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 and Parmly Billings Memorial Library.