BILLINGS - There are a lot of old buildings in Billings that have managed to escape the wrecking ball of progress, and good for us because it helps maintain a portal to our past.
Recently Billings’s historian Kevin Kooistra told me about one of those old buildings. In fact he said he believes it may well be the Magic City's most significant building. Since Kevin definitely knows his stuff, I had to go check it out.
Some say it's the most haunted building in all of Montana. Shhh, did you hear that? If there were ghosts and ghouls hanging out, this would probably be where they'd want to be. I mean, any self-respecting ghost would certainly want to call an old castle its home, right?
Which makes me wonder, what in the world is a castle doing in the heart of downtown Billings? For the answer, we'll have to take a little trip back in time to 1888, the dusty, dirt roads of the Magic City. That's when one man fell ill while on a trip east to visit his family, and died at the age of 25. His grief stricken father died just a few months later. Surviving family members became determined to create a memorial. And, in 1901, with a donation of $22,000 the castle was built. The castle we know as the Parmly Billings Library. You see, the young man who died was Parmly Billings, who just happens to be the founder of Yellowstone National Bank. His father is Frederick Billings, the former president of Northern Pacific railroad and for whom the city is named.
Billings historian Kevin Kooistra says he thinks the library is the most interesting and significant building in Billings.
"Everyone who comes to this building sees that castle like edifice, the front of it strikes people. A lot of people don't know what this building is, initially. Some people have heard it's an old prison. Of course you just look at it and it says haunted on it. And you know they built the building with a grand look, a grand face on it way back in 1901 because they wanted to say, "This is a significant building in Billings history, we're going to have a public library that people are going to be proud of." Kooistra says the library laid down a major marker that little Billings, built on the back of the railroad was here to stay and helped set the stage for enormous future growth. By the 1930's, there was already discussion about building a new library. The town was growing fast.
But it wasn't until the 1960's the books of Parmly Billings were moved to a new location. And, afterward the library was abandoned. Kevin Kooistra says it appears the building has become quite haunted.
"Staff members on many occasions have reported seeing figures in the hallways or hearing noise and coming out and seeing someone there. Downstairs in our dude ranch lobby area there's been at least a dozen sightings of this older gentleman in one of the chairs downstairs and it's independent, several people have reported seeing this. So, we have a lot of people coming to ghost hunt. The story is we're the most haunted building in the state of Montana."
Ghosts or no ghosts, it was the work of flesh and blood that breathed new life into the library in 1971. That's when the Western Heritage Center moved in to the historic building. And given our beginnings as a railroad town, its location couldn't be more appropriate, just feet from Billings' downtown railroad tracks. Hmmm, maybe that's how all the ghosts are getting here!