Driving into Deadwood, South Dakota down Main Street, the aura of frontier outlaw wildness is impossible to ignore. This is the area of the Black Hills where the last great American gold rush of the 19th century occurred. Neek, Sar and I were curious to explore the town, but wanted to get a sense of the history of the place first. We figured the best start would be to begin with the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau.
The Visitors Bureau is located in an old train depot, the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Passenger Depot which was built in 1897 and has been beautifully restored. We learned so much about the history of Deadwood there! The town began in 1876 as thousands of prospectors descended on the area where gold had been discovered two years prior. Among the most famous of these was former gunfighter and lawman Wild Bill Hickok. He was only in town less than a month when he was shot dead while playing poker by Jack McCall, who was later hanged for his crime.There were a number of other characters living in Deadwood who helped to give it its colorful reputation. One was Martha Canary, famously known as “Calamity Jane.” She was allegedly given this nickname by Captain James Egan after saving his life during a battle with Native Americans at Goose Creek, Wyoming in 1873.
When she wasn’t spreading the legend of herself as an expert scout and crack shot, she was often in saloons drinking, chewing tobacco and partying, often dressed in men’s clothing. When she died in 1903, she was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood. Another character in Deadwood around this time was Seth Bullock.
Along with his partner Sol Star, they relocated their hardware business to Deadwood in 1876 to take advantage of the booming gold rush. He arrived the day before Hickok was murdered and became Deadwood’s first Sheriff. With a stellar reputation for bringing order to a lawless region, he later became a Deputy US Marshal. In 1884, he met Theodore Roosevelt, then a Deputy Sheriff, who had apprehended a horse thief named Crazy Steve. This was the start of a lifelong friendship for Roosevelt and Bullock, who volunteered as one of Teddy’s Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. When Roosevelt died in January 1919, Bullock enlisted help to build a monument to him. Bullock died in September 1919, but his burial plot on a small plateau above Mt. Moriah Cemetery has a view of Roosevelt’s monument.
One more unique Deadwood character deserves mention, John Perrett, a.k.a. Potato Creek Johnny. He was an immigrant from Wales who first came to seek his fortune in the Black Hills in the 1880s. Only standing 4 feet 3 inches tall, Potato Creek Johnny was a committed prospector who spent years using gold pans and sluice boxes after most gold mining had gone underground. Staking his claim in Deadwood’s Potato Creek, Johnny reportedly discovered in 1929 one of the largest gold nuggets in Black Hills weighing 7.75 ounces. Though some believe he had simply melted smaller gold nuggets into one big one, Johnny parlayed this discovery into local fame. During the 30s and 40s until his death in 1943, he helped promote tourism for Deadwood with his tall tales, his warm personality, and his magical way with children, who loved him for being the same size as him!
After finding out about all these characters at the Visitors Center, we also found out that Deadwood was on the verge of becoming a ghost town by the 1980s. Their fortune was revived in 1989, when they became the third place in the United States, the others being Nevada and Atlantic City, to legalize gambling. Neek, Sar and I decided to head on out to Main Street to check out some of the casinos and other attractions in Deadwood.
Though Deadwood has had many fires during their history where a number of historic buildings have burned to the ground, there were still some places that stood out for their longevity. As we ambled over to Main Street, we could see the Franklin Hotel, which has been there since 1903. Some people claim the place is haunted, which doesn’t surprise me! The same claim has also been made of the Bullock Hotel, (named after Seth Bullock, of course) also on Main Street. This place has been in Deadwood even longer, since 1895. It was pleasing to see such old architecture still standing and it was a beautiful afternoon, though a bit hot. Looking for a place to quench our thirst, we came across an inviting looking place, Old Style Saloon No. 10.
The interior of the place was a mix of old and new. There was sawdust on the floor, giving it a distinct turn of the century feel, along with rows of heads of various large dead animals. But the place was also lined with slot machines that looked like they could have fit in on the Strip in Vegas! There was even a stage I assume live acts appear on; I had a lot of fun clowning around there. They served plenty of beer on tap, but Neek, Sar and I all wet our parched throats with cola on ice.
As I sat drinking and admiring the décor, I noticed prominently displayed above the door was the Death Chair. I couldn’t believe it at first, but I verified with one of the employees that it was the actual chair that Wild Bill Hickok was sitting in with his poker hand of two pair (aces over eights) when he was shot in the back of the head and killed by Jack McCall. But the Old Style Saloon No. 10 is not the actual place he was killed, that place was down the street.
So we left the saloon and I was determined to find the actual place where Hickok was murdered. I didn’t have to look too far as just a block down Main Street, there was a sign prominently displayed on the building in the location where the original Saloon No. 10 stood. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go inside the place, but standing there outside the original location, I definitely got the sense that people in Deadwood now care more about preserving their history than they did when they were actually creating the history.
I wish we could have stayed longer, but we had a hotel to get to in Rapid City, South Dakota. We were exhausted but exhilarated by a full day of adventures!