Yellowstone County Places

Eastern Montana State Prison - Billings


Monday, May 28, 2012


There has been much said about the prison, but very few words ever made it into actual print. This summary is basically compiled from personal awareness, land records and editorial comments presented in the Billings Gazette. [1]

This building was designed and constructed be a showpiece for the state, and that it was. But, it laid empty and alone for nearly a half-century! It never housed an inmate, was destined to become a famed “Country Club”, a personal residence, and finally a Federal Prison, but these events did not happen either. It was constructed of sandstone cut from the Heffner Quarry and resembled a medieval castle. This particular sandstone is one of the toughest and most durable building materials ever. Although often thought of as being soft, this particular material hardens with time when exposed to the weather. A fire finally ended its life, and the building materials wandered around the town, finding resting places where they were really appreciated. Even as late as 2003, the massive foundation blocks were uncovered, and given new life on residences located on Keller Road.

It was located on about 25 acres [one Gazette report stated 31-1/2 acres] in the northeast corner of Billings, between 16th and 17th Street, and at the base of the north rims. There was never a specific address created, although 901 N 19th St was used. Eventually tall Poplar Trees surrounded the property, in a desperate attempt to hide the beautiful creation that no one wanted. To day, it would be a showpiece of gigantic proportions. At the time, it was believed that visitors would “mock its extravagant uselessness.” In 1935, there was a stone marker placed at the entrance directly in front of the site that stated: “ Billings Land and Irrigation Company.” one of the many owners of the property.


Billings’ legislators, Thomas Ash and John R. King[2], delegates to the territorial assembly in 1887 decided that the eastern portion of Montana should have a share in the public institutions that were in the process of being established.

In 1889 after Montana was accepted into the union, its various state buildings were scattered throughout the western section of the territory (called Commonwealth.) The state university was destined to be in Missoula; the capitol was to be in Helena[3]; state prisoners were to be housed in Deer Lodge. This provoked the eastern Montana settlers and they wanted a fair share in the distribution of state facilities. Yellowstone County and Billings jointly bought a tract of land [ where the prison would eventually be located] and offered it to the legislative body in 1893 for the establishment of a state prison. The deemed body bickered, but finally accepted the gift. They had forgotten about the cost needed to construct a facility, which was initially estimated to be only  $30,000. Plans were not even developed for a prison at this time.

The Penitentiary Bill was introduced by Hon. A. L. Babcock[4], in the House, as follows:

An Act to Locate the State Prison and select a site therefore and for the erection of a State Prison thereon.

Be it Enacted by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Montana;

Section 1. That the state prison of the State of Montana be, and is hereby located at the city of Billings, or within a radius of two miles of said city in the county of Yellowstone, State of Montana.

Section 2. The governor, attorney general and secretary of state, the board od prison commissioners, shall within 30 days after passage of this act proceed to the city of Billings in the county of Yellowstone, and there select a site for said prison, consisting of not less than 20 nor more than thirty acres of land, which site shall be within two miles of said city of Billings, and shall include a stone quarry embracing not less than three nor more than five acres.

Section 3. The board of state prison commissioners, are hereby authorized and empowered, and it shall be their duty to cause to be commenced on or before the first Monday in July, 1893, the building of a state prison on the land and at the site selected by the board of prison commissioners in accordance with the provisions of section 2 of this act: also, to commence the construction of an exterior wall enclosing not less than eight, nor more than twelve acres of land, around the same.

Section 4. The walls of the entire prison structure shall be erected with stone to be taken from the granite quarries, if there be any on the land selected by the board, and the said structure shall be erected and completed as speedily after it is commenced as practical.

Section 5. Said board of prison commissioners shall on or before the first Monday of April A. D. 1893 cause to be published in a daily newspaper in the city of Helena, county of Lewis and Clarke, and city of Butte, county of Silver Bow, once each week, a notice to receive plans and specifications in detail at a place specified therein, for the construction of a state prison, to be erected on the land and at the site selected by said board, and upon the basis of the accommodation of not less than four hundred prisoners at one time. The notice shall also state the premium, not to exceed the sum of five hundred dollars ($500.00) to be awarded to the architect whose plans and specifications for the same may be adopted, which premium shall be in full compensation for the plans accepted by the board.

Section 6. Said board of prison commissioners on or before the second Monday in May, 1893, shall adopt plans and specifications for the said state prison, as aforesaid: and on or before the day last mentioned shall cause to be advertised in a daily newspaper printed in the city of Butte, county of silver Bow, in the city of Billings, county of Yellowstone, and in the city of Helena, county of Lewis and Clarke, once each week for four consecutive weeks, a notice to receive sealed proposals and bids to construct and erect any part or portion of said state prison, upon the land and at the site selected by said board, in accordance with the plans and specifications which shall have been therefore adopted by said board of state prison commissioners for the construction of the same, with the reserved right to reject any and all bids as being too high in price and advertised anew. The board of commissioners, on or before the first Monday in June, A. D. 1893, must let to the lowest responsible bidder the contract to construct and erect such part of the said prison structure as said board of prison commissioners, in their discretion may think proper upon condition that such contractor or contractors execute a good and sufficient bond, in double the amount of his or their bids, to perform such contract for the constructing and erecting of any part of said prison structure in a skillful and workmanlike manner, in conformity with the plans and specification aforesaid, which bond shall be approved by the board of state prison commissioners.

Section 7. The board of state prison commissioners are hereby authorized to appoint a superintendent of said prison, who shall hold his office during the pleasure of the appointing power, and until his successor is appointed and qualified, whose duty it shall be to superintend and manage the construction of said prison structure, under such rules and regulations as may be prescribed by the board of state prison commissioners, under the provisions of this act.

Section 8. All materials necessary to be purchased in the construction of said prison structure, and all supplies for the support and maintenance of said prison structure, shall be by contract, and the board of prison commissioners shall cause to be published in a newspaper in the county of Yellowstone and in one or more other counties, if they shall deem it necessary, a notice to receive bids therefore, and let the same to the lowest responsible bidder, whenever such material or supplies are needed.

Section 9. All salaries paid to mechanics or laborers, and all monies expended for materials, tools, or supplies used and in the purchase of said site and on the construction of said state prison building and wall, shall be in the same manner as moneys are now drawn there from for the support and maintenance of the penitentiary at Deer Lodge; and the board os state prison commissioners shall cause to be kept in correct account, in detail, of all moneys received, expended by them in the building of said state prison, and shall on or before the first day of December in each year, make a full report to the governor, showing in detail all the transactions connected with the purchase of a site and construction of said prison.

Section 10. The sum of seventy thousand dollars ($70,000) is hereby appropriated out of any money in the state treasury not otherwise appropriated, for the purchase or carrying out the provisions of this act; forty thousand ($40,000) of which shall be available for the year 1893; and thirty thousand ($30,000) for the year 1894, and the state treasurer is hereby directed and required to set such sums apart for said years to credit of state prison fund, subject to the orders and disbursements as here before provided, neither the board of state prison commissioners, mentioned in Section 1 of this act, nor anyone acting under or for said board, shall incur or create any debt or debts, liability or liabilities, under the provisions of this act; nor shall they make any contractor agreement in relation to the building and constructing of the state prison provided for in this act, the completion and fulfillment of which, will exceed the appropriation made in this section, or the balance of such contract unexpended at the time when such contract is entered into. Any violation of the foregoing provisions shall be a misdemeanor, and all such contracts and agreements shall be void.

Section 11. All acts and parts of acts, so far as the same are in conflict with the provisions of this act, are hereby repealed.

Section 12. This act shall take effect and be in force after its passage and approval.

Note: The original act called for a provision to utilize convict labor in the construction. This was voided at the request of labor representatives who opposed the idea.


Paul McCormick, on February 16, 1893 wrote a letter[5] to his friend & partner, Senator T. C. Power in Washington DC. In it he arranged for settlement of the Big Horn Southern Railroad land rights through the Crow Reservation, and reported that the Land Office personnel in Billings are spending their time in Helena “trying to lobby a bill through the legislature locating the penitentiary at Billings. I was up twice but have no faith in the success of the measure. I will see Foster and Whitney as soon as they return, but I think that there has been so much money raised to be used in the interests of getting the penitentiary that it would be nearly impossible to get any more. When do you expect to come to Montana”?

Contrary to Paul’s personal opinion, the State obtained a Warranty Deed[6] for the property starting with City Block 295[7] from the City of Billings on April 9, 1894.

In 1895 [documents for the exact date and publications not located] a prospectus for the construction of the facility was issued. This increased the estimated construction cost to $70,000. The initial plans called for the building to have a frontage of 380 feet, and a depth of 128 feet. It was to be constructed in such a manner that there were actually three separate edifices – with their wings joined through an administration building, which served as the “Crown” to the very imposing structure. The original estimates had underestimated the area needed to build the prison, and after evaluation of the land at the base of the rims, agreed to shorten the frontage to 180 feet with a depth of only 50 feet. A pamphlet was prepared that described the facility layout [not located] in which high tribute was paid to the high security of the building. In it was stated the administration wing: safety vestibules that will allow easy transfer of prisoners from one part of the building to another, or on to the prison yard. It will thus be seen how securely and easy all convicts may be regulated and how small a force of employees is needed.” “The massive doors of the triple towers … provide strength and security … in the construction.”

Cell Design

The prison was designed to accommodate three tiers of 34 cells each [102 cells.] The cells (cages in reality) cost more to build than planned, thus they were not completed, nor was the roof. A few were actually constructed in the lower floor (basement), and about 16 on the upper floors. In reality, they were dungeons and didn’t even meet basic human needs. They were cages, but funding woes prevented their completion. They were dark and poorly ventilated, no windows, and the only holes in the cells were for a planned heat system. They were about 10-feet square, and were designed to have convex plastered ceilings. Bunks were planned to be in each cell, but none were installed. The legislatures voted for the additional finding, but then some officials [names not identified] decided that Montana had no need for a prison in Billings. This irked the eastern residents and the Governor offered a proposition to the residents of Yellowstone County, in hopes that their focus would be diverted. An agricultural college was being established in Bozeman with the “understanding” that various portions of the state would be later selected for experimental stations that could be administered by the college. It was felt that this was far more important than a “grim prison.”

Prison Construction Abandoned

This apparently appealed to the local residents, and their dire push for a prison was placed on the “back burner – so to speak.” An experimental station as a result of the agreement was established in the county, namely Billings. Decisions that were made to reach this conclusion were never recorded; nor was any experimental station ever built in the local area as a result the decision to abandon the prison. S a result, the City swapped the prison land and facility, for a “more favorable” piece of land.  Billings had to wait until 1927 when the Eastern Montana Normal School was founded. This was the first significant state institution of any consequence. An experimental station was constructed in Osborn. [This was a Train Station and Post Office on the NPR track, located 17 miles east of Billings and 4 miles east of Huntley.] Through this land swap, the First National Bank of Billings, acquired title to 31.5 acres and a half finished prison. The bank eventually sold the property to the “Billings Land and Irrigation Company”, and they completed building a canal [Big Ditch] through the tract[8]. The eastern end of this ditch went through a tunnel dug out of the rims, and into the Alkali Creek valley floor [located at the projected end of 14th street.] This connected with a wooden flue that crossed the Bitter Creek valley floor, and onto the farmland to the northeast.

Prison Facility Acquired by Austin North

Austin North came to Billings in 1889 and was employed earlier by the Post Office and then with NPR. On January 1, 1892 he established his “Austin North” Real Estate practice. He incorporated the practice on July 1, 1896. In 1904 the property was deeded to him. He planned to develop it into a business enterprise. After he acquired the prison property he constructed a ballpark, grandstand and fence on the land immediately to east of the prison. [This was not North Park, originally platted and named such by NPR.]He made numerous land transaction deals, and ended up owning virtually all the land north of the Burlington Railroad tracks to the base of the rims. For a time North Park served as the county fairground. On this site reproductions of Custer’s Last stand took place. Members of the local militia, the cavalry from Fort Keogh, and Crow warriors from the reservation participated in the mock battle held on the premises.

Austin North caused the true North Park established by the original plat filing, or at least made it a reality; and as a result many people believed that the park was originated by him and named after him. This is not true, as NPR; in its creation of the City of Billings [1881- and published 1882] define both South and North parks. South Park was developed much earlier, since the majority of family members lived in that area. Very few persons resided on the north side of the tracks in these early years. The lands surrounding the area were desert. The Park Commission was formed in 1911, March 29th. The originating board members who established the commission were: AL Babcock, Henry A Frith, WS Garnsay, WM Johnston, HW Rowley, Mayor HJ Thompson, C Yegen and JD Matheson, City Clerk.

Austin admired the prison property, and decided that he wanted it to be converted into a real home. He secured the services of Link & Haire, from Helena, to perform the architectural changes to the prison; retaining the massive stonework wherever possible. At the time there were many stone blocks on the property [unused.] These and others were to be made for converting the structure into a home. It was designed o be the most imposing structure in the city. It was three-stories high, had 30 rooms, and the exterior was designed to resemble a baronial castle. The front wing was to be a turret, towering above the other portions of the building. The foundations on the first floor were to be three-feet thick so as to support the massive amounts of masonry that was to be carried above ground. The entire property was to be enclosed by a four-foot stone fence, created in castle moat style, with additional stones lying about on the grounds. Sixteen rooms were actually completed, before Austin abandoned the project. It never was a home.

Prison, Now Home, Converted to “Country Club”

Having abandoned his plans for creating a massive home, Austin North in 1920 tried to change the venue and turn it into a County Club. This required many more dollars to be spent. The old cellblocks were finished into rooms for locker accommodations, game and social activity rooms. Portions were devoted to stables. He painted a large “County Club” sign on the roof. In 1921 Austin ran out of funds, and the project had to be abandoned. It never became a clubhouse. In an attempt to protect his investment Austin hired a caretaker [John Pulse] to reside on the property, and in the remodeled prison wing. However, the only inhabitable piece of property was in an old cabin, still located on the premises. That is where they lived. Austin purchased the land where Pioneer Park is located from Paul McCormick May 10, 1894 for $4,000, had an old cabin, probably belonging to the McKinsey’s, who were the original homesteaders, moved there[9]. In 1922 Austin, and his family, including five children, moved into the structure for a short while, living in the finished prison wing. He then moved to Texas, and six years later fell from a tree and was killed. The caretakers were employed for several years after Austin’s death, and until the time it burned to the ground. To assist in the club’s development he created Country Club Park, located on the land north of 9th Avenue North & 16th Street[10].

Country Club to Federal Prison

Around 1930 the Federal Government found that their existing facilities were crowded with “liquor law” violators. Sanford Bates, Federal Prison Director at the time, decided that more prisons were needed. In the west, there were only two facilities, Leavenworth, Kansas and McNeil’s Island, Washington. Billings was proposed as a central location to where the greatest concentration of criminals in Montana and the neighboring states were being apprehended, and the former state prison was considered to be the best solution. On February 1, 1931, the prison officials visited Billings, and they took an option to purchase the property from Hattie North (Austin’s widower.) A few months later the transaction was completed, and the North heirs received a small check for $22,500. This sale stirred the local residents into believing that a prison would actually be established which would house between 250 and 500 long-term inmates. There was to be separate women’s department and infirmary, as well as having facilities for farm and dairy operations. The Government called for construction bids in October 1931. A construction firm of Lovering & Longbotham in St. Paul submitted the lowest bid. It was immediately “assumed” by the local city sponsors that it was accepted, and word was spread about to that effect. The Government had other problems that occurred immediately thereafter; namely that the 18th Amendment was repealed, and the current administration was in transition. So action to create a prison was stalled and no formal action taken to commit resources to the project was started. During this intervening interval, the caretaker services of Mr. and Mrs. John Pulse were retained. They lived in the old cabin, and not the house [prison-country club], as it was too cold. During this long wait, the Republican Administration prepared to leave Washington, and realization of the repeal was certain. This delay carried on for another two years.

FDR Ushered in and Prison Facility Burns

On March 7, 1933 a fire started in a stove flue in one of the prison wings. Mrs. Pulse called the fire department, but they had no capability to provide water form the city hydrants located some great distance to the south. Chief V. H. Steele sent a chemical fire truck to the site, but was unable to stop the flames from spreading, as the facility was too drafty. Attempts were then made to try and save some of the private furnishings, but only a piano and a bed were salvaged. All the wood, including the roofing, was consumed. Only the charred remains of the block walls remained. Local residents immediately carried all salvageable materials away! To no one’s surprise the Government lost interest in the property and they agreed to the City’s request to salvage the blocks, providing that they level the site. This was done. In the leveling operation, many of the foundation and larger stone blocks were simply buried. These are the ones that have turned up in 2003 when new home sites are being constructed on the site. Some of these blocks are now lining the driveway of a local South Hill resident. A fitting reminder of the prison’s once grandeur!

[1] Gazette, September 1, 1935 Issue

[2] John R. King married Fred Foster’s sister, Clara.

[3] Gazette, October 28, 1894, runoff between Anaconda and Helena for State Capitol

[4] Publised in Billings Gazette, January 19, 1883.

[5] Montana Historical Society, Research Center, Helena, TC Powers Collection – Box 27, Folder 23.

[6] Deed Record Book. K1, Yellowstone County.

[7] Original addition of numers before the blocks were re-identified. (Northeast of North Park)

[8] The pickup point was on the Tucker Homestead [Section 12 Lot #3, Tn 3S, Rn 21E]. After Mr. Tucker (Indian Agent at Absarokee) died, his wife remarried George Watt, and an attempt was made by him in 1886 to close access to the site. Frank O’Donnell assisted ID O’Donnell in opening the gate, and reestablishing friendly relations. [Montana Pioneer Biographies by ID O’Donnell 1928-1929]

[9] Located at 901 N 19th St Postal address.

[10] POLK Directory, 1925.

  Email me:
Katy Hestand
Yellowstone County Coordinator

© 2014 MTGenWeb