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Deadwood Lives

One of South Dakota’s wildest of Wild West towns has struck it rich—again.

tombstone of Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood, So. Dakota
Photo credit
Photo: Johnny Sundby
Photo caption
Wild Bill Hickok remains Mount Moriah Cemetery’s best-known inhabitant.

Al Swearengen, the saloonkeeper who displayed a masterful grasp of politics and profanity in HBO’s drama Deadwood, really did pour whiskey here. Seth Bullock kept order in the streets, to a point. Calamity Jane, the hard-drinking bullwhacker, mourned the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, the scout and lawman who neglected to keep his back to the wall while playing poker in Saloon No. 10. Some of the Old West’s most colorful characters still loom over Deadwood, South Dakota, a town of 1,380 souls squeezed into a narrow gulch in the northern fringes of the Black Hills, about 50 miles from Mount Rushmore. Seth Bullock, Wild Bill, Calamity, and hundreds of pioneers, soldiers, prospectors, and other fortune seekers lie buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery overlooking town. Al Swearengen’s body ended up elsewhere, but he’s not forgotten.

The original Deadwood—a slapdash, lawless camp that sprang up in 1875 after prospectors found gold in a flood-prone creek lined with driftwood—burned to the ground in 1879, but the town quickly reinvented itself, a trick it has managed to pull off several times over the years. "Some people come here thinking they’re going to see a Hollywood set," says Mary Kopco, director of Deadwood’s Adams Museum & House and adviser to the HBO series. What they find instead is a restored late 19th-century community—the entire town is a registered historic district—complete with a touch of Wild West rowdiness.

In 1989, Deadwood became the second American town outside Nevada to allow casino-style gambling. (Atlantic City, N.J. was the first.) The idea sailed through; slot machines and poker tables seemed a logical extension of the town’s past. "Deadwood has always had a rough-and-tumble reputation," Kopco says.

Modern-day prospectors have created new boom times in Deadwood. The casinos are packed on weekend nights, and visitors are never far away from the beeps and clinks of slot machines. There’s even a row of machines in the town’s only grocery store. On a warm summer evening, throngs of gamblers wearing Mardi Gras beads and cowboy hats cruise the downtown "strip," a brick street lined with 19th century buildings, such as the three-story Bullock Hotel, a sandstone beauty built for the sheriff himself in 1895. The city uses some of its gambling proceeds to restore old buildings, striking a balance between glitz and history.

Visitors who walk downtown during the day should be prepared for gunfire. Several hundred times a summer, starting on Memorial Day, Wild Bill gets shot in the back and the murderous Jack McCall tries to outrun the vigilantes. In all these years, neither of them has ever found a way to save himself. Thanks to the reenactments, there’s more gunplay in Deadwood today than there was in the gold rush days, according to Kopco. "Most people were too preoccupied searching for gold to get into gunfights," she says.

Anyone interested in a quieter, more complete display of Deadwood’s history should visit the Adams Museum. Fans of the HBO series will especially enjoy photos of the muddy streets and wooden storefronts that made up the original camp. The series producers may have taken a few liberties with their characters (Swearengen, for example, never was a real mover and shaker), but they perfectly captured the look of Deadwood in its earliest years. The museum holds a few surprises: album-cover art featuring the comically miscast Doris Day as Calamity Jane, not one but two stuffed spaniels that lived in town at the same time as Wild Bill, and the nearly complete skeleton of a 20-foot-long plesiosaur, a toothy seagoing carnivore from the Mesozoic era.

But no collection of artifacts can match the power of the cemetery above town. Some visitors take guided bus tours, but the best way to see Mount Moriah is on foot, walking in the shade of ponderosa pines.

Wild Bill Hickok’s last resting place, marked with a bronze statue, is a near-mandatory stop. (The original grave marker was stone, but determined souvenir seekers quickly chipped it away.) Visitors often leave offerings like coins, trinkets, and even bullets at the site. Calamity Jane ended up right next to Bill, at her request.

If you explore beyond the famous names, you’ll find remnants of a Wild West that was both less romantic and more richly textured than the legends suggest. Three separate potter’s fields hold the bodies of soldiers, prostitutes, unfortunate gamblers, and other anonymous people who were too poor to afford a tombstone. Clusters of children’s graves mark outbreaks of scarlet fever and diphtheria. Chinese characters and Stars of David remind us of the considerable diversity among people drawn by the gold rush.

The gold hasn’t completely disappeared—visitors can still pan for gold flecks—but the mining days are officially over. The Homestake gold mine in the hills above Deadwood, once the biggest and deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere, closed for good in 2001. When the miners moved out, physicists took over. Researchers have placed gadgets nearly 5,000 feet belowground to catch subatomic particles emitted by the sun.

Once again, Deadwood is finding a way to reinvent itself.

This article was first published in November 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.