How the West was redone
Gambling, Hickok put life back in Deadwood, S.D.
History hangs heavily over Deadwood, though whether this is actually the chair where "Wild Bill" Hickok sat when he was shot--on display at Saloon No. 10--is anyone's guess. (Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune)
On a recent Friday night, the downtown crawled with, of all people, a band of gray-haired women in purple clothes and red hats. The members of the Red Hat Society were several hundred strong, laughing their way up Main Street while gathered for a conference. I stopped one who wore a long-sleeved purple turtleneck, a purple sequined vest, purple pants, a red sequined bolo and, of course, a broad red hat.
"Looks like you're having fun," I said. "I don't think you ladies could have done this in the old Deadwood."
"No, we would not have had the liberty to do this," she said. "But we can have fun now!"
Ah, the new Deadwood: where the gambling remains, but that's about it.
The red hats went their way, and I went mine — to Saloon No. 10, where legend says Wild Bill Hickok was shot in 1876 during the one card game in which he didn't insist on sitting with his back to the wall. (This, however, was the new Saloon No. 10; the original was across the street.) At one entrance, a tourist-ready array of Saloon No. 10 T-shirts, baseball caps and skimpy women's underwear was for sale. At another, Wild Bill's "death chair" — where he supposedly sat when Jack McCall shot him — sits above the door.
Like the infamous Mr. Hickok, I sat down to gamble. His game was poker. Mine was blackjack. The table, with a $2 minimum you'd be hard pressed to find in Vegas, was crowded with eight men. Six were heading back to Minnesota from a hunting trip in Wyoming. Five wore baseball caps.
I threw down $20 and watched the dealer toss cards across the table with an airy flip. The first hand cost me $2. On the next, one of the men commented on the dealer's style, to which he said, "It's nothing. I'm just trying to give the new guy a 20."
The new guy — me — checked his cards. King of clubs and queen of hearts. Twenty.
The deft dealing made me think maybe Deadwood hasn't changed much after all, even if back in the day, such an event might have emptied one of those six chambers. I won that hand, but within 10 minutes my $20 was gone and so was I.
I wandered up Deadwood's four-block Main Street, a cozy collection of bars, hotels, T-shirt shops and casinos that form the heart of this revitalized town. The town fell into disrepair in the 1970s, but Deadwood has been largely restored to its Old West days — though gently enough to make the red hats feel at home.
You see it in the rehabilitated brick and wood buildings, the gently sloping and brick-paved Main Street and in the lively bars where the odds are in your favor that no one will be shot during a card game. The most influential factor in this town's revitalization was the reintroduction of gambling in 1989. You can't go more than a few storefronts without hearing pinging slot machines.
But Deadwood has more than gambling for it. Geography is its friend, placing it in the bright, clean Black Hills of western South Dakota, which are so sparsely populated that they retain some rugged frontier charm. Deadwood sits two hours or less from Mount Rushmore (I don't care how jaded you are, it is a sight to behold); Sturgis, home of the nation's most famous motorcycle rally; and the otherworldly Badlands National Park. Deadwood might not be a destination, but add those other sites and destinations — along with long, lovely drives through the Black Hills' winding roads — and you have a fine week planned.
Deadwood also has history on its side. The slickly produced, unrelentingly profane HBO series "Deadwood" (2004-06) drew on the historical characters of the real town to create a hit that pulled Deadwood out of its Wild West attic and thrust it back into the national imagination.
Today the town milks its history at every turn. Signs hang on Main Street noting where Wild Bill was shot (now a vacant storefront) and where Jack McCall was arrested (a T-shirt shop). Plaques honor the great fire of 1879, the devastating flood of 1883 and the "gritty Jewish Westerners" who "helped bring prosperity, recognition and jobs to the region."
The ultimate historical stop is Mount Moriah cemetery, in the hills above town, which is the burial site for Wild Bill; Calamity Jane, a renowned frontierswoman, prostitute and gambler; Potato Creek Johnny, who was 4 foot 3 and the best prospector of his day; and Seth Bullock, the sheriff who restored order amid the lawlessness.
Wild Bill's plot is the biggest draw. Adorned with coins from well-wishers, it is crowned with a 6- or 7-foot bronze headstone featuring his long-haired, dreamy-eyed bust.
It's tempting to believe everything you are told about this place, but history is tailored toward simple tales. For instance, Wild Bill was in Deadwood less than a month before he was killed, even if you'd never know it from walking the streets, where his name is dropped so often you'd think he was a local. At his headstone I met John Gary, 71, who moved to Deadwood 20 years ago to open a hardware store. I asked if he believed Wild Bill's "death chair" was actually where he died.
"Well, I'd like to believe it," Gary said. "It adds a little more charisma to the place. But I don't know how you'd prove it."