Billings Townsite Historic District

Tour curated by: The Explore Big – Montana's Historic Places Team

At the turn of the twentieth century, Billings was ready to shed its frontier image as a rough-and-tumble cowtown and emerge as a regional commercial center. Billings was already at the juncture of the Northern Pacific and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy railroads and soon the Great Northern extended its tracks to the growing city. Platted in 1882 and named for a former railroad president, Billings became the transportation hub of the northern plains. The earliest business district was here at the center of the townsite grid. Business activity gradually moved to the northwest as the area near the tracks gained new purpose by catering to travelers. Between 1900 and 1920, a dozen hotels and many attendant businesses crowded into the area. In 1911 a splendid depot, electric street lights, cement sidewalks, and brick-paved streets greeted visiting President Howard Taft who pronounced Billings "the center of the development of the arid west." Indeed, almost 10,000 homesteaders claimed land at the Billings land office between 1909 and 1914, and local hotels supported a daily transient population of at least l,000. Billings, nicknamed "Magic City" for its early rapid growth, continued to mature through the 1910s. The eventual demise of rail travel left its early-twentieth-century buildings vulnerable but thanks to early preservation efforts the district remains as an intact expression of turn-of-the-century commercial architecture. These buildings, along with the splendid depot and tracks which symbolize the town's "magical" beginnings, preside over what was once the heart of the townsite.

Contributing properties not pictured--Rex Hotel.

Locations for Tour

In 1906, the Northern Pacific Railroad moved its central railroad transfer point from Billings to Laurel. The move opened new tracts of land for development along the railroad right-of-way. These lots had the advantage of bordering both the tracks…

National cigar and tobacco wholesaler Louis Cohn occupied this two-story brick building, constructed in 1919. Cohn was one of three wholesalers supplying Billings’ five cigar manufacturers with tobacco. In 1923, the building became home to Harry…

Billings’ first depot was built in 1883, a year after the arrival of the Northern Pacific. Because the first depot failed to meet railroad specifications, the nearby Headquarters Hotel served instead as the passenger station. The hotel burned a few…

The delicious odor of roasting coffee must have added a pleasing dimension to this industrial area when Sawyer Stores, Inc. opened its plant here in 1928. The facility served as the main office of a grocery chain that operated stores in Montana and…

In the 1910s, Billings promoted itself as the capital of the “Midland Empire.” That economic domain covered thirty thousand square miles and boasted hundreds of communities that relied on Billings for supplies. No wonder Helena-based distributor…

Situated in the heart of the extended commercial railroad corridor that developed in the 1910s, this vernacular Western Commercial style building on its prominent corner anchors the historic district. Built circa 1916, Howard J. Pouder and his wife…