They said that Deadwood was like Tombstone, four-fifths of a ghost, 3,500 people in the cemetery but only 2,200 on the streets.
Not long ago, the spectral wraiths of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok floated past the gutted and shuttered saloons and casinos of what was once the biggest boomtown in Dakota Territory.
But say now, isn't that Miss Kitty over there holding three aces? And Bat Masterson propping up his boots on the rail?
Gambling is legal once more in Deadwood, pardner, and the West has risen again.
"All of us were dying until last Nov. 1," said the man behind the cash register at Goldberg Grocery, the oldest grocery store west of the Missouri River. It was here that Calamity Jane tackled Jack McCall as he fled after shooting Wild Bill Hickok in the back on Aug. 2, 1876.
Since Nov. 1, as a result of a statewide initiative, Deadwood has offered blackjack, poker and slot machines. The action began at high noon on opening day, and it has never let up. In the first month of legalized gambling, $13 million was wagered.
Today, if you want to book a room in Deadwood's historic Franklin Hotel, built in 1903, you'd better call three months in advance.
Care to try your luck at Saloon No. 10, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot while holding black eights and aces--the famed Dead Man's Hand? Line up. There's an overflow crowd waiting to play seven-card stud poker, and, in March, Texas Hold 'Em, the game played annually at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
The strangest effect of the Deadwood boom has been the utter depopulation of all the nearby tourist attractions. On a recent visit to Mt. Rushmore, my family and I had the entire mountain to ourselves. We moved on to the Crazy Horse Memorial, largest statue in the world, near Custer, S.D. Not another soul.
The next day, we drove to Devils Tower National Monument near Sundance, Wyo., headquarters for the alien invaders in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and the oldest national monument in the country.
We were the only people there.
Clearly, the liveliest place in Deadwood is the Franklin Hotel and Gambling Hall, owned by Bill Walsh, who spearheaded the gambling initiative. Although the hotel has been refurbished since its construction 86 years ago, you'll still find a manually operated elevator there, as well as bordello burgundy carpeting and cages for the cashiers. You won't mistake it for a Holiday Inn.
The Franklin has played host to John Wayne, who stayed here during the filming of "Stagecoach," as well as to Buffalo Bill, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
None of them paid much, and neither will you. The Will Rogers suite, with two bedrooms, a huge living room, a kitchen and walk-in closets, goes for $75 a night.
The Franklin's 1903 Dining Room is an even better deal. Our total bill for 16 first-rate meals, some with wine, came to $106.95, including tips and tax. I'm talking about trout and halibut and an all-you-can-eat soup, salad and bakery bar.
I'm also talking about the only game in town. Salad bars exist elsewhere in Deadwood, but they're not what you'd find at home: jellied cranberries, chocolate pudding, canned fruit cocktail, lime Jello, creamed peas with salami, apple sauce and rhubarb. And yes, the locals toss it all with oil and vinegar.
The water is OK, but don't drink the wine. At one restaurant on Charles Street, to accompany my cauliflower cheese soup, I ordered a carafe of burgundy. It tasted more like port--very, very bad port. I gave it to my wife. When she had finished, she forgot our son Alex's name. She called him Alfred.
You'll eat better in Lead (pronounced leed --an outcropping of rock where gold ore is found), Deadwood's sister city three miles west on U.S. 85. Gold was discovered here in 1876, and Lead's Homestake Mine is still going strong.
The dining room in Lead's new Golden Hills Inn & Convention Center features pheasant and buffalo, as well as continental dishes, for under $15. The breakfast buffet, at $4.95 a head, includes baked-on-the-premises cinnamon rolls, apple turnovers, blueberry muffins and hot biscuits with country gravy, as well as French toast, blueberry pancakes, bacon, hash browns with green peppers, scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, grapes, cantaloupes, honeydew melons, watermelons and fresh pineapples, plus a wide variety of cereals and juices.
Guests at the Golden Hills Inn get free shuttle service to Deadwood.
For more local color, try the Grubstake. This is a huge bar that just happens to sell food, but in this part of the world it's a port in a storm. The blackboard menu of beef and chicken specials changes daily, and chili is always available for $2.50 a bowl. The Grubstake claims the most extensive wine list between New York and Los Angeles.
A sign on the front door warns, "Only Well Mannered Children Accompanied by Responsible Adults Are Welcome." At the bar, another sign advises, "Unattended Children Will Be Sold as Slaves." And yet another: "If Your Kid Doesn't Behave, Its Picture Will End Up on a Milk Carton."
What might appear to be perverse humor in fact reflects a South Dakota frontier law that remains on the books: It is perfectly legal to buy alcoholic beverages in a bar for your own minor child.
To walk off the food and drink, head for Mt. Moriah, Deadwood's own Boot Hill. It's only a mile from the center of town, but uphill all the way.
The tallest tombstone belongs to Harris Franklin, cattle and mining tycoon and founder of the Franklin Hotel. Had the hotel been given its owner's real name, it would have been the Finkelstein.
Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried side-by-side here, but don't get the wrong idea. It was completely Jane's idea.
While alive, Wild Bill avoided Calamity Jane like the plague--literally. The savvy U.S. marshal knew that men who spent the night with Jane usually came down with a calamity. This, at least, is one contemporary's version of how she got her nickname.
Hickok had been resting in peace for 27 years when Calamity Jane died of a bowel infection at the age of 53. As she lay dying, she cried out, "Bury me beside Wild Bill, the only man I ever loved."
Deadwood-Lead Area Chamber of Commerce, 735 Main St., Deadwood, S.D. 57732, (605) 578-1876.
Franklin Hotel and Gambling Hall, 700 Main St., Deadwood, S.D. 57732, toll-free (800) 688-1876. Doubles $39 and up, $48 in summer.
Golden Hills Inn & Convention Center, 900 Miners Ave., Lead, S.D. 57754, (800) 658-5555. Doubles $69, $89 in summer.
Grubstake Bar & Grill, 305 W. Main St., Lead, S.D. 57754, (605) 584-1984.
Saloon No. 10, 657 Main St., Deadwood, S.D. 57732, (605) 578-3346.