Fortunes were made here. Celebrities died here. The legend endures but the experience of Deadwood, South Dakota is…mixed.
The very origins of Deadwood were fraught. The land had deed granted to local Lakota people in the 1868 Treaty of Laramie. By the 1870s, however, US citizens were covertly entering the territory. In 1874, Colonel George Armstrong Custer confirmed the discovery of gold in French Creek. The Black Hills gold rush was on and opportunistic prospectors were not going to let a treaty stand between them and a fortune. Remember Little Bighorn? This is the beginning.
Deadwood was one of the impromptu mining towns that formed around the Black Hills Gold Rush. It quickly boasting a lawless population of 5,000. Promises of gold lured out the likes of “Wild Bill” Hickok. While he proved to be a poor miner, he certainly was a devoted gambler. This former gunslinger’s attempts at getting rich at the poker table rather than the diggings had him in a prime location when Jack McCall shot him in the back. Hickok’s fame as a gunslinger meant notoriety for the town where he was slain.
Of course, where some failed, others succeeded. George Hearst had already made a fortune when he moved to corner the Black Hills Gold market. Along with other investors, Hearst bought the Homesteak mine in 1877 and continued to acquire neighboring properties to expand the mine. His dubious dealings earned a great deal of criticism from the local paper, prompting Hearst to begin acquiring newspapers to silence all challengers and introduced the Hearst heir, William Randolph Hearst, and father of yellow journalism to the newspaper business.
While the Homestake Mine was the second largest gold mine in the world, it, like other mines in the area, played out. The mine ceased operation in 2001. Deadwood, like other mining towns, needed to find a new industry to keep the town alive.
Deadwood has parlayed casinos for preservation. This historic mining town, which was memorialized by HBO’s period drama of the same name, has balanced its conflict between preservation and funding with lots and lots of casinos. While it possesses a rich history or gold, bar brawls, and big names, the town had fallen into a state of disrepair. In 1989, without the generous funding of patrons like Virginia City received, the town agreed to allow limited stakes gambling in town. The taxes from gambling would be used for preservation and promotion.
It makes for a strange tourist town. There are a few restaurants and tourist shops selling t-shirts and local crafts. But every other interesting exterior leads into a hall of slot machines and poker. In a way, it is thematically appropriate: gambling was a huge part of historic Deadwood. “Wild Bill” Hickok certainly wasn’t the only gambler in town. So, I’ll just call the resulting ambiance of colorful, loud slot machines and antique bars…odd.
The fact that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was less than a week and a 22 mile drive from Deadwood might have also been a contributing factor to our experience. The streets were lined with Harleys.* The daily shootouts along the main road were canceled due to increased traffic.
There wasn’t much to say about where we ate lunch aside from it being to most transparently cheap fair I’ve had in a long time. Whatever percentage of meat that was in the burger patty was liberally cut with breadcrumbs so as to approximate cardboard in consistency and flavor. It was a pity, as the former bordello could have made for a particularly intriguing place of interest if its only redeeming features hadn’t been the portraits of former “seamstresses” on the walls and the local Crow Peak’s Canyon Cream Ale.
Overall, there are a few Deadwood draws that do warrant a visit (more on them later) but the town itself is a bit of a letdown.
* Fun fact: while Harley Davidson was touted as the official motorcycle of Sturgis this year, the event was founded in 1938 by a group of Indian Motorcycle riders. (That’s “Indian” the motorcycle brand, not a description of the riders’ tribal heritage.)