The Town That Took A Chance

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Just as the Jews had their own section in the cemetery, so did the Chinese. They were buried at the back of Mount Moriah, on the reverse slope of a low ridge, out of sight. Eventually nearly all the Chinese remains were returned to China. Only one known grave is left. But in 2004, during the parade that marks the beginning of the annual Days of ’76, 67 people marched behind a banner reading FIRST ANNUAL REUNION OF THE DESCENDANTS OF FEE LEE WONG . In their colorful traditional dress they stole the show.

There seemed to be almost as many horses as people in that parade, a reminder that Deadwood not only was but still is a horsy town. In some residential neighborhoods you can see large mounting blocks of concrete or stone outside people’s homes; some of them have been stolen in recent years, such is their charm. Also there are hitching rings low in the walls that face the streets.

The town survived Prohibition and a sharp decline in its population, which stabilized at around 2,000, but received a further blow when, in 1947, the state attorney general required the county sheriff to crack down on gambling. There were hopes of a tourist boom after Deadwood was designated a National Historic District, in 1961. But the modest tide of visitors did not offset the loss of gambling.

Then came the double-whammy. Four houses of prostitution were still operating in the 1970s, drawing free-spending miners and others, but in 1978 laws against prostitution began to be enforced. The last brothel was Pam’s Purple Door, operated by Pam Holiday. It shut in 1980, with dire economic effect. One day soon afterward, hundreds of people paraded down Main Street under banners reading BRING BACK OUR GIRLS !

The town survived Prohibition but received a further blow, in 1947, when the county sheriff began to crack down on gambling.

After that failed, the only affront to bourgeois morality that remained was drinking, until the state attorney’s office launched a campaign against driving under the influence. Half the saloons closed. By 1985 Deadwood was turning into a ghost town, its finest buildings crumbling, its population dwindling fast, its future all too clear. The remains of dead towns are scattered across the Plains, waiting to be excavated a hundred years from now, when even a few intact artifacts will be a wonderful discovery. Deadwood seemed certain to join them.

Several concerned citizens approached Bill Walsh, the principal shareholder in the Franklin Hotel, with an idea. Why not try to bring back gambling? Walsh has a serious interest in history and is a major figure in South Dakota politics. He and his like-minded friends threw themselves into organizing a statewide referendum. In Las Vegas gambling takes place amid tinseled glamour. In Deadwood it would take place amid history. In 1987 a Historic Preservation Commission was established, and when the referendum was held a year later, it passed by a margin of nearly two to one. In November 1989 gambling returned to Deadwood.

Fifteen years later the signs along Interstate 90 announce 80 CASINOS … 40 RESTAURANTS . No bets above $100 are allowed, and most of the gambling is done at slot machines. Nearly all the businesses that line other Main Streets—drugstore, dry cleaners, clothing stores, McDonald’s—are missing from this one. They have become casinos, with restaurants below or at the back.

Still, I found two good places to eat in historic buildings. One is the 1903’s Dining Room in the Franklin Hotel. It features South Dakota beef, which is superb. Its sprung floor suggests the restaurant has also served as the town’s ballroom for more than a century.

The other restaurant is Jake’s, a fine dining establishment in the Midnight Star casino. The uncrowned king of South Dakota, Kevin Costner, owns the building, which features display cases of memorabilia from films including Bull Durham and Dances With Wolves. Consuming roast pheasant, a South Dakotan specialty, I sat at a window seat overlooking Main Street. There was so much happening outside I might as well have been at an outdoor café on the Champs Elysées.

By the time gambling returned to Deadwood, the Historic Preservation Commission had a list of projects that it thought would take 40 years to finance. In 5 years enough money poured into its coffers to pay for most of them. It now receives close to seven million dollars a year, largesse that it shares with other towns in the area. Get into a discussion about history here and you will find that it is now divided into BG and AG—before gambling and after gambling. There are a lot of mixed feelings about life AG.

Some people dislike making a one-hour roundtrip to Rapid City for much of their shopping. A few would like to have seen nineteenth-century versions of poker reintroduced, and models of early slot machines. Others think a cap should have been placed on the number of casinos the gaming board allowed. What matters to most people, though, is that Deadwood has been saved.

Nowadays the Historic Preservation Commission has the lead role in protecting that legacy. When the hit HBO series “Deadwood” was still only an idea, its producers approached the Adams Museum & House’s director, Mary Kopco, and her colleague Jerry Bryant. “We took a lot of ownership,” says Mary.