YelCo 52: Zimmerman Trail is Billings' expressway to top of the Rims

2014-08-16T00:00:00Z 2014-08-16T21:39:54Z YelCo 52: Zimmerman Trail is Billings' expressway to top of the RimsBy CHRIS CIOFFI The Billings Gazette


A mile of asphalt can be taken for granted when it is passable, but if drivers are prohibited from using the stretch, people take notice.

That was certainly the case this spring when Zimmerman Trail was closed for three months after rockslides off the Rimrocks sparked fears of falling boulders. 

"You don’t realize how handy the road is until it’s gone," said Wayne Bromenshenk, great-grandson of Frank Zimmerman. Zimmerman helped build the trail that now bears his name in the summer of 1890.

The trail back then was quite steep, he said. "Back then, that older grade was 10, 12 percent or better."

Frank and his brother, Joseph, made their way to Billings after immigrating from the Alsace-Lorraine region, on the border of France and Germany. They came to the United States several years apart. Joseph arrived first when Billings maybe had 150 inhabitants. 

Before the Yellowstone Valley was plumbed for irrigation, it was tough to make a living farming crops for the first pioneers, so Zimmerman grazed livestock atop the Rims and lived in the valley below. 

In order to bring water and supplies to the shepherd who took care of several thousand sheep in the summertime, Joe had to take a wagon all the way to the Boot Hill Cemetery. The 32-mile trip took two days, according to "Along The Zimmerman Trail," a book written by Bromenshenk's grandfather Charles Zimmerman.  

Tired of wasting two days out of every six, Zimmerman got some dynamite and enlisted his brother Frank and a miner by the name of Thompson whose first name has been lost to history. 

The three men yoked up a two-handed scraper to a pair of mules and spent the whole summer carving a path.

The job cut Zimmerman's errand down to a mere five hours. 

"They did a lot of work with the rock they were blasting up there," Bromenshenk said, sitting in the dining room of his home built from sandstone blocks quarried during the 1890 excavation. 

Frank Zimmerman hauled the stones to the 4600 block of Grand Avenue over open fields and down a cow trail. 

The house is one of several structures built from the sandstone extracted from the trail, he said. "There’s at least three more buildings like this. One by the Red Door and two on Alkali Creek."

Joseph Zimmerman's homestead was right down the street from Frank's, on the land where the Red Door Lounge, 3875 Grand Ave., sits today. 

Modernizing the road

As cars replaced wagons in the Yellowstone Valley, city planners revised the road in 1938.

The road was constructed for about $118,000, according to a Billings Gazette article published Nov. 18, 1938. The Works Progress Administration put $95,252 toward the project; the county paid the rest.

"The project includes excavation work, construction of bridge guard rail and drainage of the road," the article said. "The new road is to be similar to the present airport road."

The road was paved several years later, and not much more than the trail's name had not changed for most of its history.

Extending the trail 

The road south of Rimrock Road formerly was called Arlene Street.

But when city planners decided to extend the road through the Yegen Golf Course to Broadwater Avenue in 2005 and 2006, Zimmerman's descendants got to work.

Bromenshenk's nephew, Roy Zimmerman, went to the City of Billings then Yellowstone County and even the Montana Department of Transportation to inquire about the road. There was no information to be found, and no one could explain why. 

Their own research began in The Gazette archives. Without a firm date for the construction, Bromenshenk put the microfilm for Jan. 1, 1930, into the reader and began searching.

"It took me five years to go through all The Billings Gazettes," he said with a chuckle. "That’s a lot of Gazettes."

He was near giving up when he came across the first article referencing the Zimmerman Trail, he said. "It just said, 'Trail gets a park.'"

Soon after, he found more articles, a picture of the old trail and the new trail.

And while many would lament having to spend all that time looking at microfilm, he enjoyed it.

It gave him a chance to learn about many other people and places in Billings that, like Zimmerman Trail, had been long forgotten. 

"It gave me an opportunity to learn a lot of history about the area I grew up in," he said. "Because when you’re a kid you don’t really give a damn." 

Fruits of his labor

The culmination of his research was a plaque placed near the entrance of Zimmerman Park.

The 97-acre parcel, he discovered, was originally purchased for $750 in 1938 with funds given by the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions service clubs. 

"Just to have this up there, we hope will protect the history of Zimmerman Trail," he said.

Most people who knew the Zimmermans' story had died, Bromenshenk said, but now when he visits the park, he notices people learning the story all over again. 

Wagon ruts

It's doubtful that on the hot summer days of 1890, Joseph and Frank Zimmerman believed that their little wagon rut to the top of the Rims would become the daily necessity of hundreds of Billings residents.

But motorists utilize the road for the same purpose that it was built for 124 years ago — to get people from the Heights to the West End fast. And when the road is closed, people notice.

During the last closure, the Policy Coordinating Committee, tasked with steering the direction of transportation projects in Billings, jumped into action dusted off a 10-year-old study measuring the feasibility of a major West End connector from Rimrock Road and Highway 3.

They took no action, but recognized how important a route down the Rims to the West End is to Billings.

When it's gone, people take heed, Bromenshank said. "Just think if it wasn’t there at all."

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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