Deadwood Has Drawn Fortune-Seekers Since 1876. HBO Is Only the Latest.

Deadwood Has Drawn Fortune-Seekers Since 1876. HBO Is Only the Latest.


You will be shocked — shocked — to find that gambling is going on in Deadwood, S.D.

Unless you know anything at all about the place.

It’s safe to say that gambling has been going on here since there were two miners around to wager golden nuggets on or against something. That would have been 1876. While the nation’s centennial was being celebrated in Philadelphia, its spirit was being celebrated in this Black Hills gulch by men and women who streamed in from everywhere to make their fortune panning, or at least to make their fortune off those seeking to make their fortune panning. A few became rich; a few more became legends.

Wild Bill Hickok, his days as a lawman only slightly behind him, came here to pan, quickly decided he’d rather make his fortune playing cards, and was shot dead in Saloon No. 10 while holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, now known as the Dead Man’s Hand.

Today, casinos are everywhere in Deadwood, even in the Bullock, the town’s oldest hotel. It is named for Seth Bullock, an early settler, businessman and sheriff who built the establishment with his partner, Solomon Star, in the 1890s. Bullock, who sported a very 19th century walrus mustache, was portrayed in the 2004-2006 HBO series “Deadwood” by the actor Timothy Olyphant, who didn’t. Bullock’s nemesis, the saloonkeeper and pimp Al Swearengen, was portrayed by Ian McShane, also sporting facial hair.

If you watched “Deadwood” or are eagerly anticipating the long-awaited conclusory “Deadwood” movie (for which Olyphant and McShane reprise their roles, and which, like the show, was shot on a ranch in California) that premieres on the cable network on May 31, you may be relieved to learn that Swearengen’s volatile establishment, the Gem, is long gone, though its name now adorns a much newer one, part of a hotel whose entire first floor is a casino. The restaurant on the second floor offers a rather civilized breakfast, complete with a serviceable hollandaise sauce.

The new Gem is one of the few modern edifices in downtown Deadwood. The rest, mostly Victorian structures, have been tastefully restored. That sort of sensitive historic conservation doesn’t come cheap, which explains the casinos: “Gaming was legalized in 1989 expressly to generate revenue for the preservation of the Downtown Core District,” the town archivist, Mike Runge, explained. An appropriate solution, I think; after all, not only has gambling (legal or otherwise) been a part of Deadwood since the town’s beginning, but the very thing that brought settlers here in the 1800s — gold mining — was, itself, as great a gamble as any card game. And in Deadwood’s case, a losing one: Most of the ore panned here turned out to be iron pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold.”

When it comes to history, though, the place is the mother lode.

Shootouts, at your convenience

The Black Hills have been drawing visitors for as long as they’ve been standing. Around 12,000 B.C., dozens of mammoths, drawn to a water-filled sinkhole outside the present-day town of Hot Springs, some two hours south of Deadwood, fell in and were trapped; today you can view their remains at a museum on the site. Since 1938, motorcyclists have been drawn to the small town of Sturgis, about 15 miles east of Deadwood, for a rally every August that now lasts 10 days and draws a half-million visitors, give or take. The sculptor Gutzon Borglum was drawn here in the 1920s to carve four Presidents out of Mount Rushmore; the sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski was drawn here in the 1940s to carve a likeness of the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse out of Thunderhead Mountain, 15 miles or so from Rushmore.

It’s questionable whether Crazy Horse would have appreciated the tribute: The Lakota regarded the Black Hills as sacred. So, in a different sense, did the United States of America, at least after 1874, when George Armstrong Custer led an expedition that discovered gold there. The federal government hastily broke a recently inked treaty promising the area to the Sioux forever and ever, and opened it up to new settlers. Very soon after Deadwood was founded it had about 5,000 inhabitants. Everything happened so quickly that there was no time to, say, pave the streets or establish the rule of law. A lot of people were gunned down in Deadwood in those early days; Wild Bill is just the best-remembered.

If you go to Saloon No. 10 at 1, 3, 5 or 7 p.m. most days in season you can gaze over the heads of tourists enjoying a rib-eye or something equally western and see Wild Bill, or someone who looks a fair bit like him, hold forth on his life as a lawman and gunfighter, taking care to dismiss, a tad indelicately, rumors that he and Calamity Jane had a thing. (Let’s just say she wasn’t his type.) If you stay for the whole thing, you can then witness the surly Jack McCall step up behind the holder of the Dead Man’s Hand and dispatch him with a couple of shots. And if you attend the last performance of the day, you can follow the action out into the street, where you will see McCall get arrested and marched up to the old Masonic Temple, inside which you can have a seat and witness his trial. Though it ended in an acquittal, Hickok was so beloved that authorities managed to skirt the prohibition against double jeopardy, try McCall again, convict him and hang him.

For the most part, though, justice on the frontier was such that you stood a much better chance of being hanged for stealing a horse than for merely killing another human being. Perhaps that explains why there were so many shootouts in Deadwood back then, which in turn might explain why there are so many here now. If you can’t make it to the No. 10, you can still witness one on Main Street daily at 2, 4 and 6 p.m. In between, you can stroll along the sidewalks past plenty of other saloons, a day spa or two, a wine-tasting room or two, and any number of souvenir shops.

Diversity, even in Deadwood

If you don’t spend more time in Deadwood than it takes to lose $40 at the Blackjack table, you might come away with the false impression that no one lived here in the old days without finding themselves at one end or the other of a Colt revolver. In fact, most of Deadwood’s denizens were peaceable folk, just looking for the American dream, or at least a living. There was opportunity here, and there was plenty of real gold nearby, including in the neighboring town of Lead (rhymes with “deed”). And even fool’s gold proved valuable in the end: Iron pyrite was used to make sulfuric acid, which in turn was used to process bona fide gold.

Opportunity even greeted those who were shunned elsewhere. A Chinese community thrived here, running laundries, restaurants, apothecaries; a Jewish community thrived here as well, opening mercantile shops, grocery stores, haberdasheries.

You can learn much more about those communities, and many of their more prominent members, and pretty much every other person of note who ever lived here and what they did, at the Adams Museum, about as good a local history repository I have ever come across in a town of this size. (Deadwood’s year-round population is only about 1,200.) But, strange as this may sound, they, and what they all experienced and endured, will really come to life for you if you make the trek to Mount Moriah Cemetery, up in the hills above the gulch.

It’ll cost you two dollars to get in, and you’ll have to hike some steep inclines, but it’s well worth the effort, and not just for the lovely views of the town down below. Most visitors don’t venture much further inside than Wild Bill’s monument, near the gates. People leave cash, decks of cards, packs of cigarettes and tiny liquor bottles at his grave.

But the history of Deadwood is spread all around in Mount Moriah’s picturesque verdant slopes: In the Chinese section, which contains few markers (most Chinese sent their dead back to the old country for burial) but does have a ceremonial burner (for religious ceremonies) that has been recently restored, and in the Jewish section, Mount Zion (a.k.a. “Hebrew Hill”), where you’ll find Levinsons and Goldblooms and scores of others. (Though not Solomon Star — portrayed by John Hawkes in the series — who also served 10 terms as Deadwood’s mayor; he’s buried in St. Louis.) It’s there in the large Masonic plot laid out like a celestial lodge, one of only two (I am told) in the entire country, and in mass graves filled with the victims of devastating epidemics and catastrophic fires, and on the tombstones of the everyday people whose epitaphs make clear that there was more to Deadwood than legends and gunfights.

Their stories might not be the stuff of dramatic premium cable television shows, but they are inarguably the stuff of everyday life during the painful, often traumatic expansion of a nation that would someday look back on that period with a nostalgia and awe and desire to recapture it, somehow, in a premium cable television show. And movie.

The last days of Reverend Smith

If you leave Deadwood via U.S. 85, heading north past more casinos and spas and museums and gift shops, you may spot, a few miles outside of town, a modest obelisk off the road to the right, standing in the lonely shade of some handsome old trees.

It commemorates the Rev. Henry Weston Smith, a 48-year-old Civil War veteran and Methodist minister from Connecticut who left his home for Deadwood in its rough-and-tumble earliest days, reckoning that was where he was needed most. On Sundays, he preached the gospel; the rest of the week he worked menial jobs so he could send a little something back home to his family. On Sunday, Aug. 20, 1876 — 18 days after Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickok in Saloon No. 10 — Reverend Smith set off on foot for Crook City, about 13 miles away, to minister to miners there. He never made it. His body was found near where the marker now stands. Indians were blamed, though many believe he was actually shot dead by some in Deadwood who worried that a man who preached against sin was bad for business.

In the TV show, Reverend Smith, ailing from a brain tumor, is tenderly euthanized, in a moving scene, by the otherwise amoral Swearengen, whose Gem saloon, I’m pretty sure, never offered hollandaise sauce. The reverend is buried at Mt. Moriah, too, just one more person whose gracious presence tempered Deadwood and kept it from becoming the kind of place no one 140 years hence would ever want to visit, gambling or no.

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