The Big Sky Country’s “Magic City” is an inspiring place to visit and spend a few days. Montana’s largest city, Billings, offers the conveniences of a bigger city with the friendliness and smallness that makes a person feel right at home.
With a population just over 100,000, Billings is by far the largest city in Montana, but it provides an atmosphere filled with plenty of western hospitality. Travel connections are quite accommodating with major airline service arriving at the nearby Billings Logan Airport as well as highway connections via Interstates 90 and 94.
Founded in 1882, Billings was nicknamed the “Magic City” because of its quick, rapid growth. Almost overnight, Billings awakened because of its significant location along the mainline of America’s second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific.
Billings has long been a railroad hub with several rail lines traveling through the city. In addition to the Northern Pacific, other lines have included the Milwaukee Road and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy lines. Today, these lines have all been merged into BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).
Billings takes its name from Frederick Billings, a former President of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The free-roaming Yellowstone River borders the southern boundaries of the city, and the majestic sandstone foundation, called the Rimrocks, borders the northern tier.
Downtown Billings offers a vibrant retail district with unique shops, restaurants, hotels, and local craft breweries. There are numerous city parks and green space, with Pioneer Park being one of the crown jewels in the city’s park system. Billings is a retail center for much of south-central Montana as well as northern Wyoming. For shoppers traveling to any Montana destination, remember that the state does not levy a general sales tax on retail purchases.
Downtown Billings provides green space along with modern office buildings.
Within the confines of the greater Billings area, one will find numerous attractions to fill up anyone’s taste for culture, history, and entertainment.
In the downtown corridor, the Western Heritage Center offers distinct local history about Billings and the surrounding area. There is a mix of permanent exhibits along with rotating points of historical interest. The building is located in the former city library, and it continues today as a modern, handicap-accessible museum.
The Western Heritage Center was built with an exterior using sandstone quarried from sites in Montana. The building was originally constructed to be the public library (note the sign above the entrance).
The Yellowstone Art Museum sits on the site of the former Yellowstone County Jail, and the core part of the jail building was remodeled to provide the original home for the museum. Additions have been added to the museum over the years, and it is now houses some of the finest art collections in the region.
The Moss Mansion is a “must-see” stop. The historic home was built in 1903 by P. B. Moss. At the time of its construction, the home was located on the western edge of the city. The last surviving family member lived there until the 1980s. Today the mansion, which stands preserved with all of its grandeur on the inside as well as on the outside, is a museum open to the public.
The front of the Moss Mansion as viewed from Division Street on the east side of the home. Note the unique design as well as the well-manicured grounds.
Venturing out from the city center, one can spend time at Zoo Montana, which is home to Montana’s largest zoo complex. The zoo is limited in its number of species on display, but the setting along Canyon Creek is perfect for a wonderful time filled with experiencing nature’s habitat as well as the awesome landscape. In the summertime, the best time to visit the zoo is in the morning hours when the temperatures are not too hot, and the animals will usually be more active.
A Red Panda calls Zoo Montana its home as it explores a shaded area of the grounds.
If you are a baseball fan, Billings remains a hotbed for this longtime sport. With a recently built stadium, Dehler Field, baseball games fill up many summer nights. The Billings Mustangs, who are a rookie league farm club for the Cincinnati Reds, as well as the two American Legion teams, the Royals and the Scarlets, play under the lights at the field.
Billings has a long tradition of baseball success that is exemplified by major league pitcher Dave McNally, who pitched in the 1960s and 1970s for the Baltimore Orioles. He was a multiple season 20-game winner, and is the only pitcher to hit a grand slam home run in World Series play. Famous sportscaster Brent Musberger spent his early years in Billings, and has remained a huge baseball fan throughout his life.
If one has a taste to travel a short distance from Billings, there are many attractions nearby. Pompey’s Pillar National Monument offers a look at the only physical evidence left by the explorers from Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery back in 1804-1806. Captain William Clark carved his initials on a pillar of sandstone near the Yellowstone River. The site is located about 25 miles east of Billings along Interstate 94, and a superb interpretative center and gift shop add much to the visit.
Traveling about an hour from Billings on Interstate 90 to the south, history buffs will find an excellent place to learn more about Native American culture and their struggle to preserve their way of life. The Little Bighorn Battlefield is located just outside of Hardin near the freeway. While the battle took place long ago in 1876, visitors can learn much about the major participants of the battle.
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his U.S. 7th Calvary were handily defeated by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by chiefs Sitting Bull, Gall, and Crazy Horse. There is a wonderful interpretative center, and plan to complete the automobile tour that includes most of the battlefield site.
Markers of fallen 7th Calvary soldiers are visible throughout the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Much of the saga of the battle has been updated from Native American oral history about the event.
There is much more to the Billings area as well as the other attractions a short drive from the city center. To learn more about these, visit the “Magic City.”