Deadwood, South Dakota
Deadwood, South Dakota, has seen it's share of ups and downs. Today, it's popular again, thanks to gambling and the Old West legacy, of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Deadwood was once known as the toughest town in the Dakotas. Here a community of 25,000 people rose after Union Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer discovered gold, thus luring fortune hunters into the sacred land of the Sioux. A hundred years of ups and downs followed. But, by the 1980s, with corporate mining downsizing its operations, things looked bleak. Merchants boarded up storefronts and streets deteriorated. Today, however, Deadwood has come back to life. Preservation officials label it a miracle.
In 1989, after some debate, South Dakota's electorate approved limited-stakes gaming for the city of Deadwood, making it then the third community in the nation, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City, to offer gambling.
But there was a catch. A chunk of the take was to go for preservation and restoration of Deadwood's historic structures.
The plan was successful. Streets are paved with brick as they were a century ago, and period lighting illuminates trolleys transporting residents and visitors past gaming halls, quaint restaurants, and both historic and new hotels. America's penchant for wagering saved Deadwood.
Like all Western mining towns, Deadwood had its fair share of heroes and villains who have been immortalized in legend, stories, and the big screen. Two of the most famous were James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary.
Born in Illinois, Wild Bill was a Union scout during the Civil War and achieved fame as a U.S. Marshall and gunfighter in the cow towns of Kansas from 1866 to 1871. He toured with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, astonishing audiences with his shooting. Wild Bill came to Deadwood in the summer of 1876 with an aim to separate the miners from their gold at the gambling tables. By that time, he had already achieved national notoriety from his days with the Wild West Show. On a fateful day in August, Wild Bill went to Saloon #10 to try his hand at poker.
Ordinarily, Hickok made a point of sitting with his back to the wall, but the only seat open that day placed him with his back to the front door. It proved to be a fatal error. He was shot at close range in the back of the head by Jack McCall, one of Deadwood's impoverished citizens. Legend has it that Hickok dropped his cards, black aces and eights, which even to this day are known as the "dead man's hand."
The killing of Wild Bill and the later capture of Jack McCall is re-enacted every summer evening on Deadwood's historic Main Street. Immediately after, the actor playing McCall is dragged to the theater in Old Town Hall on Lee Street and tried in a theatrical performance.
Calamity Jane also came to Deadwood with Hickok to land her fortune. She was one of the first white women to travel to the area, where she was known as a prospector, prostitute, chronic liar, and a boisterous drunk with a reputation of swearing better than anyone in the West. She usually dressed as a man, and how she received her nickname is a mystery. In 1903, she died of alcoholism and as requested by her, was buried next to Hickok in Deadwood. Although fictional accounts have linked them, no evidence suggests they were ever romantically involved; perhaps just kindred spirits. The two are buried at Mount Moriah, actually a hillside perch overlooking the city, where you can visit and snap a photo.
Coming full circle, gambling is Deadwood's primary tourist attraction today, with Old West history added in for flavor. Try your luck in Deadwood's beautifully restored gaming halls. More than 80 casinos offer blackjack, poker, and slot machines.
If you're not into gambling, the Adams Museum might be one of Deadwood's better spots. It has one of the area's best Old West collections, including a steam locomotive that was hauled into the Black Hills in pieces by bull teams in the 1870s for use on the Homestake Mine's private railway. The museum also has a fine collection of historic photographs, minerals, guns, and folk art, along with memorabilia related to Calamity Jane and Wild Bill. While there, look for the partial statue of Wild Bill that once marked his grave site. Despite a fence for security, vandals and relic-hunters chipped away at the life-size likeness, taking the head, gun, and arms. The statue was removed from Mount Moriah in 1955 and moved to the Adams Museum. A simple granite stone marks the grave now.
Deadwood was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Stop off at the History and Information Center in the renovated train depot at 3 Siever Street. The center has brochures for the walking tours as well as information on hotels, motels, and museums. You can also watch videos on the history, restoration, and preservation of the town.