I must confess that before last weekend, when I heard “Deadwood” I thought “that show Tim Omundson and Jim Beaver were on?” A show, moreover, that I have never seen. this doesn’t really surprise me, as my previous trip to western South Dakota occurred well before an age that would allowed me to participate in what makes Deadwood famous.

there have been disputes over the legality of Deadwood, as the Black Hills (in which the town is nestled) were granted to the Lakota people by the Treaty of Laramie in 1868. of course, gold rushes and prospectors pay no mind to such things as “legal ownership” or “morally defensible behavior.” and so, with the help of wagons filled with the “needed commodities” (i.e. prostitutes and gamblers) the settlement exploded in just a few years.

the legality of Deadwood’s existence came into play in conjunction with the town’s most infamous event — the murder of Wild Bill Hickock. during an initial trial his assassin was acquitted, but because the town was not a legal settlement the verdict was deemed invalid. Jack McCall was then retried in a Dakota Territory court, found guilty, and hanged. Wild Bill is buried in a cemetery on a hill overlooking the town but, seeing as Mount Moriah charged admission (and we only drove past on a whim on our way out of town) we opted to forego the “historic” site.

the town was devastated several times, first when smallpox spread through the mining camp during 1876 and required quarantine of the sick, in 1879 when fire destroyed most of the town, and again by fire in 1959. despite being placed on the National Historic Landmark in 1961, the town continued its decline as mining in the immediate vicinity became less important and mines opened up elsewhere in the surrounding area. to make matters worse, the route for I-90 bypassed Deadwood in 1964 and the final nail in the coffin came with the closure of all brothels in 1980. yes. the brothels of Deadwood didn’t go out of commission (or underground, whatever) until 1980. as we drove around town, we guessed as to which of the neatly maintained, multi-story homes on side streets once housed brothels; some of our judgments were based on structural observations — external entrances, lots of upstairs bedrooms, etc., — others on whim.

after a fire in 1987, the town sought permission to allow gambling in an effort to revitalize town — after all, it was one of the town’s founding elements. it’s somewhat odd now to think there was a time when there weren’t casinos wedged into every fifth storefront of Deadwood and on every other corner throughout the rest of South Dakota. in the end, legalization of gambling did what Deadwood hoped and revitalized the town. it’s no Vegas, but it expands the town’s appeal to more than just people looking for gun fight re-enactments and the graves of Wild West outlaws.

the Argo Gold Mine

walking down the hill

after we learned about the tunnel from our new Dutch friend, we got to go up the mountain and into an abandoned mine — the Double Eagle Mine, which dates from the early 1890s. they made us put on hardhats and, upon letting us out of the shuttle, admonished us to walk down the hill. apparently, a couple of weeks earlier a couple from somewhere in Europe made the mistake of turning left out of the tunnel and ended up half way to Central City (which we know is about 4.5 miles away).

when these mines were prospected, men had to rely on candlelight and hand tools, with the occasional assistance of dynamite (which, as we know, got them into trouble in the Argo Tunnel). it was excruciating and exhausting work to dig and haul rock from the tunnels and the depth of the Double Eagle mine illustrated this. it’s only a couple dozen meters from the mouth of the tunnel to the end, though it’s high enough in most places for someone of my height to walk through (we still had to put on hard hats all the same).

while the Double Eagle mine didn’t net the miners the lode every prospector hopes for, it yielded some gold. in fact, there is still gold to be found in the tunnel. because they were using candles to light the tunnel, the original prospectors didn’t notice the vein of gold running along the ceiling at the back of the tunnel. it’s hard to tell from the picture of Gabrielle and Jen, but there’s an apparent streak along the southern wall of the tunnel which would have been just a bit too faint to distinguish by candlelight. we, of course, had the benefit of electricity. and being told where to look to see the gold. you can’t prospect on the Argo land any more, but there is still gold in dem hills and anyone can take a pan out to the creek and try their hand at prospecting in the frigid waters. we opted for the easy, gold-flake-laden prospecting opportunity in the troughs in front of the Argo shop. the water was plenty cold, but at least we weren’t up to our knees in it!

medieval rivalry

On my last full day in the Czech Republic, I took a bus out to Kutná Hora to see one last set of UNESCO World Heritage sights. during the late Middle Ages, the wealth from silver mines in the area brought the town cultural and economic prestige to rival Prague, which is less than 40 miles away. it’s somewhat hard to imagine now — a town of just over 20,000 once standing toe to toe to a city of well over 1.25 million.

the proximity to Prague also made Kutná Hora a convenient base for launching attacks during the Hussite Wars. in 1420, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund launched an unsuccessful attack on Tábor, center of the Hussite movement at the time. in response, the Hussites (led by Jan Žižka) temporarily took Kutná Hora in 1422 before imperial troops reclaimed and burned it to deter the Hussites from reclaiming the city. of course, with silver mines as large profitable as these, razing of the town didn’t deter Jan Žižka and the Hussites and thereafter followed a century of prosperity for the town.

the prosperity didn’t last, however; in 1526 the Hapsburg Empire took over the region and twenty years later the richest mine flooded. the plague ravaged the town repeatedly, as it did much of Europe, and the Thirty Years War further decimated the area. while some made attempts following the end of the war to re-open the mines, they did not succeed and by the end of the 18th century all of the mines were abandoned.