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Perhaps you've been watching "Deadwood," the HBO series. Well, this town of 1,300 in the Black Hills is the genuine thing, where the real Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane hung out.
Basking in its new celebrity — and with the series (filmed in Santa Clarita) renewed for 2005 — Deadwood is pumping up efforts to lure visitors, most recently by erecting a $150,000 block of Old West facades downtown, where most 1876-era buildings burned down long ago.
"People ask, 'Where's old Deadwood?' Well, we've never had one. Now we have one," said Mike Lloyd, director of the "Deadwood Alive" troupe, which stages shootouts twice daily at the site. The facades are authentic, insofar as they are modeled after museum photographs of old Deadwood buildings. Visitors taking rides in an 1880s stagecoach may find themselves victims of a stagecoach "robbery."
Deadwood is nestled in the northwest corner of the state near the Montana border, only 50 miles north of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, which draws 2.2 million visitors annually. But only 1.2 million came to look at Deadwood — until the March debut of "Deadwood." For most visitors, the town has been an overnight stop on the way to Yellowstone National Park. But that's changing.
Hits on the Chamber of Commerce website, https://www.deadwood.org, have tripled since this time last year, to 4.9 million in May, and the chamber projects an increase of 800,000 visitors this year.
"The first thing people say is, 'We didn't know this was a real town,' " said executive director George Milos. They ask, too, if the show's minor characters were real. Some were, including Al Swearengen, the proprietor of the unsavory Gem Theater.
"[The show's] been a good thing," said Mayor Francis Toscana, though some folks are "upset with the language and nudity."
"The story itself is not like the historians might tell it, but I enjoy it."
Miles to go
South DAKOTA has been described as "miles and miles of miles and miles" or, as a rock musician I met at a B&B in nearby Spearfish concluded after driving much of the state: "six hours of billboards."
Having visited for the first time last summer, I'd say neither description is quite fair. First, there's Mt. Rushmore, which is surprisingly compelling, once you get past its gateway town, Keystone, with its presidential wax museum and kitschy jumble of shops flogging fudge and Black Hills gold jewelry.
On a sizzling late June day I flew into Rapid City, rented a car and drove downtown for lunch at the Landmark restaurant in the Alex Johnson Hotel, which is itself a landmark, with its German Tudor architecture (a nod to the region's early immigrants) and Lakota Sioux art and artifacts.
From Rapid City it was a 23-mile drive southwest to Mt. Rushmore, where I took a quick look before heading into the Northern Black Hills. There I would spend five days exploring Deadwood, Lead (pronounced leed), Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Badlands National Park.
First overnight: Spearfish, population 9,500. In the big, beautiful public park, kids were riding inner tubes in Spearfish Creek. A footbridge over the creek leads to the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery (1896), which introduced trout — now a menu staple—to this area and where trout ogle visitors from a big viewing tank.
Off Interstate 90 on the edge of town is the High Plains Western Heritage Center, a regional museum with a rich Western collection, including an original Spearfish-Deadwood stagecoach.
The museum was born of an effort by two local ranchers to bring the National Cowboy Hall of Fame here, said executive director Peggy Ables. After losing out to Oklahoma City, they decided "there was enough history in this area to build their own facility," which opened in 1989. It's a nice one.
Spearfish is the gateway to spectacular Spearfish Canyon, where highway 14-A, a national scenic byway, meanders between evergreen-dotted cliffs and past waterfalls, with Spearfish Creek rushing through. My destination was Spearfish Canyon Resort, a bucolic retreat 13 miles south of town.
The woodsy lodge is exactly what one would hope to find in this setting, with its octagonal great room with soaring river-rock fireplace. My standard room was just high-end motel, but the teddy bear snoozing on my bed was a nice touch.
At a deck table at Latchstring Restaurant across the road, you can hear the rush of the creek and, at breakfast or lunch, toss tidbits to the yellow-bellied marmots that beg below. The restaurant is like a big, pretty log cabin, and the stream trout is delicious.
The resort is just five miles from the southern entrance to the canyon and Highway 85, the road to Lead and Deadwood, so I made it home base for two nights.
In Lead, with the thermometer at an unusually warm 100, I ducked into the cool of the Stampmill Restaurant and Saloon for lunch, passing on the chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes in favor of a salad and iced tea — lots of it — before checking out the Black Hills Mining Museum's realistic underground replica of an old gold mine. I was puzzled to see a figure of a mule among the miners, until our guide explained that mules once pulled the ore-laden carts, living underground for up to 15 years before being retired.
For 125 years there was a real gold mine in Lead, the Homestake Mine, whose owners included George Randolph Hearst, father of William Randolph. Black Hills gold helped create the fortune that built the newspaper empire. Depressed prices and rising costs caused the mine to close in 2001.
One day I drove about 100 miles east on Interstate 90 to Badlands National Park and set out on the two-lane, 30-mile loop road, stopping at scenic outlooks to take in the surreal and haunting moonscape — peaks and valleys, pinnacles and buttes of pink, yellow, orange and purple.
I spent my last two nights at the 1903 Historic Franklin Hotel in Deadwood, where guests survey Main Street from red rockers on the wide veranda. The hotel has hosted presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft) and movie stars (John Wayne, Kevin Costner). Some rooms had been renovated, but not mine. It was a rather dreary space named for Korczak Ziolkowski, sculptor of the Crazy Horse Memorial — a work in progress in the Black Hills for four decades.
Never mind. I spent little time there. I'd booked a dinner table at Jake's, an excellent and surprisingly elegant restaurant owned by Kevin Costner (whose parents live in Spearfish) and named for Costner's character in "Silverado." Some of the scenes for "Dances With Wolves," winner of seven Oscars in 1990, including best picture and best director (Costner), were shot nearby, and the celebrity is big here. Jake's is a pretty brick-walled room atop an 1879 building.
The next day I hopped on a Boot Hill Tours bus that boasted, "This bus is the only location in town where Wild Bill was not shot." Driver Ron told us that Deadwood was named for the fallen timber that once choked Deadwood Gulch; that the Sioux named the Black Hills (which are green but appear dark at dusk); that there are 3,000 slot machines in Deadwood; and that the last hanging was in 1897.
He was in his element at the hilltop Mt. Moriah Cemetery, pointing out old headstones with such causes of death as "softening of the brain," "bad whiskey," "hanged by vigilantes" and "from eating 13 hard-boiled eggs."
But the cemetery's main draws are the graves of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. He'd been in town only three weeks when he was shot from behind on Aug. 2, 1876, while playing poker at Nuttall & Mann's No. 10 Saloon (now the Eagle Bar on Main Street). Although he had recently wed a rich widow and had no romantic feelings for the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Jane, she fancied him and asked to be buried next to him. "Wild Bill's been tossing in his grave ever since," said Ron.
At the downtown Adams Museum, which chronicles Black Hills history, it's noted that Jane "accumulated an undetermined number of husbands, and perhaps children, but never Wild Bill."
Wild Bill's shooting is reenacted four times a day at the Old Style Saloon No. 10 on Main Street, the site of the theater where his killer, Jack McCall, was tried. Wild Bill is shot from behind at the poker table, holding the legendary dead man's hand — two black aces, two black eights and the nine of diamonds. After the 7 p.m. show (except on Saturdays) the actor portraying McCall is captured and taken to the Deadwood Theater in the Masonic Temple, where the "Deadwood Alive" troupe, funded by the town's historic preservation commission, stages a free re-creation of his trial.
That story does not lack for drama. McCall was tried and acquitted, claiming he was avenging the murder of his brother by Wild Bill. Later, it was learned that he'd never had a brother; he was retried and hanged.
"We're very glad [Wild Bill] came," even if briefly, said Adams Museum director Mary Kopco, noting a 50% increase in visitors since the TV series began. Just as they are at the cemetery, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are the big draws at the museum. A new exhibit shows how Hollywood has portrayed Wild Bill and how HBO is telling the Deadwood legend in a fresh way. To help Deadwood's visitor industry answer questions by TV viewers, Kopco and her staff have compiled a booklet, "The Reality Behind the Romance of Deadwood."
It describes the Deadwood of the gold rush era, 1875 to 1876, as a lawless boomtown of maybe 10,000 — miners, outlaws, prostitutes — with 75 saloons, countless slayings and assaults and a Chinatown with flourishing opium dens. Men outnumbered women 200 to one, so there were "sporting girls" galore. The first madams — Madam Dirty Em and Madam Mustachio — arrived in 1876; the last four brothels weren't shut down until 1980.
To capitalize on the TV show, a subcommittee has raised $1 million with help from the South Dakota Department of Tourism to hire an ad agency and launch a direct-mail campaign. "We realized this could potentially be very big," said subcommittee member Kopco.
Betting on history
Nothing this big had happened in Deadwood since legalized gambling was brought back in 1989 through a statewide voter referendum spearheaded by the Deadwood You Bet committee. Until then, "Deadwood was dying," said Bill Walsh, proprietor of the 1903 Franklin Hotel, as we tooled through town in his cream-colored 1976 Eldorado convertible.
Partial proceeds from gambling have funded much-needed historic preservation, and without that money the town would have remained a "minor historic attraction," said Jim Wilson, Deadwood historic preservation officer. The windfall to date: an estimated $75 million.
Today there are 80 casinos, some open 24 hours. Strolling down brick-paved Main Street under the glow of old-time street lights, past an all-you-can-eat $6.95 fish-fry place, I wondered whether Deadwood had created a monster — the Wild West meets Las Vegas but with a sense of humor.
"Not yet," said Walsh, noting that the town isn't near a major metropolitan area and that it hasn't attracted big gambling interests. (There's a $100 bet limit.)
Knowing that gambling alone is not going to bring visitors, some are concerned that Deadwood's Western-ness will be smothered in slot machines and kitsch. "We're not a theme park," said the chamber's Milos. "We're just a small Western town," one that happens to be a national historic landmark. Its traditional "Days of '76" celebration, with a rodeo and parade, will be held July 27 through Aug. 1.
On my last day in Deadwood, the Fourth of July, I drove 27 miles north to Belle Fourche (population 4,300) for its Black Hills Roundup rodeo. No sooner had we settled into the grandstand at the rodeo grounds than the rains came.
Cowboys were covered with mud, and Miss Rodeo South Dakota contestants smiled bravely as they trotted on horseback around the ring.
Back in Deadwood, I had a steak dinner at 1903's restaurant in the Franklin Hotel before strolling past the Victorian brick buildings on Main Street, dropping a few coins in the slots and conjuring up my own images of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. Nyla Griffith TDG CommunicationsSEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES: Deadwood's historic Main Street was restored in the late 1980s, with period street lights and other touches. The city also recently built a block of gold rush-era facades to capitalize on its new celebrity. The number of visitors to the city is expected to increase this year by 800,000.