- 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
Like the gambling itself, the television series turned out to be a far bigger hit than anyone could have anticipated. It is shot in subdued tones, so nearly everything looks gray or brown. The people seem disheveled, tired, and unwashed. Most are foulmouthed and physically unattractive. “Deadwood” tells its stories in a flat way, cranking down the excitement rather than cranking it up. Upon its debut, many critics saw it as a doomed, brave venture. Few expected a second season, but there will be one.
Many people in Deadwood share Mary Kopco’s sense of ownership, but the first thing they’re likely to tell anyone who asks them what they think of the television series is, “We don’t talk like that!”
The initial effect of “Deadwood” could be measured in visits to the Adams Museum & House’s Web site, www. adamsmuseumandhouse.org. In January 2004, before the show aired, there were 80,000 hits. After the first few episodes the number had shot up to 6.6 million. Sales of history books in the museum bookstore rose from $31,000 in 2003 to $68,000 in 2004, and the number of visitors to the museum increased by 37 percent.
The living-history group Deadwood Alive! re-enacts the shooting of Wild Bill. This takes place each day in the summer at the new Saloon No. 10, followed in late afternoon by the capture of Jack McCall. Then everybody on Main Street is invited to the theater to witness the trial, a hilarious parody of frontier justice, with members of the audience, from children to greatgrandmothers, summoned to jury duty.
The Historic Preservation Commission does not stand alone in guarding over Deadwood’s historic buildings; so too do many of the people who own them. Bill Walsh, at the Franklin, has opted for painstaking and very expensive restoration. The results in some parts of the hotel are exquisite. Many of the Franklin’s suites are named for people who stayed in them. They include Cecil B. DeMille, John Wayne, and Babe Ruth.
As San Francisco lives with earthquakes, so Deadwood lives with the threat of wildfire. In June 2001 the entire town was evacuated on 20 minutes’ notice. The fire reached the highway and looked set to leap across. The wind blew in Deadwood’s favor that day, slowing down the flames long enough for firefighting planes called slurry bombers to stop them at the asphalt’s edge. “If the wind had shifted,” a local businesswoman, Debra Goffena, told me, “this town would be gone.” Deadwood stoically pulled itself back from the brink once again. Its whole existence has been a gamble, with or without the casinos. So far it’s still on a roll.