There’s a bar in western Montana that hasn’t changed much in the last 120 years. While it sports a television or two, some neon signs, and a jukebox, everything else is pretty much original. It’s as though they just built four walls and a roof around whatever existed there in the first place and called it a drinking establishment.
The place is called the Old Saloon and it’s one of the greatest bars in the American West. It opened in 1902, an excuse to stop roughly halfway between the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park and Livingston. Back then, a rail line ran through it, transporting miners, farmers, and their goods. It was likely a blessing for a lot of people after an exhausting day in the field.
It burned down in its infant years but was quickly rebuilt. The gorgeous bar fixture, which is still there, came by steamboat from St. Louis via the Missouri River. Prohibition shut the place down for a shockingly long spell (1920-1962), but the Old Saloon again rose from the ashes to quench the thirst of the few people who live in and around Emigrant, Montana, and the many more that pass through.
The surroundings are breathtaking. Emigrant Peak looks on to the east, one of many points along a dramatic stretch of the Rockies. The Yellowstone River is just across the street, carving its way through the Paradise Valley, which more than lives up to its name. It’s practically a Bob Ross painting.
It’s set next to the only traffic light within miles, a blinking yellow bulb advising motorists coming in from the feeder roads to yield to north-south highway traffic. There’s a gas station, laundromat, and general store across the street. On the bar’s side, a fly-shop, post office, and church.
Inside, the bar is a mix of old wallpaper and furniture, mounted critter heads, and some friendly faces. The elk meatloaf is fine and so are the drinks but that’s not really of much concern. They’ve added more craft beer and wine options to appease the tourists, but that’s not really the point, either. The charm of the Old Saloon is its very existence. To park yourself in one of its chairs is to travel back to an era when the bar was a gathering place and nothing more — when guests asked the barkeep for a book of matches, not an iPhone charger.
It’s a convincing place, to say the least. So many western bars go over the top with their rugged decor, as if to compensate for something. The Old Saloon boasts the proper amount. In other words, it doesn’t look like the set of some old shoot-em-up film with high noon gunfights. It feels like a place where things like this actually took place. When you pay for your tab, you wince a little, worried that the place might only take precious metal as currency (or, as a last resort, a stint washing dishes).
The bar is home to a special kind of bar fly. There’s not really such a thing as too drunk here. The photos patrons share with each other are not of significant others or recent trips. They’re of black bears found in the backs of trucks or unexpected September snowdrifts—and they’re often real, hold-in-your-hand photographs, not just phone-captured ones.
The roadkill stories told here don’t involve cats or squirrels. They include bison, moose, and grizzly bears, and typically conclude with a totaled car. Better, these stories often unfold next to visitors speaking a different language on their way to the Park or the occasional executive looking for a place he can tell his pals was authentic when he gets back to the office. Some are in from nearby Livingston, looking to escape the big city (population 7,800) for a spell. And everybody gets along.
In that sense, Old Saloon is like a wonderful little train station in the middle of nowhere — one that happens to have a stable to deal with summer crowds. It’s a marvelous outpost nestled in one of the prettiest places on planet Earth. And it’s not trying to stand out. It’s simply fitting in.
Old Saloon, you’re alright by me. May you thrive for centuries to come, reminding us always of the simple pleasures.
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