Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Colonel Henry Ward Rowley


Friday, July 30, 2004


Henry Ward Rowley was born 1 October 1858 in Newport, Oneida County, NY, son of Nelson Burr Rowley (NY) and Abigail Coffin (NY). He lived there until age nine, when his parents moved to Minnesota and settled into the Farmington area, near St. Paul. There he attended the public schools, and later attended and graduated with an engineering degree from the Minnesota University. At age 22, in 1879, he was employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad to assist in the construction of line passing through the Dakota Territory. He quickly rose to the position of Chief Engineer and for two years successfully managed the construction of the line. Seeing an opportunity for great personal achievement, he left the railroad in the spring of 1882 to become an engineer for the newly formed Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company, which established the townsite of Billings while controlling nearly all the land in the valley west of Billings. He had a remarkably successful life while still less than 30 years of age. He was a civic leader, owner of important real estate, and engineer of some of the most extensive irrigation projects in the area, a banker, city official, school trustee, sportsman and social leader. He possessed a strong personality, gracious and aristocratic bearing, and when he stepped off in Billings he immediately became one of its leading citizens. This was not by accident or happen chance, but by well managed design.

In 1876 the general land surveys for the local region had finally reached Clark’s Fork Valley (Yellowstone County area), and a plat map for future homesteaders was created. This was made available to the settlers by April 1877 [March?][1]. When the Indian wars were essentially concluded in 1878, the Northern Pacific Railroad started to lay track after a few years delay. The railroad was placed under closely guarded financial controls, and construction cost was limited to $25,000 per mile. At that time, when Rowley was in charge, the planned route was clearly established and shown to be from Bismarck essentially due west to the Yellowstone River, crossing the river near Miles City, and following the river on the north side into the west leading towards Fort Benton. Rowley started to examine the route again, or else it was pointed out to him, that it might be better if they stayed on the east side of the river, and crossed in the Clark’s Fork valley area, just north of the rim bluffs bordering both sides of the river. The roadbed appeared to be equally flat from previous detailed surveys, but in doing so he realized that it would give him an opportunity to establish a town and freighting center of significant size at the river where there were two adjoining odd-numbered sections of land that centered about the recently completed Montana Prime Survey Meridian. What happened next is partially conjectured, but mostly fact. Henry examined the land soon after joining the railroad, finding that he could indeed place a town there. This would be a major undertaking, and it would be necessary to keep the concept and location secret until he was ready to make the announcement. He presented his plan to the railroad’s financial eastern bankers, and it was probably the best news they had received ever since construction began. It looked like a sure winner. To make this work three things would be required: 1) The land plat or its counterpart would be created in secrecy at Miles City, and presented to the banks soon as possible, probably in late 1880, and they would remain silent about the transaction. 2) A director would be needed to manage the creation of the town, sell lots, advertise and otherwise manage the whole activity. For this, Rowley would step down as Chief Engineer and take over the operation at the appropriate time. Thus was formed the Minnesota and Montana Land and Development Company, established in Minnesota.  3) Financial backing for the town creation would be needed, and additional land had to be acquired in secrecy so that its ultimate purpose of providing potential financial growth to his companions would go undetected. To accomplish this Rowley apparently solicited Frederick Billings as the major financial backer, Austin North and Fred H. Foster to acquire additional land to be made available for town expansion. Fred Foster, being young and without resources, solicited his parents, Robert & Lucinda (creators of Foster’s Addition) to bankroll the activity. Their trade of real estate and transfer of property rights were uniquely accomplished before the town was announced. [Special files are available for interested persons]. See YGF Webmaster. There are no written documents describing the actual insider’s activity effort, but the facts disclosed in property title transfers of North and Foster confirm the action. The land acquisitions simply could not have been a random chance of good luck. When the Billings’ land area officially went on sale, many persons who were first in line expecting to receive choice lots felt cheated when they discovered that these were already sold to eastern investors and others. Before 1881 had ended, many of the town’s lots were already sold or committed, and the residents of Coulson who were hoping to make an investment harvest were never really in the financial loop, and that town subsequently vanished. The first land plat for the city was created in Miles City and publicly filed in Minnesota. Frederick Billings graciously offered to accept the naming of the town after him.  Austin and Robert helped secure the open land to the west before the general public was made aware of the town’s identity and the revised route of the rail track. [Details of some transactions are noted in the Foster and North bios files.]

On May 8, 1883 he married his schoolmate, Harriet Maria Meeker, in Billings. Harriet’s parents were: Lewis Meeker (NY), and Marion Welsh (NY). Harriet was born September 26, 1860 in Fort Ann, NY, and died in Billings June 26, 1943. One of the major undertakings was to construct sufficient water supply to the town and local area. This was known as the Big Ditch. In 1885 he organized the Billings Water Power Company, and conducted the initial work to construct the improved water works and electric plant centered in the former town of Coulson. He was the electric plant manager until it’s sale in 1908. In 1915 the waterworks were sold to the city. To start the electric system he initially procured a large crane with a shovel and dug a canal leading from the Yellowstone River northward for about two miles to the plant’s location on Perry McAdow’s land (Josephine Park area). The canal’s headrace was 70 feet wide and 15 feet deep (depicted on the 1903 Billings’ City map). At the end of the race way he had a pond, and placed a large float about 30 feet square onto it, and placed a coal-fired steam engine there to run a dynamo turbine to produce electricity. Soon afterwards he merged his interests with AL Babcock and Herman Mund and constructed a brick pump house on the site. In this new housing structure he placed the equipment needed to produce both water and electricity for the city. All trenches for the various ditches had to be dug by hand[2].


 He was also a promoter and organizer of the Billings Land and Irrigation Company. He held interests in the Northern Hotel, Mercantile National Bank, and others in both Montana and Seattle. He held large parcels of land within the area, and was associated with the development of the Sugar Factory, Chamber of Commerce, the Street Car Company, Civic Club, and Country Club. He was a major influence in getting important civic projects accomplished.



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[1] Perry McAdow filed on March 8, 1877.

[2] Along the Zimmerman Trail, 1977 by Charles Zimmerman