Deadwood is one of seven iconic Western towns featured in our 2017 Best of the West issue.
What’s in a name beyond a former hit HBO series title and a hint of irony? In the case of Deadwood, South Dakota — a town that has cheated death repeatedly over the last 141 years — only the most instantly recognizable-sounding dot on the Old West grid north of Tombstone. From the name alone, you know Deadwood has been there, done that and seen some things that would make Timothy Olyphant blush.
Coined after a gulch full of dead trees where the first wave of 1870s Black Hills miners would encamp during one of the country’s last great gold rushes — laying to waste a Lakota land treaty in the process — Deadwood would swiftly gain a reputation as one of the roughest, rowdiest, and most remunerative mineral boomtowns in frontier territory. And fodder for some of the biggest names in Western lore.
Wild Bill Hickok. Calamity Jane. Charlie Utter. They were all here. Not always for a long time — or a particularly good time. A few weeks after his arrival on the Utter wagon train in 1876, Hickok would be unceremoniously gunned down with a shot to the back of the head at the poker table by gambling sore loser Jack McCall while holding (as the story goes) two pairs, aces and eights — known as the “dead man’s hand” forever more.
Deadwood, of course, would live on. Through mining closures, prohibition, floods, several devastating fires, and civic debates about introducing legalized limited-stakes gaming (in 1989) to a small community now very well-fed with casino tax revenues. Today, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark drawing loads of summer guests to its brick-paved streets, quaint Victorian B&Bs, slot-machined hotels, $1-a-ride trolleys, hauntingly beautiful Black Hills back roads, and period-esque gunfight reenactments that you can time your watch to.
“Deadwood is one big piece of history wherever you look,” says Amanda Kille, Deadwood Chamber of Commerce marketing director, who offers some advice for beating the summer crowds. “We’re a year-round destination — people don’t always know that. But it’s really gorgeous here in the fall and winter, too.”
Founded in 1930, the Adams Museum houses a replica of Deadwood’s crown jewel, Potato Creek Johnny’s gargantuan gold nugget, as well as the mysterious encrypted Thoen Stone, sketchings of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, and the town’s best memorabilia exhibit. Follow it up at the Days of ’76 Museum, featuring the area’s most important collections of Western and Native artifacts and an impressive fleet of historic horse-drawn vehicles.
When famed frontierswoman Martha “Calamity” Jane Canary (1852 – 1903) succumbed to her last drinking binge at age 51, she had either insisted on being buried beside “the only man she ever loved” — Wild Bill Hickok (1837 – 1876), or her funeral planners were just playing an eternal posthumous joke on Hickok, who shared no mutual attraction. All conflicting theories aside, visitors to Mount Moriah Cemetery can honor Deadwood’s two best-known original cast members, now resting side by side in a tranquil spot overlooking the town’s famous gulch.
GET YOUR MOTOR (OR PEDALS OR FEET) RUNNING
Drivers: While everyone else beelines south to Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, lose the traffic by sticking north along Highway 14A on a dramatic north Black Hills scenic loop through the canyons between Deadwood and Spearfish. Cyclists and runners: The 114-mile George S. Mickelson Trail starts in Deadwood, stretches 114 miles through prime Black Hills outback, and hosts a hallmark summertime 26.2-miler — the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon (June 4). Cruisers: The 77th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally kicks into high gear during its signature charity run, the 50-mile Legends Ride (August 7) from Deadwood to the fabled Buffalo Chip in Sturgis.
STAKE YOUR CLAIM
Deadwood’s Broken Boot Gold Mine (established in 1878) tour will keep the kids busy for at least 20 minutes and includes a gold-in-the-pan guarantee (they’re just not saying how much). For liquid gold, head to storied Saloon #10, home to one of the largest whiskey selections in the state and Hickok’s alleged last poker hand “Death Chair” up on the wall. When it’s golden hour in Deadwood, it’s time to grab a veranda table at the Silverado-Franklin Historic Hotel and an al fresco cocktail overlooking fabled Main Street.
PARTY LIKE IT’S 1876
Entering its 95th year, the Days of ’76 (July 25 – 29) is still Deadwood’s biggest festival, with five days of rodeo and multiple parades along historic Main Street when those horse-drawn carriages come out for their annual spin.