The History of Billings Senior High
Text by Kathleen Olson and Kara Sumner, Class of 1989
The Excellence Began with Mr. Gallagher
M. C. (Mike) Gallagher, Superintendent of Schools from 1937 to 1965, established the superior quality of education that still exists at Billings Senior High School. Mr. Gallagher came to Montana in a boxcar in 1912. He graduated from high school in Stevensville and attended Montana State University at Missoula. He did post-graduate work at the Universities of Iowa, Minnesota, and Columbia.
His career in the school district began in 1921 at the Billings High School on Fourth Avenue North, now known as the Lincoln Center, where he taught arithmetic and psychology. In 1927 he became the youngest principal the school district has had. His accomplishments and contributions to the school district are innumerable; but, perhaps most significantly, Mr. Gallagher is greatly responsible for the creation and establishment of Billings Senior High. His hard work and motivation has given Billings a place that has housed and affected the lives of more than 20,000 students. Mr. Gallagher still resides in Billings and has recently retired from his position of helping in teacher training at Rocky Mountain College.
High School Before Senior High
Students were enrolled in 1895 in Billings' first high school, a 12-room school on a plot of land between 29th and 30th Streets and Fourth and Fifth Avenue North. The building, named Lincoln School, was constructed with an $8,000 bond issue, a $4,000 donation from Fredrick Billings and a contribution of 29 lots by the firm of Kurtz and Foster.
J. W. Johnson was the principal of the new school, and on May 27, 1895, five girls were the first high school graduates in Billings: M. Maude Boyle, Claire F. Sweetman, Marion Goss, Martha Hoe, and Sophia G. Hoe. The first commencement ceremony cost the school district $6.90: In 1989 the cost of commencement was nearly $4,000.
With the Lincoln School outgrown, the Jefferson School was opened in 1900. It housed the upper grades and high school. The high school received its four-year accreditation in February, 1901. At that time 30 Carnegie credits were required by the state to graduate. Beginning with the class of 1989, students are required to have 20 credits. The Lincoln School was used partially as an administration building after Jefferson School opened. A small industrial arts building, built behind Jefferson School in 1906, was used for manual training and industrial arts.
The number of graduates jumped from 16 in 1911 to 24 in 1912, resulting in the school board's vote to build a new high school. Billings High School opened on the same plot of land as the Lincoln and Jefferson Schools in 1913. The number of graduates continued to increase to 72 by 1915. At this point Lincoln was used entirely for administration; and Jefferson became a junior high. The yearly cost to educate a pupil in 1928-29 was $106.57. The cost in 1989 was $4,100 per student at Senior High, the lowest of any AA school in Montana.
Lincoln School and the manual training and industrial arts building were torn down in 1935 to make way for a $4,000 addition, including an auditorium, to connect the high school and junior high. The new structure, covering most of the block, was called Billings High School. The stage of the new auditorium lies on top of what used to be the manual training and industrial arts building. A slab of stone reading "Lincoln High School" was cemented into the third floor exterior of the addition. A 1935 article in the Billings Gazette says architect Chandler C. Cohagen declared that the name Lincoln had been placed on the structure because it stands on the site of the original Lincoln School. Cohagen added that "if Billings ever gets another high school the present building can be referred to as Lincoln to save residents the trouble of referring to the buildings as the new and old high schools."
After the present Billings Senior High School was established, the old Billings High School became Lincoln Junior High School. Currently the building is called the Lincoln Center and is used for administration and adult education, coming full circle from 1915.
Billings Builds a 'million dollar school'
To move from a boxcar to the superintendent's office took M. C. Gallagher only 25 years. In 1912 the railroads were promoting homesteading, and families were immigrating to Montana, one member at a time.
"I left Wahpeton, North Dakota, at noon of Christmas Eve in 1912 with household goods and a cow," Mr. Gallagher said. "It took six days and six nights to get to the freight yard in Missoula, Montana."
Mr. Gallagher assumed superintendent of School District 2 in 1937. He was informed by the school board, whose chairman was Harold Frazer, that his first assignment was "to organize a drive to build a new high school." Although it was a large task for a new superintendent, Mr. Gallagher was not surprised at their request.
"It (a new high school) was long overdue. The trustees and the community knew that a drive (for money) must be initiated," Mr. Gallagher said.
An election was held in the spring of 1939, and on the basis of its success, the school board applied for supplemental money. The Public Works Administration provided funds for the school.
"Federal and local money totaled approximately $1.3 million dollars, which included the layout to build North Park School," Mr. Gallagher said.
Although it was called "the million dollar school," Senior required just less than a million. Architecture and planning began as soon as the bond issue passed.
Finding a site for the building was the "final go around, " Mr. Gallagher said. "Paul North acted as my underground agent in hunting for a site." His idea of the ideal lot of land would be one with minimal housing to condemn and with no streets running through it; however, such a description was impossible to fulfill in the downtown area.
After Mr. Gallagher spent "more than just a few hours pacing the streets in the 400 and 500 blocks of Grand Avenue, "the sight at Grand Avenue and Virginia Lane was selected. The school board received much criticism for building a school "way out in the country."
Completed in 1940, the school was built in a conservative modern style, steering away from the traditional ornamental decorations of the 1930's. It contained 24 classrooms, four science, two craft, three commercial, two music, one public speaking room, a cafeteria, and administrative offices. The auditorium has seating for 834 people, causing some to criticize that it was too small. The gym had seats for 2,000 and a 50 x 84 foot basketball court.
To handle the increasing number of students, an annex was built, separate from the school, in 1953. It added eight social studies rooms.
By 1967 the number of students had increased almost 1,800, and the annex could no longer handle the enrollment. The annex was torn down to make way for a larger addition.
Construction of the new addition began in 1967. The addition included a new library, a counseling center, and the north third of the new gym. The addition was built three floors high, but the third floor was unused for a few years.
An addition to the gym, that was constructed in 1967, was completed in 1973, and a ceremony was held to celebrate the placing of the cornerstone. Present at the ceremony were a few students and dignitaries, Mr. R. A. Collins, principal; and George Selover, chairman of the Board of Trustees.
The idea for the ceremony came from Yellowstone Key Club advised by Mr. Dewey Hansen. The club had a copper box made by one of the shop classes, and filled it with various school and community paraphernalia, some of which included a BSH handbook, the BSH crest, a football roster, a Class of '74 roster, a Billings Gazette, a 1973 United Way brochure, a telephone book, an issue of Newsweek, and an issue of Time magazine. Throughout the years the Billings Senior High building has changed several times, but the high quality of education has remained the same for 50 years, making Senior High the oldest and one of the finest schools in the state.
Reprinted from "Through These Doors, 50 Years of Excellence"
Published by the Journalism Classes of Billings Senior High School
425 Grand Avenue
Copyright © 1989 by Billings Senior High School