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The Town That Took A Chance

June 2024
11min read

From its first boom during America’s biggest gold rush to its current gamble on gambling, Deadwood, South Dakota, has managed to keep itself very much alive

Maybe I was fated to take a trip to Deadwood. Back in 1952 I was living under the high white Hollywood sign while my father played small parts in big movies, such as Popilius Lena in Julius Caesar , the version that starred Marion Brando. That year Paramount was making two Westerns on adjoining sound stages. One was Shane ; the other was Son of Paleface , starring Bob Hope, Jane Russell, and Roy Rogers. Son of Paleface was a sequel of sorts to the 1948 movie The Paleface , in which Jane Russell played Calamity Jane, with the action set in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Told by an actor friend who had a small part in Shane that it would be one of the greatest Westerns, my father visited the set several times. My brother and I tagged along so that we could head next door and watch Son of Paleface being filmed. Jane Russell clutched me to her ample bosom, and Trigger did tricks to delight me. That was when the fascination with Deadwood took hold, although it would be another 52 years before I came to know anything much about the place and its history.

In 1875 a prospector found gold nuggets at the southern end of Deadwood Gulch, a strip of land cradled in the high and beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. Why “Deadwood”? The nearest hills were covered with blackened trees killed by wildfires.

By 1876 the gold rush was on, the biggest in American history. In that year Deadwood’s population of a few hundred at most became 10,000 at least. There was no law to speak of in what amounted to an illegal settlement for nearly two years, while the Sioux and the government argued over its possession. The hills had become a magnet for people who were not quite outlaws but not exactly law-abiding either, people such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Notorious elsewhere, here they became legends.

Deadwood’s attractions included gambling, brothels, saloons, and the Gem Theatre, with ticket sales of up to $10,000 a night, which may well have made it the most profitable theater in North America. That same gold-rush year nonetheless brought early signs of stability. The first schoolteacher opened the first school.

Soon thereafter the Chinese came to work in the mines. They established a Chinese laundry and a Chinese grocery store, and Fee Lee Wong set up as a Chinese herbalist. But not knowing any of this as I walked the length of Main Street on a pleasant summer evening, I was mystified by a large sign attached to some storm fencing opposite the Hampton Inn. The sign read, ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG—FOR CHINESE ARTIFACTS.

Sure enough, someone inside the fenced enclosure was bent over, digging gently, peering intently. Photographs of some of the hundreds of artifacts unearthed so far hung from the fence, and a friendly archaeologist stood by on the sidewalk, happy to show passersby such finds as opium paraphernalia. The dig was my first big surprise in Deadwood and a signal that the town knows it has a story to tell.

The most famous part of that story is the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok. On August 2, 1876, a cross-eyed young drifter named Jack McCall sidled up behind Hickok in Saloon No. 10 as he contemplated his cards, black aces and eights. McCall drew a pistol and fired two bullets into the back of Hickok’s head.

McCall ran into an alley and was swiftly arrested. Tried a couple of days later, he claimed that Hickok had killed his brother. Where was the crime in killing a killer? The judge and jury agreed and set him free.

Arrested again a few months later, McCall was hauled before a federal judge in Yankton, a town in Dakota Territory. The judge ruled the first trial invalid because Deadwood was in Indian Territory. Found guilty this time, thanks to a witness who swore that she had known McCall from childhood and he had never had a brother, he was sentenced to death. When McCall’s body was exhumed nearly a hundred years later, a length of rope was still around his neck.

The murder of Wild Bill spurred the business community to organize a town council. Seth Bullock, a Canadian who had prospered by moving his hardware business from Salt Lake City to Deadwood, was appointed sheriff. Bullock’s business partner, Solomon Star, was elected to a seat on the council and went on to serve 14 terms as mayor. There were 76 saloons in Deadwood; now the town got its first jail.

The biblical way with wicked communities is punishment by fire or flood. Deadwood got both. A fire in 1879 destroyed most of the business district. The area was rebuilt in brick and stone. Then in 1883 came a flood that swept away much of what remained that wasn’t brick or stone.

The town rebuilt itself for the second time. Its wild days were already fading into the sepia tones of history. Deadwood became a workingman’s town, not a gunslinger’s, but gambling still flourished, as did prostitution. Single miners far outnumbered single women, and the saloons continued to prosper.

As Chinatown developed, it hired two Chinese policemen and formed its own hook-and-ladder team, which competed in hose-cart races against Caucasian teams from across South Dakota. The hardworking Chinese also had their lawless elements. They operated opium dens.

In 1895 Seth Bullock built the Bullock Hotel, a handsome Italianate structure with a banded facade of local pink and white sandstone. It was extensively and expensively renovated in the early 1990s. No two rooms are alike in size or shape, and the renovation has aimed to capture the exuberant spirit of the original, while preserving many period details. The iron shutters at the back and sides of the building show their age; around their edges rust has taken its toll. They were saved, Diana Huskey, the marketing coordinator, told me, because they were part of the original fabric.

Other features seem designed to raise an eyebrow or a smile. At one corner fronting on Main Street the roof sprouts a widow’s watch, something most of us associate with New England and the ocean. To my eye, it has a slightly Chinese look to it. “I love working here!” says Diana.

The Black Hills became a magnet for people who were not quite outlaws but not exactly law-abiding either.

The hotel is not the only monument Bullock left. He founded the nearby town of Belle Fourche and became a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in the Dakotas for a few years in the 1880s. When Roosevelt died, in January 1919, Bullock raised the first monument in the President’s memory anywhere, an observation tower offering magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. It was dedicated on July 4, 1919.

It stands only a mile outside of Deadwood, but the Forest Service has allowed it to crumble. Even so, visitors willing to make a short drive along an unpaved road off the highway can park just 200 yards away, where a path leads through the woods to it. The structure is barred and locked, but by staying with the path, I soon came to an observation deck in front of and only slightly below the derelict tower.

I had just found one of the most thrilling views in North America. Beyond the Black Hills rises a range of mountain peaks, and between the two stretch the high plains. Winding silver threads mark the course of rivers. Lakes and ponds reflect light like mirrors. Highways cross the plains in straight beige lines, tidy small towns standing at the crossroads, their windows and roofs sparkling in the sunshine, while neatly tended farms lap the base of the hills. This observation deck offers such a harmony of what man has made blending with what nature has given that it is dismaying to find that not one visitor in a hundred ever goes there. From talking to people around the town, it became evident that few Deadwood residents have ever seen it either.

Bullock died two months after the tower dedication and was buried high above the town cemetery, not in it. His grave points toward the tower, a mile distant, and this man with the Midas touch is still raking it in. His tombstone and grave are covered with small coins left by visitors.

Deadwood had one other great builder, Harris Franklin, who arrived in 1877. He amassed a fortune estimated at five million dollars, mainly in the wholesale liquor business, lost most of it, then became rich again dealing in ranching and banking. In 1892 he put his second fortune into building the town’s most important house and later its biggest hotel.

To design the house, Franklin hired the architectural firm Adler & Sullivan, of Chicago. Louis Sullivan created some of the first skyscrapers, and an aspiring architect named Frank Lloyd Wright was employed as a draftsman by his firm. The design of the house in far-off Deadwood was entrusted to an architect on the staff, Simeon Eisendrath.

A decade after the house went up, Franklin sold it to his son for a dollar. It was eventually bought by a local businessman, W. E. Adams, who added a museum of Black Hills memorabilia in 1930. His widow later sold it to the local historic preservation commission. It is now known as the Adams Museum & House.

The house’s exterior is a collection of late-nineteenth-century architectural motifs, including a classic Queen Anne turret. Its light and airy interior is marvelous.

The hotel, the Franklin, opened for business in 1903, but only after bringing its founder to the brink of bankruptcy once again. By then the people of Deadwood had learned that Harris Franklin was a Polish Jew, born Finkelstein. He is buried in the Jewish section of Mount Moriah Cemetery at the highest point in the graveyard. His imposing tombstone, inscribed simply “Franklin,” faces both the town and the white, pillared porch of the four-story hotel 500 yards away.

The cemetery, built on a steep slope above the town, should not be overlooked by any visitor to Deadwood. Its most visited spot is the grave of Wild Bill, which is almost a shrine. The term is used advisedly. Imposing steps, cut into the slope and lined with ornamental ironwork, lead to a plot surrounded by benches to accommodate summer visitors. Calamity Jane is buried in an adjoining site.

Wild Bill is in a shallow grave, but so is everyone else at Mount Moriah. Dig down about 18 inches and you’ll strike solid rock. Close by Hickok is a grave marked by four urns that feature grinning imps. Here lies Dora DuFran, sometime employer of Calamity Jane, who worked as her maid. Madam DuFran operated four brothels, symbolized by the four urns, and was such a local presence that when she died, in 1934, her obituary in the Black Hills Pioneer mourned the passing of “a noted social worker.”

Just as the Jews had their own section in the cemetery, so did the Chinese. They were buried at the back of Mount Moriah, on the reverse slope of a low ridge, out of sight. Eventually nearly all the Chinese remains were returned to China. Only one known grave is left. But in 2004, during the parade that marks the beginning of the annual Days of ’76, 67 people marched behind a banner reading FIRST ANNUAL REUNION OF THE DESCENDANTS OF FEE LEE WONG . In their colorful traditional dress they stole the show.

There seemed to be almost as many horses as people in that parade, a reminder that Deadwood not only was but still is a horsy town. In some residential neighborhoods you can see large mounting blocks of concrete or stone outside people’s homes; some of them have been stolen in recent years, such is their charm. Also there are hitching rings low in the walls that face the streets.

The town survived Prohibition and a sharp decline in its population, which stabilized at around 2,000, but received a further blow when, in 1947, the state attorney general required the county sheriff to crack down on gambling. There were hopes of a tourist boom after Deadwood was designated a National Historic District, in 1961. But the modest tide of visitors did not offset the loss of gambling.

Then came the double-whammy. Four houses of prostitution were still operating in the 1970s, drawing free-spending miners and others, but in 1978 laws against prostitution began to be enforced. The last brothel was Pam’s Purple Door, operated by Pam Holiday. It shut in 1980, with dire economic effect. One day soon afterward, hundreds of people paraded down Main Street under banners reading BRING BACK OUR GIRLS !

The town survived Prohibition but received a further blow, in 1947, when the county sheriff began to crack down on gambling.

After that failed, the only affront to bourgeois morality that remained was drinking, until the state attorney’s office launched a campaign against driving under the influence. Half the saloons closed. By 1985 Deadwood was turning into a ghost town, its finest buildings crumbling, its population dwindling fast, its future all too clear. The remains of dead towns are scattered across the Plains, waiting to be excavated a hundred years from now, when even a few intact artifacts will be a wonderful discovery. Deadwood seemed certain to join them.

Several concerned citizens approached Bill Walsh, the principal shareholder in the Franklin Hotel, with an idea. Why not try to bring back gambling? Walsh has a serious interest in history and is a major figure in South Dakota politics. He and his like-minded friends threw themselves into organizing a statewide referendum. In Las Vegas gambling takes place amid tinseled glamour. In Deadwood it would take place amid history. In 1987 a Historic Preservation Commission was established, and when the referendum was held a year later, it passed by a margin of nearly two to one. In November 1989 gambling returned to Deadwood.

Fifteen years later the signs along Interstate 90 announce 80 CASINOS … 40 RESTAURANTS . No bets above $100 are allowed, and most of the gambling is done at slot machines. Nearly all the businesses that line other Main Streets—drugstore, dry cleaners, clothing stores, McDonald’s—are missing from this one. They have become casinos, with restaurants below or at the back.

Still, I found two good places to eat in historic buildings. One is the 1903’s Dining Room in the Franklin Hotel. It features South Dakota beef, which is superb. Its sprung floor suggests the restaurant has also served as the town’s ballroom for more than a century.

The other restaurant is Jake’s, a fine dining establishment in the Midnight Star casino. The uncrowned king of South Dakota, Kevin Costner, owns the building, which features display cases of memorabilia from films including Bull Durham and Dances With Wolves. Consuming roast pheasant, a South Dakotan specialty, I sat at a window seat overlooking Main Street. There was so much happening outside I might as well have been at an outdoor café on the Champs Elysées.

By the time gambling returned to Deadwood, the Historic Preservation Commission had a list of projects that it thought would take 40 years to finance. In 5 years enough money poured into its coffers to pay for most of them. It now receives close to seven million dollars a year, largesse that it shares with other towns in the area. Get into a discussion about history here and you will find that it is now divided into BG and AG—before gambling and after gambling. There are a lot of mixed feelings about life AG.

Some people dislike making a one-hour roundtrip to Rapid City for much of their shopping. A few would like to have seen nineteenth-century versions of poker reintroduced, and models of early slot machines. Others think a cap should have been placed on the number of casinos the gaming board allowed. What matters to most people, though, is that Deadwood has been saved.

Nowadays the Historic Preservation Commission has the lead role in protecting that legacy. When the hit HBO series “Deadwood” was still only an idea, its producers approached the Adams Museum & House’s director, Mary Kopco, and her colleague Jerry Bryant. “We took a lot of ownership,” says Mary.

Like the gambling itself, the television series turned out to be a far bigger hit than anyone could have anticipated. It is shot in subdued tones, so nearly everything looks gray or brown. The people seem disheveled, tired, and unwashed. Most are foulmouthed and physically unattractive. “Deadwood” tells its stories in a flat way, cranking down the excitement rather than cranking it up. Upon its debut, many critics saw it as a doomed, brave venture. Few expected a second season, but there will be one.

Many people in Deadwood share Mary Kopco’s sense of ownership, but the first thing they’re likely to tell anyone who asks them what they think of the television series is, “We don’t talk like that!”

The initial effect of “Deadwood” could be measured in visits to the Adams Museum & House’s Web site, www. In January 2004, before the show aired, there were 80,000 hits. After the first few episodes the number had shot up to 6.6 million. Sales of history books in the museum bookstore rose from $31,000 in 2003 to $68,000 in 2004, and the number of visitors to the museum increased by 37 percent.

The living-history group Deadwood Alive! re-enacts the shooting of Wild Bill. This takes place each day in the summer at the new Saloon No. 10, followed in late afternoon by the capture of Jack McCall. Then everybody on Main Street is invited to the theater to witness the trial, a hilarious parody of frontier justice, with members of the audience, from children to greatgrandmothers, summoned to jury duty.

The Historic Preservation Commission does not stand alone in guarding over Deadwood’s historic buildings; so too do many of the people who own them. Bill Walsh, at the Franklin, has opted for painstaking and very expensive restoration. The results in some parts of the hotel are exquisite. Many of the Franklin’s suites are named for people who stayed in them. They include Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, and Babe Ruth.

As San Francisco lives with earthquakes, so Deadwood lives with the threat of wildfire. In June 2001 the entire town was evacuated on 20 minutes’ notice. The fire reached the highway and looked set to leap across. The wind blew in Deadwood’s favor that day, slowing down the flames long enough for firefighting planes called slurry bombers to stop them at the asphalt’s edge. “If the wind had shifted,” a local businesswoman, Debra Goffena, told me, “this town would be gone.” Deadwood stoically pulled itself back from the brink once again. Its whole existence has been a gamble, with or without the casinos. So far it’s still on a roll.

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