Piece by piece, beautiful river park is coming together

A park along Five Mile Creek northeast of Billings might not be open to the public for a few more years, but striking progress has been made since work began there four years ago.

Most striking of all is a 210-foot-long suspension bridge over a coulee near the top of the park, just east of where Mary Street turns into Five Mile Road southwest of Pioneer School.

The bridge is being built for the Yellowstone River Parks Association by Blake and Bob Mackin, the father-and-son team that operates Mackin Bridge Construction. It will be named the Harry L. Willett Bridge, in honor of oilman and philanthropist Harry Willett. He was also the uncle of longtime YRPA member Ryan Willett.

Elsewhere in the 68-acre parcel of river bottomland, the Mackins have built two fixed bridges and a shorter suspension bridge, all of them spanning Five Mile Creek just above its confluence with the Yellowstone River.

Meanwhile, YRPA volunteer Bruce Larsen recently finished work on a culvert that bridges a low section of one of the many trails he has been building throughout the park. The culvert was made with broken chunks of recycled concrete and is as much a work of art as a functional piece of infrastructure.

Asked how much research he did before starting in on the project, Larsen laughed and said, “Are you kidding? I don’t study up on anything. I just jump right in.”

He gives a similarly irreverent answer when asked when the park might be opened to the public.

“A couple years,” he said, and then adds, “We say ‘next year’ every year.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Larsen and his dog, Ruki, in front of the ornamental culvert Larsen recently built in the park.

That’s actually a good answer, because the river-bottom park is just a piece of a much larger project that is all about patience and long-term planning. The bigger project is the creation of the John H. Dover Memorial Park, a 300-acre area that will feature bike and pedestrian trails, picnic areas, fishing piers, a wetlands and possibly a disc golf course and soccer fields.

There are also plans to create an 85-acre lake. By comparison, Lake Elmo in the Heights encompasses 65 acres. And the lake at Dover Park would be 30 feet deep, meaning there would be fish in it year-round.

“It’s astounding,” Larsen said of the park. “And I think Billings is ready for it.”

The whole thing was conceived by Jim Sindelar as a way of honoring his pioneer grandfather, John H. Dover. Starting almost 20 years ago, Sindelar began turning over title to various parcels of his farm land to the YRPA, a nonprofit organization whose main purpose is building trails along the Yellowstone River.

Some of the land was part of the original Dover farm, but Sindelar bought much of it decades ago, both on the bench above his grandfather’s riverfront farm and along Five Mile Creek, all in hopes of preserving it from development.

Much of the property, more than 200 acres, is under lease to the Knife River Corp., which mines gravel there. Development on the main part of the Dover Park, including the lake, won’t begin for years, until gravel-mining operations come to an end.

Another contribution from Sindelar was his decision to have Knife River deposit a portion of its lease payments into an account that has been used by the YRPA to start development along the Five Mile Creek property.

Larsen and other volunteers have constructed multiple trails, some of mown grass and some of crushed limestone, throughout the bottomland. Larsen plans to put a layer of crushed limestone over the culvert, and he might try to grow moss on the concrete, to make it blend in with the landscape. He has been told you could get moss to grow if you first sprayed the culvert with either buttermilk or beer.

He’s leaning toward buttermilk. “I don’t know if I could waste the beer,” he said.

In addition to the trails and bridges, volunteers have also planted more than 100 trees donated by the Gainan’s store in the Heights. The trees were donated after they were damaged by hailstorms this summer, but most of them have survived transplanting near Five Mile Creek. The total value of the donation came to about $55,000, Larsen said.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Trails wind through Five Mile Creek bottomland just above its confluence with the Yellowstone River.

Volunteers planted 80 aspen and maple trees and 40 fruit trees, as well as lot of sage and 30 grape vines. Volunteer Alan Parker painstakingly directed water from an irrigation ditch into mini-channels that water all of the trees and plants. Irrigation water is also being used to bring life back to some towering cottonwoods that had been without water so long they looked dead.

Sindelar has had health problems and has been living in a nursing home. It had been a couple of years since he’d seen the old home place when, last Friday, the YRPA arranged to give him a tour of the Five Mile Creek area.

Sindelar, 82, is unable to walk, so Larsen, driving a Lincoln Navigator donated for the day by Bob Smith Motors, took him for a driving tour of the area. They were joined by Sindelar’s wife, Virginia, and two daughters.

One of his daughters, Donnette Roberts, said her father doesn’t talk much, but he kept saying how much he liked the bridges and how much he appreciated the views of the river and the fall-tinted trees.

“It was so cool that YRPA was able to do that for my dad,” she said.

For her part, Roberts was impressed with Larsen’s recently completed culvert. “Oh, my gosh, that is fantastic,” she said. “That guy is just obsessed with Dover Park.”

For now, the Five Mile Creek area of the park is posted no trespassing, and the gate to what will be the parking area is locked. Larsen said the area will be opened to the public when it is considered safe and enough trails are completed.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Jim Sindelar created this sandstone monument to his late sister, Lois. The Billings bypass would cross the river near the bluff at left.

It’s harder to say when work will begin on the larger park because it’s unclear how long gravel-mining operations will continue there. But a master plan, drawn up by Stacey Robinson with Land Design Inc., has been done for years and will guide development.

Also unknown is exactly how plans for the so-called Billings bypass will affect the park. The Montana Department of Transportation has been planning the project for years, and in August published a “record of decision” on the project, clearing the way for right-of-way acquisition and final design.

The bypass would provide a link across the Yellowstone River between Interstate 90 and Old Highway 312 in the Heights. The 5-mile-long connector would run near Johnson Lane in Lockwood, cross the Yellowstone virtually in the middle of Dover Park and continue down Mary Street to Highway 312.

The span would be the first new bridge crossing of the Yellowstone River since 1978, when the interstate was being constructed. Larsen said the YRPA has been working with the Billings office of the Department of Transportation, looking for ways to lessen the project’s impact on Dover Park.

He said the YRPA’s main suggestion was to build the bridge roadway below grade. If you can get wheels and axles below grade, Larsen, said, you can cut vehicle noise in half. He said the MDT has also agreed to accommodate any park trails and bridges in its design of the bypass.



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