By all accounts, Deadwood, South Dakota should be a ghost town, slowly crumbling away. Bigger towns than it have faded from memory and from the map. But somehow, against all odds, today, Deadwood is thriving. Ironically, it's mostly due to the town making a return to its lawless ways of the past... but only for show! Although, legalizing gambling, a favorite Wild West past time, did help as well. Before you head to the famous Deadwood Historic District, which takes you back in time to Deadwood's Golden Age, here's what you need to know, and what you need to see!
In order to understand the appeal of visiting Deadwood, it helps to have an understanding of its reputation. The town itself was founded illegally on what was supposed to be Lakota land ("generously" granted to them by the US government) but that didn't stop floods of settlers moving in once gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Of course, the settlements that sprang up as the result of gold rushes were usually lawless, but Deadwood was even more notorious than most. Saloons and brothels were booming, and gunfights and murder were the norm-- and maybe the only thing worse than being murdered was being accused of murder, as trials were unfair and impartial. Wild Bill Hickock, famed gambler, actor, marksman and all-around Old West folk hero, was famously shot in the back while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon, and Calamity Jane, another Wild West hero, lived there for some time and is buried in the cemetery.
However, Deadwood didn't, like most boomtowns, become a ghost town. That's because unlike many gold rush settlements, they were able to transition from digging for gold to deep mining... and as the town became more prosperous and better established, the rough reputation faded away. Of course, things weren't always peachy, and the town was in decline until they were able to get gambling legal and open casinos, branding the town a tourist destination. Fun fact: most brothels didn't close until the 1980's, and the gold mine was active until 2002-- but it's still open to tourists who want to visit historic Deadwood and get a taste of the Old West. Here are some other rad things to do while you're in town (that don't involve prostitutes and actual six-shooters.)
The man credited for bringing Deadwood out of the gutter (essentially) is Seth Bullock. He was sheriff in Montana who came to Deadwood to open a hardware store (you know, to sell gold panning equipment to miners and the like). The day after he arrived in town was the day that Wild Bill was murdered, and after Hickock's murderer was found not guilty and got away, the townspeople began to realize that a sheriff might not be a bad thing. They quickly elected Bullock based on his background. Bullock had a reputation as being uncompromising and was able to gain control of the town. He was also friends with Theodore Roosevelt, who he met when they were both in North Dakota, working as sheriffs. Their lifelong friendship resulted in Roosevelt bestowing several honors upon Bullock, and when Roosevelt died, Bullock had a tower built on Sheep Mountain (later renamed Mount Roosevelt) as a monument to his old pal. Bullock died a few months later, and was buried on a hill in Mount Moriah cemetery facing the Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower. Aww.
Tin Lizzie Gaming Resort is a little off the main strip in Deadwood, but it's got ample parking and is right on the town's trolley route. The casino has poker, slots, $2 blackjack, craps, roulette, and 24/7 keno, and the hotel is pretty new and is quite nice. The Tin Lizzie Restaurant has all-you-can-eat prime rib and crab on Friday and Saturday night (which is delightfully old-school) and they have an Irish pub onsite with 24 craft beers (delightfully new-school) along with a bakery and a Starbucks. It's a great place to come back to and relax after a day of exploring the town!
Fun fact: "tin lizzie" was an old nickname for a run-down old car!
The Celebrity Hotel is downtown on Main Street in a charming historic building that's been updated with all the modern conveniences you could want. Their casino features blackjack and slots, and they also happen to have a bunch of awesome movie and TV show memorabilia... everything from "Back to the Future" and "Gladiator" to "Married With Children" and "Hawaii Five-O". They even have a costume from the HBO show "Deadwood", celebrity guitars, and famous automobiles as well-- you can see an Evel Knievel bike, Herbie the Love Bug, Bumblebee from "Transformers" and more.
The Midnight Star is a saloon/casino with a rich history and loads of character. Diamond Lil's is a fun (and slightly random) Kevin Costner-themed restaurant decorated with memorabilia from his career, and with dishes named for his films. They also have a casino with card games like blackjack and three-card poker, and plenty of slot machines as well.
The Days of '76 Museum is dedicated to Deadwood's pioneering earliest citizens. It started off as a place to store the horse-drawn carriages and wagons and costumes used during Deadwood's annual Days of '76 festival, but it's grown into a collection of Wild West artifacts and objects that is quite impressive.
Mount Moriah Cemetery is one of the coolest attractions in town. In it, you'll find the final resting place of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane-- they were friends and are buried next to each other. There's also a section of the cemetery where you'll find many Jewish people buried, as Deadwood had a large Jewish population (out of the ordinary for the time) as well as a section where many of Deadwood's Chinese citizens were laid to rest. You'll also find Civil War and Indian War veterans as well. Pro tip: Seth Bullock's grave is way, way, way in the back... so he could be facing the Friendship Monument.
The Historic Adams House is maybe the coolest attraction in town, since it's a 100% authentic Victorian home untouched by time. When W.E. Adams’ died in 1934, his wife Mary simply abandoned the house as it was, locking the door behind her and leaving everything intact. It was purchased in 1992 by the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission, and when they went to begin restoring parts of the home, they found everything in place... even the patent medicine in the bathroom and cookies left in the cookie jar. A visit here will really make you feel like you've gone back in time.
Dive deep into the history of Deadwood at the Broken Boot Gold Mine... literally. Follow ore car tracks into century-old mine shafts just like miners did a hundred years ago. Of course, it's much safer now, and with guided tours leaving every half-hour, you'll get a complete history on the gold mine that gave life to Deadwood. You'll find out why the mine made more money selling fool's gold than real gold, pan for gold yourself (they promise that every visitor will strike it rich) and leave with a certificate issuing you a "share" in the mine's stock.
The Silverado Franklin's roots date back to the early 20th century, and when the Franklin Hotel originally opened in 1903, it was the height of luxury: half of the hotel's 80 rooms had private baths, which was rare for the time. Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, John Wayne, Buffalo Bill Cody, Babe Ruth and champion boxer John L. Sullivan cozied up in the hotel at its peak, but the Great Depression took a hard toll on the hotel, and it didn't recover... the building was converted into apartments, then back into a hotel after Silverado Gaming bought it and fixed it back up. The lobby was redecorated to match old pictures, and today the joint oozes historic vibes. It also boasts a casino, a steakhouse, a buffet, and a killer seasonal rooftop bar offering great views of the town!
To fully understand the mysterious appeal of the Black Hills, and Deadwood itself, check out the town's Adams Museum. It's a fascinating collection of the region's greatest treasures that's been on display since the 1930s. Learn about Potato Creek Johnny and see his famed gold nugget, see illustrator N.C. Wyeth’s pencil sketch of Wild Bill Hickok, read the mysterious Thoen Stone record of the Ezra Kind party’s discovery of gold in the Hills in the 1830s and even see a one-of-a-kind plesiosaur!
People like to refer to the No. Ten as “the only museum in the world with a bar”... and it's an apt description since history was made in this saloon, where Jack McCall shot Wild Bill Hickock to death during an argument over a poker game. Gambling, re-enactments and live music make this an exciting stop, and you can enjoy a sip of something from the state's largest selection of bourbons, scotches & whiskeys. The Deadwood Social Club upstairs is a nice little steakhouse with a unique Italian flair, and you can pick up some souvenirs from this historic spot.
Another vintage accommodation option is the Historic Bullock Hotel. It's decorated to Victorian-era perfection, except outlaws and sheriffs in the 19th century didn't get to enjoy Jacuzzi tubs in suites or a Bloody Mary bar in the onsite restaurant, Bully's. Play a few games on the slots in the casino and enjoy the incredible atmosphere!
There's more to Deadwood than the gold miners. The Native Americans who lived in the area have a fascinating story to tell as well. The best place to learn about them near Deadwood is Tatanka: Story of the Bison. The main feature here is a group of statues depicting a herd of 14 bison and a Native American hunter. There's also an interpretive center where you can get a really good, in-depth and truly fascinating lesson on the Lakota people and the importance of the bison.
Almost every day, three times a day, there's a live re-enactment of the death of Wild Bill at the hands of Jack McCall. You'll have to check the schedule for total confirmation, but generally they occur at 2pm in front of the Tin Lizzie Casino, at 4pm in front of the Celebrity Hotel and at 6pm in front of the Silverado Franklin Historic Hotel. Re-enactments are sometimes held at the Saloon No. 10, where the actual gunfight went down, as well. Also, at 8pm on most nights, you can attend a staged version of McCall's trial. Fun fact: the hand that Wild Bill was holding when he was shot-- aces and eights-- has become known as a "Dead Man's Hand". If you're playing poker at one of the casinos in town, watch out if you're delt that hand!
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