This former gold mining town now bets on its future in restored historic dwellings that tell stories from the past and keep the allure of Deadwood alive.
By Gerald C. Hammon, F275831
What do you do when your town is about to die? In the 1980s, the people who call Deadwood, South Dakota, home were nearly faced with that possibility. The smaller gold mines had all closed, and even the mighty Homestake Mine (where the Hearst family fortune had its genesis) was in trouble. Once-elegant hostelries were boarded up and moldering away; the days when handsomely dressed nabobs tossed silver dollars across the gaming tables and women in elaborate gowns flirted coyly were only a dim memory. Deadwood was well on its way to becoming a ghost town.
But if you visit Deadwood today you will not be picking your way past a has-been town. The wind does whistle through the streets on occasion, but the sound you will hear is life, not death. In fact, life “” 24-hour, seven-day-a-week life “” will reach out and grab you.
The biggest reason is gaming, which was the answer Deadwood residents devised to save their struggling town. Actually, gambling was part of Deadwood’s history from its beginning in 1876. The end came in 1947, when officials made an unannounced raid that caught the locals by surprise. In the 1980s, gambling began to gain a modicum of respectability. In 1987 Deadwood supporters came up with the idea of legalizing low-stakes gaming as a way of saving the once-proud city. South Dakota voters saw fit to agree, and in 1989 Deadwood inaugurated legal gaming, with some of the profits being earmarked for historic preservation. The result has been a smashing success. Lest images of Las Vegas come to mind, I should note that Deadwood has no mind-boggling Pantheon-sized casinos, and the outdoor lights aren’t easily visible to the crew of the orbiting space station. Gaming in Deadwood is low-key compared with the action in Vegas and other towns.
That’s not to say it’s not fun. The restored buildings along Main Street are replete with tin ceilings and marvelous light fixtures. You can wander in and out without spending a nickel, and no one will mind. One gaming spot exhibits historic clothes, and another artifacts from countless movies. Movie star Kevin Costner, who owns one of the establishments, has contributed a number of personal items from his movies to its decor. Yet another showcases old slot machines. Or, you can try your luck in a building that was once a gas station, or a building that once housed a Dodge and Plymouth dealership. Old hotels and stunning cafes also invite you in to drop a few coins.
Deadwood is synonymous with America’s old West. The settlement got its name after prospectors found many dead trees on the slopes above their claims. Those miners found gold here and in the neighboring town, Lead (pronounced “Leed”). But of all the great bonanza cities of the late 1800s and early 1900s, perhaps only Tombstone, Arizona, could boast a cast of characters more colorful than those who graced the streets of Deadwood.
Here you can visit the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok met his demise while holding the now-legendary “dead man’s” poker hand of aces and eights. Photos of Calamity Jane are everywhere, as she also resided in Deadwood for a while. If you trek up to the cemetery on Mount Moriah, you’ll see where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried side by side. Wild Bill must have rolled over in his grave when they interred Calamity Jane there, because he never had a thing to do with her in life.
Up on a distant hill, you may also see the remaining structures of the Homestake Mine, where George and Phoebe Hearst began the fortune that led to a publishing empire. Potato Creek Johnny isn’t as well-known, but has a certain appeal as a solitary miner who stood only four feet three inches tall. It was Potato Creek Johnny who found the biggest nugget of all in the Deadwood gold bonanza “” 7.75 ounces “” but he remained unaffected by his success and died a much beloved part of Deadwood’s history.
Begin your visit at the old Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad station. The last passenger train pulled out of Deadwood in 1949, but, fortunately, the city incorporated the station as a visitors center. You can gain valuable information from the knowledgeable staff there, and the exhibits will add to the enjoyment of what you will see. This entire town is a National Historic Landmark.
Several museums are worthy of your time. Be sure to see the Adams Museum, across from the railroad station visitors center. The Adams Museum showcases many facets of Deadwood’s history, including George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 visit to the Black Hills, and the discovery of gold that ultimately led to the Battle of Little Big Horn and Custer’s death. The information is not one-sided either. Well-done exhibits explain the pain inflicted on the Indians who were displaced by the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. Their lives become more real, not just caricatures seen in the standard portrayals of Custer’s last stand. The museum is open February through December; daily in summer. Admission is free, but a donation is suggested.
The Adams Museum now also operates the Adams House, the restored home once occupied by former Deadwood mayor W.E. Adams and his wife, Mary. Adams himself built and began the museum. His former home was completely restored to resemble its appearance in 1892 and was reopened to the public in 2000. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children, and includes a guided tour wherein visitors learn about the two families that occupied the home.
The Days of ’76 Historic Museum is a wonderfully eclectic collection that features more than 50 horse-drawn wagons. One of my favorites was the postal service wagon, complete with a small stove inside. Several examples of graceful horse-drawn hearses prove that you could go out in real style even before Cadillac hearses came along. Some of the rooms contain an absolute hodgepodge of letters, pictures, and artifacts that could keep you interested and busy for hours.
Other museums in town include one dedicated to the American bison, which was almost made extinct by the turn of the last century. Tatanka “” Story of the Bison explains the culture that grew up around the “buffalo” in the 1800s. Another museum, Black Hills Presidents Park, is a relaxing spot for a stroll or picnic. It is home to statues of all U.S. presidents arranged in chronological order along walking trails. The High Plains Western Heritage Center houses Western art and artifacts. Its prized item is the original (now restored) stagecoach that ran between the towns of Spearfish and Deadwood. And Saloon Number 10 boasts that it is the only museum with a bar; it’s home to relics relating to the death of Wild Bill Hickok, among other things. As for the Hickok murder, his killer, Jack McCall, is “tried” again for the crime each summer in a drama presented six nights a week.
Even though the great Homestake Mine finally shut down in 2001, surface tours of the mine works are available in the community of Lead. At the time of its final closure, the Homestake had been mined longer than any other mine in the United States. Where Deadwood was and is a vibrant place, Lead strikes you as a quiet, hardworking, unpretentious town. The Homestake imprint is everywhere, from the enormous open-pit mine that was last worked in the 1980s to the great mine and mill buildings that are slowly being dismantled on the hillside above. The drive to Lead takes you up past the tiny town of Central City with its wonderful firehouse, and past one of the original gold discovery sites with the Homestake mine tailings. It’s a worthwhile digression from your Deadwood visit.
Why visit Deadwood? Most of all, because Deadwood is a living tie to a rollicking and wonderful part of our nation’s history. Where else can you find George Custer, George Hearst, gold, and the great Lakota Sioux nation all wrapped into the history of a town? Where else can you experience the 1880s with all the comforts of the 21st century?
If You Go
Deadwood is located in the Black Hills south of Interstate 90, a short distance from the South Dakota-Wyoming state line. Parking for recreation vehicles is available on the north end of Deadwood, and rubber-tired “streetcars” will take you throughout the twin towns of Deadwood and Lead. Mt. Moriah Cemetery is perched on a slope high above Deadwood; the roads up to it are not suitable for RVs. However, bus tours are offered.
For more information, contact:
Deadwood Chamber of Commerce
767 Main St.
Deadwood, SD 57732
Several RV parks are located in Deadwood, and still more are situated along I-90 in Spearfish and Sturgis within easy driving distance of Deadwood. The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, available online at www.fmca.com and in the January and June issues of FMC magazine.
21559 U.S. 385
Deadwood, SD 57732
Days of ’76 RV Park & Campground
17 Crescent Drive
Deadwood, SD 57732
Deadwood KOA Campground
P.O. Box 451
Deadwood, SD 57732
Hidden Valley Campground
21423 U.S. 385
Deadwood, SD 57732
Whistler Gulch RV Park & Campground
Highway 85 South
235 Cliff St.
Deadwood, SD 57732