Not many people can look from their home and point to historic locales along the Yellowstone River. Friends of mine bought a house just above Park City and nestled along the river. Their southern view is dominated by the several-hundred-foot-high rocky outcropping of Young’s Point.
This area historically and geologically marked—coming from the west—the beginning of the broad and fertile valley of the lower Yellowstone River. Here begin the foothills that extend west to the Crazy Mountains, the Beartooth Range and the Yellowstone National Park uplift.
Bureau of Land Management archeologist John Taylor noted in a Billings Gazette article that this is what Capt. William Clark on the Voyage of Discovery referred to as “the Point of the Mountains.” From here east the valley is rich farmland coveted by generations of farmers. It is also the western edge of the land bought by the Minnesota Land Improvement Co. launch the real estate development that became Billings.
This land acquisition (controlled mostly by board members of the Northern Pacific Railway) included 60,000 acres and extended west from the holdings of the more unfortunate speculators of what was the town of Coulson, the little river burg that predated Billings.
Today the empty site of Coulson sits along the river just upstream from the Interstate 90 bridge at Billings and is one of the city’s undeveloped jewels of park land. It sits astride the Jim Dutcher bike and pedestrian path, and it is adjacent to the old Corette Power Generating Plant, a piece of land that would be an incredible asset to the city’s trail and parks system.
From the top of Young’s Point, at 4,081 feet, one can look northeast along the frontage road to where Alonzo Young opened his trade store, small boat landing and post office. In 1879 it was known as Young’s Point Hotel and Stage Stop, and it was on the route of the Pony Express. It was to here that word was first brought west of the demise of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s command at the Little Big Horn.
Just west of Young’s Point is a smaller sandstone promontory and then the long, vertical cliff roughly paralleling the interstate highway. These are known locally as Kober Point and Tilden Point. Many people mistakenly think the east end of Tilden Point is Young’s Point. From the top of Tilden Point, the almost vertical drop of over 450 feet to the waters of the Yellowstone is awesome.
The flat valley land that starts here is where Capt. Clark’s scouts returning downriver first found trees big enough to build canoes. Clark needed the latter to carry an injured man—and the rest of his small party and its supplies—downstream to his rendezvous with Meriwether Lewis. He wrote in his journal on July 19, 1806, “Those trees appeared tolerably sound and will make canoes of 28 feet in length and about 16 or 18 inches deep and from 16 to 24 inches wide. The men with the three axes set in and worked until dark.”
The next morning, half his horses were stolen, but that is another story in the rich tapestry of such tales along the Yellowstone. Tia Kober and Alfreda Idleman, who have lived all their lives just west of my friends, remember a large cottonwood in their yard: it measured 36 feet in circumference. An existing cottonwood located near the original stage station is at least as big. Clark camped here for about five days.
In the 1890s the first section house in the area for the newly constructed line of the Northern Pacific Railway was built nearby; the remains are now piled up, awaiting burning on the edge of a local property owner’s land. To the north of the railroad tracks, Tom Snidow raised horses for the U.S. Cavalry during the World War I. In October 1908 the second-worst rail disaster in Montana’s history occurred at Wimsett Point just to the west. In a blinding snowstorm, the Northern Pacific Flyer from Helena plowed head-on into a slow-moving freight train that was supposed to be on the Park City siding; the telescoped wreckage killed 20 people. Most of the bodies were so badly mangled that personal effects had to be used for identification. A freight train derailed under the silent sandstone peaks in 1959; no one was hurt that time.
Clarence Tilden built the two-story frame house in the 1880s in which Tia and Alfreda currently live, and it is for him the long, vertical cliff immediately south across the river is named. A rosebush, brought by covered wagon, still blooms in the sisters’ yard. Clarence is the one who went to the college at Bozeman and carried back the first sugar beet seeds, the start of this important industry in the broad Yellowstone Valley.
The 1937 flood that watered downtown Billings also flooded the area below Young’s Point. Hailstones, part of the cloudburst that caused the flooding, scoured the hillsides to the north of pine needles. Three months after the storm young Tia and Freda dug out hailstones—well insulated in pine needles and jammed under the concrete bridge on the frontage road—and made ice cream.
This is just a small part of the history of this Yellowstone River area, what we latecomers can obtain or remember. In addition to the footprints of Clark and his men, countless anonymous others—nomads, warriors, explorers, soldiers, trappers, women and children passed through this area. It is like a horn of plenty, funneling history through here where the flat land narrows along the river.