- Historic Sites
The Town That Took A Chance
From its first boom during America’s biggest gold rush to its current gamble on gambling, Deadwood, South Dakota, has managed to keep itself very much alive
April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
Maybe I was fated to take a trip to Deadwood. Back in 1952 I was living under the high white Hollywood sign while my father played small parts in big movies, such as Popilius Lena in Julius Caesar , the version that starred Marion Brando. That year Paramount was making two Westerns on adjoining sound stages. One was Shane ; the other was Son of Paleface , starring Bob Hope, Jane Russell, and Roy Rogers. Son of Paleface was a sequel of sorts to the 1948 movie The Paleface , in which Jane Russell played Calamity Jane, with the action set in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Told by an actor friend who had a small part in Shane that it would be one of the greatest Westerns, my father visited the set several times. My brother and I tagged along so that we could head next door and watch Son of Paleface being filmed. Jane Russell clutched me to her ample bosom, and Trigger did tricks to delight me. That was when the fascination with Deadwood took hold, although it would be another 52 years before I came to know anything much about the place and its history.
In 1875 a prospector found gold nuggets at the southern end of Deadwood Gulch, a strip of land cradled in the high and beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. Why “Deadwood”? The nearest hills were covered with blackened trees killed by wildfires.
By 1876 the gold rush was on, the biggest in American history. In that year Deadwood’s population of a few hundred at most became 10,000 at least. There was no law to speak of in what amounted to an illegal settlement for nearly two years, while the Sioux and the government argued over its possession. The hills had become a magnet for people who were not quite outlaws but not exactly law-abiding either, people such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Notorious elsewhere, here they became legends.
Deadwood’s attractions included gambling, brothels, saloons, and the Gem Theatre, with ticket sales of up to $10,000 a night, which may well have made it the most profitable theater in North America. That same gold-rush year nonetheless brought early signs of stability. The first schoolteacher opened the first school.
Soon thereafter the Chinese came to work in the mines. They established a Chinese laundry and a Chinese grocery store, and Fee Lee Wong set up as a Chinese herbalist. But not knowing any of this as I walked the length of Main Street on a pleasant summer evening, I was mystified by a large sign attached to some storm fencing opposite the Hampton Inn. The sign read, ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG—FOR CHINESE ARTIFACTS.
Sure enough, someone inside the fenced enclosure was bent over, digging gently, peering intently. Photographs of some of the hundreds of artifacts unearthed so far hung from the fence, and a friendly archaeologist stood by on the sidewalk, happy to show passersby such finds as opium paraphernalia. The dig was my first big surprise in Deadwood and a signal that the town knows it has a story to tell.
The most famous part of that story is the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok. On August 2, 1876, a cross-eyed young drifter named Jack McCall sidled up behind Hickok in Saloon No. 10 as he contemplated his cards, black aces and eights. McCall drew a pistol and fired two bullets into the back of Hickok’s head.
McCall ran into an alley and was swiftly arrested. Tried a couple of days later, he claimed that Hickok had killed his brother. Where was the crime in killing a killer? The judge and jury agreed and set him free.
Arrested again a few months later, McCall was hauled before a federal judge in Yankton, a town in Dakota Territory. The judge ruled the first trial invalid because Deadwood was in Indian Territory. Found guilty this time, thanks to a witness who swore that she had known McCall from childhood and he had never had a brother, he was sentenced to death. When McCall’s body was exhumed nearly a hundred years later, a length of rope was still around his neck.
The murder of Wild Bill spurred the business community to organize a town council. Seth Bullock, a Canadian who had prospered by moving his hardware business from Salt Lake City to Deadwood, was appointed sheriff. Bullock’s business partner, Solomon Star, was elected to a seat on the council and went on to serve 14 terms as mayor. There were 76 saloons in Deadwood; now the town got its first jail.
The biblical way with wicked communities is punishment by fire or flood. Deadwood got both. A fire in 1879 destroyed most of the business district. The area was rebuilt in brick and stone. Then in 1883 came a flood that swept away much of what remained that wasn’t brick or stone.
The town rebuilt itself for the second time. Its wild days were already fading into the sepia tones of history. Deadwood became a workingman’s town, not a gunslinger’s, but gambling still flourished, as did prostitution. Single miners far outnumbered single women, and the saloons continued to prosper.
As Chinatown developed, it hired two Chinese policemen and formed its own hook-and-ladder team, which competed in hose-cart races against Caucasian teams from across South Dakota. The hardworking Chinese also had their lawless elements. They operated opium dens.