As the first motorists climb their way to the 10,947-foot summit of the Beartooth Highway when it opens at 8 a.m. on May 27, they likely won’t see free booze or a circus elephant.
But for 40 years, Red Lodge boosters put on a party like no other on the west summit of the pass. They called it the Top of the World Bar.
The free booze, donated by Red Lodge bars, was served from a bar carved into a snowbank. Over the years, the entertainment at the bar escalated with an elephant making an appearance in the mid-1980s, can-can dancers kicking their legs in the middle of the road, and Red Lodge resident Ernie Strum riding his white horse around the plateau near the state line between Montana and Wyoming.
Red Lodge still celebrates the opening of the Beartooth Highway, which is usually the Friday before Memorial Weekend, because it means businesses can finally turn a profit. But the Top of the World Bar hasn't served a cold beer since the mid-1980s.
Red Lodge will throw a free party to celebrate the opening of the All American Road on Saturday, May 28, with live music and complimentary snacks from noon to 2 p.m. in the parking lot of the Beartooth Ranger District about a mile south of Red Lodge on Highway 212.
“It’s just an electric atmosphere here; you can just feel it,” said Laurel Larson, marketing director of the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve already had quite a few visitors in town and phone calls, asking when the pass will open.”
Much has been made of CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt’s famous line about the Beartooth Highway being “the most beautiful drive in America.” But it is also one of the most hair-raising passes in the country with an elevation gain of 5,200 feet as the road winds its way 68 miles from Red Lodge to Cooke City. Many of the curves and switchbacks have colorful names, including the Mae West curve.
One of the snowbanks on the west summit is still known to Red Lodge old-timers as the "bar drift" because that was a prime location for the snow bar, said Red Lodge photographer Merv Coleman.
Red Lodge business owners initially came up with the idea to open the snow bar back in 1948, just 12 years after the highway opened in 1936.
The day was always kept secret around Red Lodge because it was supposed to be reserved for the tourists, said Glory Mahan, of Red Lodge.
“If somebody found out it was a great coup for them to get up there first,” Mahan said.
The look of shock on the motorists' faces when they came around a turn and found a party brewing in the middle of nowhere was priceless, Coleman said.
“One year we had the Grizzly Peak Peek-a-Boos, some can-can dancers. I can still remember this guy pedaling his bicycle up the switchbacks and he came around that corner and here were these beautiful women dancing in the road,” Coleman said.
Mahan remembers the year an older gentlemen in a fedora brought his family to the bar.
“It was on his bucket list to see the highway because he had worked on it in the 1930s. He and his family stopped in Cooke City and they told him about the bar. He was so happy to be there, he was crying.”
Then there were the two years the Red Lodge See 'Em Alive Zoo rented an elephant for the summer and trucked him up to the bar.
“People got out of their cars and saw the pink elephant and thought they’d already been drinking,” Coleman said.
During the 1970s when the Festival of Nations was going strong in Red Lodge, the organizers would ask people with roots in specific countries to place their country’s flag in the snow.
“It was an emotional experience for people,” Coleman said.
In the mid-1980s, it was decided that it was too risky to serve free alcohol to motorists so the organizers started serving orange juice and coffee instead.
“The enthusiasm for it waned quite a bit,” Mahan said.
'Do you do this every day?'
No one remembers an accident or injury at the bar, and even a former Red Lodge police chief would come serve alcohol.
“People just loved it. They would park their cars and come up to the bar just wide-eyed, ‘Do you do this every day?’ they’d ask. There must be a million pictures from people all over the world of the bar,” Mahan said.
The original idea for the highway was suggested by Red Lodge-area physician Dr. J.C.F. Siegfriedt, who wanted to create a tourist attraction to bring prosperity back to Red Lodge after the closure of the coal mines. In 1931, Siegfriedt’s idea came to fruition when Congress passed the Park Approach Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to approve the construction of national approach highways. Construction of the highway took five years and cost $2.5 million.
Tom Kuntz, owner of the Carbon County Steakhouse and the Red Lodge Pizza Co., said the highway is still critical to Red Lodge because it connects the mountain town with Yellowstone National Park.
“We take in about 50 percent of our entire annual income in the three summer months,” Kuntz said. “Without that surge in the summer business, our downtown community would not look like it does. We make money in the summer and we pretty much don’t the rest of the year.”
Part of the fun of getting on top of the Beartooth Highway on opening weekend is to ski or watch the skiers, said Marci Dye, owner of Sylvan Peak Mountain Shop in Red Lodge.
“We are outdoor oriented and when the highway opens, the ski season opens again. They are not opening the Beartooth Basin (ski area) this year because there isn’t enough snow, but there will be people skiing opening weekend.”