Yellowstone Kelly ceremony goes on despite weather: ‘A simple place, but it’s hallowed ground’

December 14, 2016

Owing to frosty temperatures and the snow cover, the Billings Chamber had to use potting soil for a groundbreaking ceremony at the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site at Swords Rimrock Park on Wednesday morning.

But dignitaries did indeed turn dirt with golden shovels, and officials said they expect the site to be complete and open to the public by June 2017.

Chamber Board Chairman Bill Cole, who also leads the committee that’s been working on developing the $450,000 site for nearly four years, said Wednesday’s ceremony was held just before the 88th anniversary of Kelly’s death, on Dec. 17, 1928. Although he died in California, Kelly wanted to be buried in Montana.

Kelly’s death was on the front page in the next day’s Billings Gazette, and an account of his burial was on Page 3 three days later.

At the time of his death, the Billings Chamber of Commerce promised Kelly’s widow, May, a gravesite that would befit Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly, a celebrated guide, soldier, explorer and friend of U.S. presidents.

But Kelly’s resting place, which overlooks the city, has been vandalized and long neglected. Wednesday’s groundbreaking was an opportunity to once again thank major donors, including Phillips 66 and Singh Contracting, as well as look forward to what the site will become in the next six months.

Along with signs to tell Kelly’s story, the site will be a garden-like setting, said Dave Groshens, a senior landscape architect with Sanderson Stewart, which designed the project. Hardy Construction Company will begin building it this spring.

The idea for the site, Groshens said during Wednesday’s ceremony, is to use simple natural elements — earth, stone, wood and metal — to “interpret a great tale, the life of Yellowstone Kelly.”

“It’s a simple place,” Groshens said, “but it’s hallowed ground.”

Cole said that about $50,000 still needs to be raised to complete the project. About half of that is needed to pave a parking area, with the rest going to connect the site with Chief Black Otter Trail.

Billings TrailNet is working on raising money for the trail construction, Cole said.

The interpretive site will explain the three major stages of Kelly’s life — as a warrior, a veteran and a scout. According to the project’s website, www.yellowstonekelly.org, each of the three areas “will serve as outdoor ‘rooms’ situated between berms that define the space while discouraging vehicular access across the site.”

Rock cliffs, “reminiscent of the rimrock cliffs they sit upon,” will define each area’s perimeter.

Metal wind pipes will be installed in the space surrounding Kelly’s gravesite.

“We promised to build a monument to Kelly 88 years ago,” Cole said, “and we finally are following through on our promise.”