Deadwood: the name itself is as emblematic of the Old West as Tombstone, Arizona. Nestled at the northern edge of the Black Hills in western South Dakota, this mining town became notorious at the beginning of its existence because of the death of one of the great gunfighters. When tourism overtook mining in the economics of the Black Hills, this gave Deadwood an edge over all of its neighbors. Today, there are many landmarks in the Black Hills; the town of Deadwood, however, is itself a National Landmark.
It is the story of Deadwood that brings in the visitors, and that story begins with Custer. Before Custer’s involvement, the Black Hills were a part of the Indian Reservation. In 1874, Custer was sent to scout out possible locations for a fort; tensions had remained on both sides after the 1868 peace treaty with Red Cloud. Custer brought some civilian advisors with him on this mission, and they both confirmed and announced the presence of gold.
The next two years brought an influx of prospectors, escalating tensions between the U.S. Government and the Lakota Sioux and their allies, and Custer’s death at the Little Bighorn. The presence of prospectors, and of the towns that sprang up to support them, would become legal in 1877, when the defeated Sioux gave up their rights to the Black Hills. By then, Deadwood’s place in the history of the West had already been established.
Deadwood took its name from the fallen timber that lay on either side of the gulch where gold was found. The success of some prospectors brought in others hoping for their own opportunities. The expansion of a few claims into a larger mining camp also served to bring in others who wanted to make their livings by servicing the miners, from shopkeepers and carpenters to saloon owners and prostitutes. Two trained scouts arrived in Deadwood, looking for opportunity: James “Wild Bill” Hickok and “Calamity Jane” Cannary.
“Wild Bill” had already made a name for himself as a scout for Custer and as a lawman in Abilene, Kansas. In Deadwood, he did little more than make a name for himself as a card player, and it was in the midst of that pursuit that he was shot in cold blood in August, 1876. “Calamity Jane” was still at the beginning of a career that would have its highs and lows, but which would eventually be as celebrated in the press as Hickok’s. They were scarcely acquainted in the short time that Hickok had left, but “Calamity Jane’s” attachment to his memory forever wove her name together with his. While others, such as Sheriff Seth Bullock, did more to build this settlement into a viable town, it was “Wild Bill” and “Calamity Jane” who put it on the map.
The Lay of the Land
Today, the town revels in its sense of history, above all in its connection to these colorful figures. Reenactments are performed daily, and historical sites are marked prominently. At the same time, however, it is important for visitors to realize that the town they see is not the town that Hickok would have recognized. The original town was destroyed by fire only three years after Hickok’s untimely departure. Of the town that succeeded it, only a couple of buildings survived the next major fire. Most of the historic buildings in town were built in the 1890’s.
Deadwood remains a small town, and energetic walkers can cover the territory in just a couple of hours. There are two major streets that meet at an acute angle at the north: Main Street, which is really the extension through town of Route 14A, and Sherman Street, which connects Route 85 from north to south. The town’s odd shape is the product of topography; it sits in the basin of a narrow valley bounded to the east and west by steep ridges. Its permanent residents have built their homes on these slopes, and the sight of these houses perched precariously above the lower town is a minor attraction in its own right.
The heart of town is Main Street, from the statue of “Wild Bill” at the tip of the northern angle to the Silverado-Franklin hotel at the southern end of town. Other sites of historic interest can be found between Main Street and Sherman Street, especially along cross-streets Deadwood and Pine, but beyond that, especially going south on Sherman, there is mostly modern construction.
Accommodations are plentiful, given the size of the town. Higher-end hotels can be found along Main Street, including historical gems like the Bullock Hotel and the Silverado-Franklin as well as more modern establishments like the Hampton. Those with more modest vacation budgets can find hotels at the southern end of town, after an abrupt right turn transforms Sherman Street into Charles Street.
A trickier consideration is the availability of parking spaces. Guests of the town’s hotels can park in the hotel’s lot. For those taking rooms along Main Street, this should be sufficient. Those who check in at the peripheries of town, however, or who merely pass through Deadwood for a few hours may have to search for parking. For these, there are a variety of options.
A limited amount of metered street parking is available. During the summer, this can fill up fast. More parking can be found in a parking garage just northwest of Main on Wall Street, opposite the Bullock Hotel. For those staying in the hotels to the south, there is yet another viable option: a trolley circulates through town, picking up passengers at designated stops for a dollar per ride. One trip downtown and another in return cost as much as an hour in the parking garage, and less than a longer stay.
Modern Deadwood depends upon the tourist trade, and two things are ubiquitous: Deadwood’s history and gambling. Ever since “Wild Bill” was shot during a game of poker, the two have always been linked. Certain forms of gambling, notably slot machines and poker, are legal in Deadwood, and can be found in every hotel and bar. Some of the proceeds from gambling, in turn, go back to help preserve the historic character of the town.
Those who are interested in exploring Deadwood’s colorful history can take one of several bus tours that operate in town. The highlight of these tours is a ride uphill to Mount Moriah Cemetery, also known as Boot Hill, where most of Deadwood’s famous and infamous residents rest. These tours generally last about an hour.
Another kind of tour is now available at the Bullock Hotel. Famous for its stories of ghostly manifestations, and gaining a wide reputation due to its appearance in the TV Series “Unsolved Mysteries,” the Bullock is now offering ghost tours. As of June 2010, these tours are only run on weekends, but there is talk of expanding them into the week.
The drama surrounding Hickok’s death remains a focal point. The buildings involved are long gone, but the site of the Number 10 Saloon, where he was shot, and the spot further south, where his assassin Jack McCall was captured, are clearly marked. At another location, a bar now bearing the name “Number Ten Saloon,” is a daily reenactment of the shooting. At the southern end of town, in the former Masonic Temple, is its counterpart, the reenactment of Jack McCall’s original trial. The reenactors also wander around Main Street in costume when their productions are not in session, giving the place some atmosphere. During the summer season, they gather in the middle of Main Street several times a day for a gunfight presentation, although this has become a decidedly child-friendly event and may not satisfy adults and teens.
More traditional exhibits can be seen at the Adams Museum and in the History and Information Center, which used to be a train depot. For a change of pace, Hollywood relics abound in the Celebrity Hotel and Gaming. At the outskirts of town, Kevin Costner hosts Tatanka: Story of the Bison, a memorial to the Western experience.
At various times in the year, Deadwood plays host to special events, such as the Days of 76 Rodeo, music festivals, even a motorcycle event as a part of the annual Sturgis Rally.
Other places of interest are nearby. Just south of Deadwood is the town of Lead, home of the Homestake Mine, which remains in operation today. North of Deadwood is Sturgis, made famous by the motorcycle rally. Many other attractions, most notably Mount Rushmore, can be reached within a couple of hours.
With a little bit of preparation, any visit to Deadwood can become a memorable experience, whether it is for just an afternoon or a stay of several days.
Boot Hill Tour, June 2010
Exhibits and brochures, History and Information Center
Pray, Ron “Main Street Deadwood” Deadwood, 1995
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