been occupied since at least 2600 BCE until after 1800 CE.
Lewis and Clark Expedition
In July 1806, William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) passed through the Billings area. On July 25 he arrived at what is now known as Pompeys Pillar and wrote in his journal "... at 4 P M arrived at a remarkable rock ... this rock I ascended and from its top had a most extensive view in every direction." Clark carved his name and the date into the rock, leaving the only remaining physical evidence of the expedition that is visible along their route. He named the place Pompy’s Tower, naming it after the son of his Shoshone interpreter and guide Sacajawea. In 1965, Pompeys Pillar was designated as a national historic landmark, and was proclaimed a national monument in January 2001. An interpretive center has been built next to the monument.
Coulson / Billings
The area where Billings is today was once known as Clarks Fork Bottom. Clarks Fork Bottom was to be the hub for hauling freight to Judith and Musselshell Basins. At the time these were some of the most productive areas of the Montana Territory. The plan was to run freight up Alkali Creek, now part of Billings Heights, to the basins and Fort Benton on the Hi-Line.
In 1877 settlers from the Gallatin Valley area of the Montana Territory formed Coulson the first town of the Yellowstone Valley. The town was started when John Alderson built a sawmill and convinced PW McAdow to open a general store and trading post on land that Alderson owned on the bank of the Yellowstone River. The store went by the name of Headquarters and soon other buildings and tents were being built as the town began to grow. At this time before the coming of the railroad, most goods coming to and going from the Montana Territory were carried on paddle riverboats. It is believed that it was decided to name the new town Coulson in an attempt to attract the Coulson Packet Company that ran riverboats between St Louis and many points in the Montana Territory. In spite of their efforts the river was traversed only once by paddle riverboat to the point of the new town.
Coulson was a rough town of dance halls and saloons and not a single church. The town needed a sheriff and the famous mountain man John "Liver-Eating" Johnson took the job. Many disagreements were settled with a gun in the coarse Wild West town. Soon a graveyard was needed and Boothill Cemetery was created. It was called Boothill because most of the people in it were said to have died with their boots on. Boothill Cemetery today sits within the city limits of Billings and is the only remaining physical evidence of Coulson's existence.
When the railroad came to the area Coulson residents were sure the town would become the railroads hub and Coulson would soon be the Territories largest city. The railroad only had claim to odd sections and it had two sections side-by-side about two miles west of Coulson. Being able to make far more money by creating a new town on these two sections the railroad decided to create the new town of Billings, For a short time the two towns existed side-by-side with a trolley even running between the two. However most of the residents of Coulson ended up moving to the new booming town of Billings. In the end Coulson faded away with the last remains of the town disappearing in the 1930s. Today Coulson Park, a Billings city park, sits on the river bank where Coulson once was.
Early railroad town
Named after Northern Pacific Railway president Frederick H. Billings Billings was founded in 1882. The Railroad formed the city as a western railhead for it farther westward expansion. At first the new town had only three buildings but within just a few months it had grown to over 2000. This spurred the Billings nickname of the Magic City because like magic it seemed to appear overnight.
The nearby town of Coulson appeared a far more likely site. Coulson was a rough and tumble town where arguments were often followed by gunplay. Liver-Eating Johnston was a lawman in Coulson. Perhaps the most famous person to be buried in Coulsons Boothill cemetery is Muggins Taylor, the scout who carried the news of Custer's Last Stand to the world. Most buried here were said to have died with their boots on. The town of Coulson had been situated on the Yellowstone River, which made it ideal for the commerce that steamboats brought up the river. However, when the Montana & Minnesota Land Company oversaw the development of potential railroad land, they ignored Coulson, and platted the new town of Billings just a couple of miles to the Northwest. Coulson quickly faded away; most of her residents were absorbed into Billings. Yet for a short time the two towns co-existed: a trolley even ran between the two. But ultimately there was no future for Coulson as Billings grew. Though it stood on the banks of the Yellowstone River only a couple of miles from the heart of present day Downtown Billings, the city of Billings never built on the land where Coulson once stood. Today Coulson Park sits along the banks of the Yellowstone where the valley's first town once stood.
By the 1910 census, Billings' population had risen to 10,031 ranking it the sixth-fastest growing community in the nation. Billings became an energy center in the early years of the twentieth century with the discovery of oil fields in Montana and Wyoming. Then the discovery of large natural gas and coal reserves secured the city's rank as first in energy.
After World War II, Billings boomed into the major financial, medical and cultural center of the region. Billings has had rapid growth from its founding; in its first 50 years growth was at times in the 300 and 400 percentile.
Billings' growth has remained robust throughout the years, and in the 1950s, it had a growth rate of 66.0%. The 1973 oil embargo by OPEC spurred an oil boom in eastern Montana, northern Wyoming and western North Dakota. With this increase in oil production, Billings became the headquarters for energy sector companies. In 1975 and 1976, the Colstrip coal-fire generation plants 1 and 2 were completed; plants 3 and 4 started operating in 1984 and 1986.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Billings saw major growth in its downtown core; the first high-rise buildings to be built in Montana were erected. In 1980, the 22-floor Sheraton Hotel was completed. Upon its completion, it was declared "the tallest load-bearing brick masonry building in the world" by the Brick Institute of America. During the 1970s and 1980s, other major buildings were constructed in the downtown core; the Norwest Building (now Wells Fargo), Granite Tower, Sage Tower, the MetraPark arena, the TransWestern Center, many new city-owned parking garages, and the First Interstate Tower, the tallest building in a five-state area.
In the 1990s, the service sector in the city increased with the development of new shopping centers built around big box stores such as Target, Wal Mart and Office Depot, all of which built multiple outlets in the Billings area. With the addition of more interchange exits along I-90, additional hotel chains and service industry outlets are being built in Billings. Development of business parks and large residential developments on the city's west end, South Hills area, Lockwood, and the Billings Heights were all part of the 1990s. Billings received the All-America City Award in 1992.
In the 21st century, Billings saw the development of operations centers in the city's business parks and downtown core by such national companies as GE, Wells Fargo and First Interstate Bank. It also saw renewed growth in the downtown core with the addition of numerous new buildings, new parking garages and a new MET Transit Center and in 2002 Skypoint was completed. Downtown also saw a renaissance of the historic areas within the downtown core as building after building was restored to its previous glory. In 2007, Billings was designated a Preserve America Community. With the completion of the Shiloh interchange exit off Interstate 90, The TransTech Center was developed and yet more hotel development as well. In 2010 the Shiloh corridor was open for business with the completion of the Shiloh parkway, a multi-lane street with eight roundabouts. Even more shopping centers were developed in the 21st century. Some of the new centers are Shiloh Crossing which brought the first Kohl's department store to Montana. Shiloh Crossing has also announced that Scheels will be constructing what is being billed as the second largest sporting goods store in the western United States and the second largest Scheels in the world. Other new centers include Billings Town Square with Montana's first Cabela's, and West Park Promenade, Montana's first open-air shopping mall. In 2009, Fortune Small Business magazine named Billings the best small city in which to start a business. Billings saw continued growth with the largest actual growth of any city in Montana. On June 20, 2010 (Father's Day), a tornado, dubbed by the media the Fathers Day Tornado, touched down in the downtown core and Heights sections of Billings. The Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark and area businesses suffered major damage. While the nation has been feeling the effects of a recession, Billings's economy has been strong. Construction and housing starts have been up as well as large investments in the community by national companies and major new road construction projects. The state's economy is healthier than most states but as western Montana is suffering from a crash in real estate and the near demise of its timber industry, eastern Montana and North Dakota are experiencing an energy boom due to coal and the Bakken formation the largest oil discovery in U.S. history. Billings is Montana's oasis of economic growth.