Billings, Montana, was little more than a boomtown in 1882, when pioneers and newspapermen throughout the country began to refer to the bustling Western metropolis as “The Magic City of the Plains.” Today, Billings is a perfect place to jumpstart a road trip through the historic and majestic big sky country of eastern Montana and the gateway to some of the richest historical sites and scenic wonders of the Treasure State. Formerly known as Clark’s Fork Bottom, Billings was named for Frederick H. Billings, president of the Northern Pacific Railway. Though some folks in Miles City may have been tempted to dismiss the upstart community as “Bilkings” in the early days, Billings had all the makings of a great community and was destined to become the largest city in Montana. “Billings has a location that can be depended upon—a location that will make it a railroad town, a cattle shipping, bullion shipping and a town backed up by numerous and well-paying farms,” The Bozeman Weekly Chronicle observed in 1883.
Visitors to Billings would do well to begin their journey with a stop at the Western Heritage Center (scheduled to reopen in March 2021). This fine museum in the city’s historic downtown district is in an impressive classic-looking Richardsonian Romanesque building that once housed the Parmly Billings Memorial Library. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the Western Heritage Center offers guests exhibits that showcase the history of Billings and the surrounding Yellowstone River Valley. While in Billings, be sure to also check out the Yellowstone County Museum, home to Old 1031, a Northern Pacific steam engine built by the American Locomotive Company in 1903. This museum also includes an impressive firearms exhibit and a display honoring exhibition marksman Tom Frye. Art lovers will want to stop by the Yellowstone Art Museum, where current exhibitions include Women by Will (through September 17, 2021), showcasing over 30 illustrations of cowgirls and frontier women by legendary artist Will James. As the museum’s website explains, “These drawings, like all of James’ work, combine Western myth with the artist’s personal experience.”
Before leaving Billings, be sure to check out the Moss Mansion Historic House Museum, the former residence of prominent resident Preston Boyd Moss. Featured in Son of the Morning Star and Return to Lonesome Dove, this spectacular home was designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, the architect responsible for New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “The spaciousness of the home, together with its artistic, elegant furnishings, makes it an ideal place for entertaining large companies, as three hundred people can move about the rooms at one time, and in no way be inconvenienced,” The Billings Daily Gazette declared in 1905. “There is no home in Montana, however palatial they may be, that surpasses this one in point of elegance, nor none that has a more hospitable host or gracious queenly hostess, than the Moss home.”
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