The measure of a Colorado ski mountain is the frequency and quality of its powder. Some might argue the measure of a ski town is the authenticity of its saloons.
Beer is beer, nachos are nachos, and rock 'n' roll is rock 'n' roll. But at the end of the day, if a ski bum doesn't have a genuine hangout in which to swap tall tales, what's the point?
A ski town bar doesn't measure up if it's too new and too nice and the memorabilia hanging on the walls isn't attached to verifiable legends.
The collection that graces the walls of the Tugboat Grill & Pub, however, is worthy of a museum. From the all-seeing moose over the bar to the pictures of Doak Walker to the many skiers (some famous, some infamous), it's all authentic. There's even the tailhook from a Navy fighter jet.
"Dean Vogelaar came into the Tugboat when he was new to town and asked me if I could tell any stories about the pictures hanging on the walls," Larry Lamb said.
Lamb, the proprietor of the Tugboat, took his customer's question as a challenge.
"I took him on a tour, and about halfway through he said, 'You really do have stories about this stuff!'"
Vogelaar, a former executive with the Kansas City Royals, became determined to land his own piece of memorabilia on the wall. A baseball bat signed by legendary multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson did the trick.
For 35 years, the Tugger has been the authentic bar in Ski Town USA, transcending draft beer, cheeseburgers and disco. And just as Steamboat's mountain base is undergoing a transformation, the Tugboat's long-term survival is uncertain. The joint where Tanya Tucker danced on the bar and the saloon where Doak Walker rode his horse through the front door is now a Steamboat landmark boogying toward the unknown.
Tugboat owners Lamb and Hank Edwards have every intention of carrying on, but when developers come to tear down Ski Time Square next summer, it could be last call for the Tugboat as you know and love it. The truth is, they say, they don't know what to expect when the old commercial strip is redeveloped.
Edwards says he and Lamb feel dated every time a former bartender, cook or cocktail server shows up in the saloon with a 21-year-old son or daughter in tow, ready to celebrate a rite of passage.
"That helps Larry and I appreciate how old we are," Edwards said. "We're proud of the fact that we're constantly hearing from old employees like Spanish (Susan English) and Big Kid (Mike Soergel)."
The Tugboat has become virtually synonymous with Ski Town USA. It's so well known across the country that imprecisely addressed mail arrives at the bar, like the letter from Indonesia that was simply addressed: Tugboat, USA.
The old days
The Tugboat opened on New Year's Eve 1972 at a time when the long-gone Cave Inn was the dominant nightspot for the nascent ski crowd in Steamboat. Edwards and Lamb weren't officially in the picture. The founding owners were Carl Schuck, Carl Farnham, Bill Gardner and the late Tex McGill.
Lamb started working at the bar not long after, in 1973.
"This was a much, much smaller place than it is now," Lamb said. "We had a dirt road running in front of the place."
Musician L.D. Shoffner didn't recall the unpaved road as well as he recalled the snow-covered road.
"As long as there was snow on it, you could ski off the mountain and right up to the Tugboat," Shoffner recalled.
Longtime general manager Jack Doyle agreed.
"You used to be able to lean on this bar and look out those windows to a view all the way down the valley," he said. That was before the Torian Plum condominiums signaled a new era in Ski Time Square in the 1980s.
Lamb and Scotty Forbes bought out the two Carls in 1975, and in 1977, Edwards, a Steamboat Ski School supervisor, bought out the remaining partners.
Edwards and Lamb would establish themselves as restaurateurs with big hearts. For many years, they hosted an annual muscular dystrophy benefit as well as the annual Tugboat River Race, which raised funds for a variety of local charities.
The saloon is more than a bar. It's a place to go for a Cajun Swiss burger, a blackened catfish sandwich or a Tugboat burrito.
The Alpine skiing gods and goddesses from ski school and ski patrol provided a natural clientele for the Tugboat, and even proved to be a draw for more customers.
"We had right at about 25 of them here every night right up to closing time," Lamb said. "It was a little hole in the wall that opened at 3 p.m. and closed when the ski patrol left."
All ski vacationers gravitate to where the locals hang out, and the Tugboat became that place.
The Tugboat was then - and remains now - one of the best places in Steamboat to see live music.
Patrons who have come to know the place in the past 10 years are familiar with the elevated stage in the corner where Big Head Todd and the Monsters once performed. But for much of the Tugboat's history, prior to two additions, the stage was a tiny space not much bigger than a pine door in front of the main windows.
The Tugboat is a place where people can get up close and personal with the musicians. For more nights than they could ever recall, local musicians Greg Scott and Shoffner performed on the Tugboat stage with old compadres Thom Ward and Willie Samuelson in a band called Whitfield Ward. It was Ward who penned "The Tugboat Song," which closed every show. Oftentimes, Lamb and Edwards would climb on stage and sing with the band.
Through countless nights, Shoffner sat on a stool and thumped his old Fender Precision bass on autopilot, while Ward picked a black Ovation guitar and Scott played his Washburn six-string.
They played "Rocky Top," "Mamas Don't let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys," "The Rodeo Song" and a bunch of Jimmy Buffet's rowdier tunes.
Wild things happened in the Tugboat in the old days.
Shoffner will never forget the night he laid on his back on a table while picking the lead to "Dueling Banjos" as a cocktail waitress poured shots down his gullet.
Scott can't get St. Patrick's Day 1984 out of his head. Tugboat regulars had been partying since the chairlifts shut down, and the band didn't start until 7 p.m. Loren Fagen was sitting in on drums, and Jack Reed was singing bass vocals that night, Scott said.
A rowdy patron had just been tossed out the back door when the band broke into a Buffet classic, "A Pirate Looks at Forty."
"He must have wanted to get back in real bad, because the guys had to chase him around the building," Scott recalled. "Thom was right in the middle of the solo, and all of a sudden, it was like a bomb went off.
The disgruntled patron had attempted to re-enter the Tugboat by launching himself head-first through the window. He came to a stop with his head and shoulders resting on top of the public address amp and his lower body still on the outside of the building.
"He was right between Jack and I," Scott said. "There was blood and glass everywhere. The whole crowd got quiet, but we just kept right on playing. The guys pulled him back outside, and Thom paused long enough to say, 'Would somebody call the paramedics?'"
The man was taken off to recover from his cuts at the hospital, and the band played two more sets.
Feels like home
Doyle understands that the Tugboat feels like home to many of its patrons.
"I can go to another town and walk into a bar and feel if there's something there that's more than just a bunch of tables. It's something that's real. If I don't feel it, I'll have one drink and leave."
Rancher Dick Vesper of Cotulla, Texas, thinks of the Tugboat as a home away from home. He's been coming in for so many years he has his own stool at the west end of the bar and his own hat rack fashioned from a couple of steel horseshoes.
"Nobody could chase me out of here," Vesper said. "I love this old Tugboat. This is my seat right here. This is like home to me."
After nearly 35 years at the Tugboat, Lamb retains his enthusiasm for running a restaurant and bar.
It's like every other business. If you don't like it, it will eat you up and spit you out," Lamb said. "But if you like it, you put in the time. I still enjoy it. I enjoy the people."
So, what does it take to get your picture on the wall at the Tugboat?
Aurora, Ill., fire chief Tommy Brady figured it out. After visiting the Tugger frequently for 25 years, he arranged for himself and a few of his men to pose in front of a burning house they were using for a training exercise. In the picture, the firefighters are smiling and holding sign placards that read "Hello Tugboat" while bright orange flames rage in the background.
"Next to the picture of that girl over there, this is probably the most asked about picture in this place," Doyle said.
That girl over there is Debra Dawn Perry, the subject of a hauntingly beautiful portrait. She's been hanging at the east end of the Tugboat's bar since time began.
"We bought that print in 1972 at the Denver Merchandise Mart for $30 framed," Lamb recalled. "I've been offered $600 for it. I even had her college roommate in here a couple of years ago and ask about it."
Countless lovesick ski bums have asked about Debra Dawn, as well.
Here's to hoping there won't be a day in the near future when homesick ski bums ask about what happened to the Tugger, that old bar in Ski Time Square.