It started three years ago in an email sent by a disgruntled visitor from California.
Vacationing here in August 2010, Kitty Showers and her family visited Boothill Cemetery, Black Otter Trail and Yellowstone Kelly’s grave at Billings Swords Rimrock Park.
“We were very disappointed in those sites,” she wrote to John Brewer, executive director of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
She complained that the state of the cemetery “was a disgrace to those buried there,” and made a decision that sent chills through the tourism-oriented hierarchy here.
“After seeing those sites we decided to spend the rest of our vacation elsewhere,” she wrote. “I don’t know if sending this letter will make a difference or not but there were other visitors we talked to that were just as disappointed, and at this point I would not recommend visiting Billings.”
Brewer and William A. Cole, chairman of the Chamber’s Trails Committee, still talk about the impact of that email. They keep copies of it in their files.
Rome has its Coliseum, Venice has its canals and Billings has its Rimrocks, Cole said.
“The Rimrocks and Swords Rimrock Park are our premier tourist destination,” he said. “That’s what Billings is famous for, but it was just so much gravel.”
Improvements to Swords Rimrock Park and Black Otter Trail have been made and are being made, but much more work and money are needed to restore the historic aspects.
The dilapidated state of Kelly’s grave is what most irks Cole.
“He was an important veteran and his grave is an embarrassment,” Cole said.
The brass marker that identified the tomb’s occupant had to be removed by the city after someone tried to pry it from the concrete foundation. Its original raised platform over the years has become flush with the ground.
Cole and the Chamber/Convention and Visitors Bureau have been raising funds to restore, landscape and place interpretive signs on the gravesite. The plan also includes improved parking and making the site accessible to handicapped visitors. Brewer estimates cost in the neighborhood of $200,000.
“We want to bring back a lot of heritage that has been lost over time,” Brewer said.
Developments at the grave will follow the city’s master plan for Swords Park, said Mike Whitaker, director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Public Lands Department. The city does not have the money to implement the plan, but the Chamber and other community organizations, including Bike Net and Rotary, have been raising funds to complete the city’s vision.
“It would not be going forward at this time without the Chamber,” Whitaker said. “We are working very closely on all developments.”
Brewer said creation of a trail system in Billings has been a Chamber/CVB priority for the last five years.
Recently, with the help of funding-raising efforts by Billings Rotary Club, the Chamber/CVB was able to put together $63,000 in donations to upgrade the park trailhead with a visitor kiosk, paved parking lot, bike racks, restrooms and a cistern to provide fresh water. Whitaker said the project should be complete by late summer or early fall.
Brewer said the trail system and restoration of Kelly’s grave are important not just as a potential tourist attraction, but as a matter of improved quality of life. Good systems of outdoor recreation and a community with a long, colorful heritage are attractive assets as Billings promotes itself to families and companies as a good place to live and work, he said.
What’s next in line after the grave restoration and development?
Cole said Boot Hill Cemetery – the resting place of some of Billings’ earliest heroes and villains – would be a likely candidate.
Anyone who wants to be a part of the restoration can contact Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Brewer at email@example.com. To contribute to restoration of Kelly’s grave, go to billingschamber.com and click on the “priorities” button. Then click on “trails,” and follow the links.