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.