The legacy of the young woman who designed Pioneer Park lives on in “calm and charm.”


Happy birthday, Dorothy Gray

Dorothy Gray, the designer of Billings’ Pioneer Park, was born 126 years ago on this day and lived only 40 years. The 35 hectares that have made it famous across the city were born from an inland sea 65 million years ago. In the early 1900s, this tract was a patch of ranch land until Gray was commissioned by the city to convert it from feeding cattle to providing spirit care for the rapidly expanding city’s residents.

Gray was just 25 years old when, in 1921, she was hired by the city parks board to write a plan to convert the rangeland into a city park. The men on the board might have complimented themselves on their progressiveness by awarding a young woman a major project. Many in the US still clung to the belief that women belong in the home. But it would have been a dereliction of duty if the board hadn’t picked Grey. She was the obvious choice.

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Pioneer Park, ca. 1940

Historical aerial photographs of Billings.

Western Heritage Center

Gray showed her talent for landscape design in high school. By the spring of 1914, Gray’s senior year, the city had completed construction of its new high school, the current Lincoln Center in downtown Billings at Fourth Avenue and 30th Street. School officials invited students to enter a competition to propose plans to beautify the site. Gray took first place.

The next fall, Gray enrolled in a landscape architecture program at Cornell University in New York. Cornell boasts that its landscape architecture program has been one of the most respected in the country from the start. Gray earned her bachelor’s degree there in three and a half years. During her time at Cornell, she was the only student from Montana. When she returned to Billings, she opened a successful landscaping business and counted many of the town’s upper class among her clients. Gray’s qualifications made her a rarity in Montana.

Pioneer Park, as Gray designed it, was largely based on a hybrid of two urban park models—the 19th-century “pleasure base” model and the early 20th-century “reform” model. The former emphasized creating beautiful scenery for passive enjoyment. The latter placed great emphasis on providing places for organized recreation, on the theory that with social reforms like the eight-hour day people might have too much free time and too little to do (referring to the old fear of idle hands ).

Hammock in the sun at Pioneer Park

A person relaxes in their hammock on a hilltop in Pioneer Park as children play in the playground below in March 2021.

RYAN BERRY, Billings Gazette

Gray’s plan included healthy options to ward off the temptations of idleness. She preferred to keep some recently built facilities such as a paddling pool and tennis courts which have been updated and expanded over the years. Their plan also called for an open-air theater and picnic areas with shelters and grills. Although it is not clear if this was Gray’s idea, a toboggan slide was built on the northeast edge of the park in the early 1920s. It only lasted until 1929. The city tore it down and used some of the wood to build a footbridge over the creek in the park. Except for the toboggan run, the leisure facilities were located in the flatter, southern half of the park.

The northern half of the park, with its meandering creek lined with poplars and willows and gentle slopes dotted with a variety of evergreen and hardwoods, conforms to the amusement park model. (It’s also proven to be a great spot for a disc golf course.)

The scene isn’t natural—it was composed—but like a good work of art, it commands attention. As you pause on Parkhill Drive today when no one is around and fall into a daydream as you gaze out at the trees and rolling hills, you can thank Dorothy Gray for transporting you.

Shakespeare in the Park

A crowd gathers to watch actors perform a scene from Henry IV Part 1 during Shakespeare in the Park at Pioneer Park in 2019.

invoice sheet

She knew how to instill a sense of calm. In the 1914 Billings High School yearbook, next to Gray’s graduation photo is the quote: “In her quietness there is a charm.” The quote probably said more about the prejudice against troubled women than about Gray’s character. But related to their park it fits.