To some people, the Rimrocks that line the northern face of Billings offer a bird’s-eye view of the Yellowstone Valley.
To others, they provide a spot to picnic or hike or climb. Still others see the Rims as a place of history, of serenity, or as a touchpoint for direction when driving in town.
Whatever they mean to those who live in their shadow or reside or work or play on top, the ancient cliffs are iconic in Billings, Yellowstone County and beyond. Most people associate the town with the towering cliffs.
Sunsets transform the Rimrocks into a blaze of gold. In the pale sunrise, their colors shift to a rosier hue, while in the middle of the day they turn as tan as a sandy beach.
Their color helped inspire the name of another Montana icon, says Kevin Kooistra, community historian with the Western Heritage Center in Billings. French fur trappers called the Yellowstone River “La Roche Jaune” (The Yellow Rock) long before Yellowstone Park existed, Kooistra said.
“So chances are the river’s name is derived from these cliffs that run all the way from Columbus to Custer, if you go the way of the river,” he said.
The Rims are primarily sandstone, but they also contain shale, made up of finer, clay-sized particles, said Emily Geraghty Ward, assistant professor of geology at Rocky Mountain College. The majority of the Rimrocks was deposited as sediment when the land was covered in a really shallow ocean around 85 million years ago, she said.
Fossils discovered in the Rims give proof of the environment in which the rock was formed, Ward said. The ocean level gradually dropped, exposing the rocks. Eventually, the ocean was replaced by rivers that continued to deposit sediment on the surrounding land.
Erosion by the rivers created the river valley where Billings exists today, and the uplift in the land surface is due to the hot material beneath the Yellowstone caldera, Ward said.
Erosion changed the look of the Rimrocks over time. Rain, snow and ice can all help loosen the rocks along their cracks, causing them to tumble down.
Trees that manage to grow on the Rims send their roots down into the cracks that also loosen the rocks from the face.
The type of rock that makes up the Rimrocks also has an effect.
“You’re going to have layers of sandstone, which can be strong rock, and then layers of clay, or shale, that’s more easily removed,” Ward said. “You may see a clay area worn away beneath the face of sandstone that produces this overhanging rock.”
If the life of the Rimrocks measures in millions of years, their interaction with humans represents a mere fraction of that span. There is symmetry between the Native population and those who followed, Kooistra said.
At the east end of the Rims at what is now known as Swords Rimrock Park sits a place that Lt. James H. Bradley in April 1876 described as “The Place of the Skulls,” a Crow Indian burial ground.
“It was more like tree scaffolding or tree burials, where they tied their dead into trees or maybe put them on a platform in the trees,” Kooistra said.
The graves were associated with smallpox epidemics that decimated the Crow population. At the base of the Rims in that same area, the people of Coulson, the town that predated Billings by five years, buried their dead at the Coulson “Boothill” Cemetery.
A fasting area for the Crow people later became the site where Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly, a trapper, explorer and guide in the region, was buried in 1929, in the east Rims park.
“So you have a quiet place of spirituality, a place where you could go and find this oasis,” Kooistra said.
In that same vein, farther west along the Rims, graduates of what from the turn of the 20th century to 1947 was called Billings Polytechnic Institute (now Rocky Mountain College), would walk silently along a trail up to the top of the Rims during commencement.
“And when they got to the top, the leader of the group would say a prayer; they would read from the Psalms, and that would be the end of commencement,” Kooistra said.
The sacred aspect of the Rimrocks was clearly balanced by what Kooistra calls the commercial side. Billings, which was founded in 1882, quadrupled in size from 1900 to 1920.
Aside from the Northern Pacific Railroad that founded the town of Billings, the Heffner Stone Quarry was the first big business. It sat at the base of the Rims between what is now North 27th Street and Virginia Lane.
Some of the sandstone rock quarried at the business ended up in local buildings, including Eastern Montana State Prison in Billings, which burned in 1933.
“They lined the parking areas along the top of the Rims with the stones from the prison and used the rock to build walls at the tennis courts at Pioneer Park,” Kooistra said.
The Western Heritage Center, originally the Parmly Billings Memorial Library, also is built from sandstone blocks.
In 1903, the Billings Land & Irrigation Co. (now the Billings Bench Water Assocation) began construction on a 60-mile, gravity-fed canal system, which included a 1,847-foot tunnel through the Rimrocks.
In what Kooistra called “a unique engineering feat,” crews worked simultaneously from the north and south entrances. They were only off a few inches from a straight line when they met in the center.
“The canal brought irrigation to the Billings Bench — the Heights — which was very important for the development of the region,” he said.
As Billings grew, the city fathers in 1912 hired Charles Ramsdell, a landscape architect from Minneapolis, to create a parks plan. His plan included one park at the east end of the Rims, named Rimrock Park.
“Rimrock Park eventually became Swords Rimrock Park after George Swords donated a parcel, but the park was relatively undeveloped until the 1930s,” Kooistra said.
Swords offered the city 57-plus acres in the late 1920s, and the park was renamed in 1931.
View of the city
The Rims always have been a draw for tourists, said Blain Fandrich, a cultural resource consultant with Ethnoscience Inc. in Billings.
“People would come in and go up to the Rims to get a nice view of the city,” Fandrich said. “But they’d have to go five miles out of town by wagon up Alkali Creek and then up to get there.”
Then, in 1910, the Billings Commercial Club, the precursor to the Billings Chamber of Commerce, asked Heffner Quarry to build steps to provide access from the valley to the top of the Rims that was closer than Alkali Creek.
“The Billings Commercial Club said these were for ‘the benefit of persons who occupy their Sunday afternoons and other leisure time in walking about and taking in a view of the city and surrounding country,’ ” Fandrich said.
The bottom of the steps, one of at least five sets of stairs in the Rims, is behind what is now the Montana State University Billings Physical Education Building.
Roads also helped make the Rimrocks more accessible. The Billings Municipal Airport was constructed on top of the Rims in 1927, and that same year, the city graded a dirt road out of what had previously been a wagon trail coming up from Alkali Creek.
Next to be built was what is now called North 27th Street, Fandrich said.
Farther west, two brothers, Joseph and Frank Zimmerman, cut a trail in 1890 in the Rims. A Works Progress Administration crew re-engineered the trail into a road in 1939.
The WPA also had a large hand in constructing Chief Black Otter Trail, built in the 1930s. Work stopped in 1936, Fandrich said, when construction began on Fort Peck Dam “and they moved everybody up there.”
The county and city hired crews to extend the road up to the airport. Originally called Rimrock Scenic Drive, the road went through several name changes, he said.
In the 1940s, the Billings Commercial Club stepped in, hoping to add a touch of pizzazz and historic romance, and renamed it Chief Black Otter Trail.
“Supposedly it was named for a Crow chief mortally wounded in a battle with the Sioux,” he said. “He was buried supposedly somewhere along the Rims.”
The only problem, Fandrich said, is the Crow people have no memory of such a man.
“They said this fictitious person was made up by the Billings Commercial Club to promote tourism,” he said.
Saving a touchstone
In 1971, Montana Sens. Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate to create a Rimrocks National Monument near Billings.
“Future generations will thank those who helped to save such magnificent scenery from despoilation,” Kimbert Larsen wrote in a booklet urging its passage. “And Billings residents would receive a tremendous bonus for themselves in having a national monument to be proud of.”
There was no question of the Rimrocks’ beauty, Kooistra said, but opponents said too much development already existed to turn it into a monument.
“But the National Park Service recommended at the time (to) buy what you can and lock it up,” he said.
When a parcel of land on the western side of the Rims came up for sale, the city and county were urged to buy and preserve it, Kooistra said. Instead, private developers built houses that remain today.
Still, the Rimrocks remain a touchstone in Billings and Yellowstone County.
“They’re our marker of our place,” he said.