The Town That Took A Chance


In 1895 Seth Bullock built the Bullock Hotel, a handsome Italianate structure with a banded facade of local pink and white sandstone. It was extensively and expensively renovated in the early 1990s. No two rooms are alike in size or shape, and the renovation has aimed to capture the exuberant spirit of the original, while preserving many period details. The iron shutters at the back and sides of the building show their age; around their edges rust has taken its toll. They were saved, Diana Huskey, the marketing coordinator, told me, because they were part of the original fabric.

Other features seem designed to raise an eyebrow or a smile. At one corner fronting on Main Street the roof sprouts a widow’s watch, something most of us associate with New England and the ocean. To my eye, it has a slightly Chinese look to it. “I love working here!” says Diana.

The Black Hills became a magnet for people who were not quite outlaws but not exactly law-abiding either.

The hotel is not the only monument Bullock left. He founded the nearby town of Belle Fourche and became a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in the Dakotas for a few years in the 1880s. When Roosevelt died, in January 1919, Bullock raised the first monument in the President’s memory anywhere, an observation tower offering magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. It was dedicated on July 4, 1919.

It stands only a mile outside of Deadwood, but the Forest Service has allowed it to crumble. Even so, visitors willing to make a short drive along an unpaved road off the highway can park just 200 yards away, where a path leads through the woods to it. The structure is barred and locked, but by staying with the path, I soon came to an observation deck in front of and only slightly below the derelict tower.

I had just found one of the most thrilling views in North America. Beyond the Black Hills rises a range of mountain peaks, and between the two stretch the high plains. Winding silver threads mark the course of rivers. Lakes and ponds reflect light like mirrors. Highways cross the plains in straight beige lines, tidy small towns standing at the crossroads, their windows and roofs sparkling in the sunshine, while neatly tended farms lap the base of the hills. This observation deck offers such a harmony of what man has made blending with what nature has given that it is dismaying to find that not one visitor in a hundred ever goes there. From talking to people around the town, it became evident that few Deadwood residents have ever seen it either.

Bullock died two months after the tower dedication and was buried high above the town cemetery, not in it. His grave points toward the tower, a mile distant, and this man with the Midas touch is still raking it in. His tombstone and grave are covered with small coins left by visitors.

Deadwood had one other great builder, Harris Franklin, who arrived in 1877. He amassed a fortune estimated at five million dollars, mainly in the wholesale liquor business, lost most of it, then became rich again dealing in ranching and banking. In 1892 he put his second fortune into building the town’s most important house and later its biggest hotel.

To design the house, Franklin hired the architectural firm Adler & Sullivan, of Chicago. Louis Sullivan created some of the first skyscrapers, and an aspiring architect named Frank Lloyd Wright was employed as a draftsman by his firm. The design of the house in far-off Deadwood was entrusted to an architect on the staff, Simeon Eisendrath.

A decade after the house went up, Franklin sold it to his son for a dollar. It was eventually bought by a local businessman, W. E. Adams, who added a museum of Black Hills memorabilia in 1930. His widow later sold it to the local historic preservation commission. It is now known as the Adams Museum & House.

The house’s exterior is a collection of late-nineteenth-century architectural motifs, including a classic Queen Anne turret. Its light and airy interior is marvelous.

The hotel, the Franklin, opened for business in 1903, but only after bringing its founder to the brink of bankruptcy once again. By then the people of Deadwood had learned that Harris Franklin was a Polish Jew, born Finkelstein. He is buried in the Jewish section of Mount Moriah Cemetery at the highest point in the graveyard. His imposing tombstone, inscribed simply “Franklin,” faces both the town and the white, pillared porch of the four-story hotel 500 yards away.

The cemetery, built on a steep slope above the town, should not be overlooked by any visitor to Deadwood. Its most visited spot is the grave of Wild Bill, which is almost a shrine. The term is used advisedly. Imposing steps, cut into the slope and lined with ornamental ironwork, lead to a plot surrounded by benches to accommodate summer visitors. Calamity Jane is buried in an adjoining site.

Wild Bill is in a shallow grave, but so is everyone else at Mount Moriah. Dig down about 18 inches and you’ll strike solid rock. Close by Hickok is a grave marked by four urns that feature grinning imps. Here lies Dora DuFran, sometime employer of Calamity Jane, who worked as her maid. Madam DuFran operated four brothels, symbolized by the four urns, and was such a local presence that when she died, in 1934, her obituary in the Black Hills Pioneer mourned the passing of “a noted social worker.”