Deadwood, South Dakota

I almost decided not to drive into Deadwood.  US 385 hits US 85, right in between Deadwood and Lead, and I was planning to make a left instead of a right.  At the last moment, though, I decided it would be a waste to be so close to Deadwood (just a couple of miles), and not check it out.

From Rapid City, I took South Dakota Route 44 west, then US 385 north, to the towns of Deadwood and Lead.  Both of these roads pass through the northern end of the Black Hills.  It’s a pleasant and scenic drive, but you probably won’t be overwhelmed by the landscape.  I didn’t find any reason to stop and take a picture until I reached Deadwood.  As an alternative, you could take Interstate 90 to the biker haven of Sturgis, South Dakota, then follow US Hwy. Alt-14 west to Deadwood.

I knew that Deadwood had become a gambling town in recent years, so my hopes weren’t very high.  I expected to find that a few huge, out-of-place casinos had bulldozed everything else in the historic mining town, in order to create a kind-of phony wild-west atmosphere.  I’m happy to say, I was completely wrong.

Deadwood is one of the most satisfying western towns I have ever seen.  Yes, there are casinos, but the town has made a point of putting profits from those gambling halls into the effort to preserve Deadwood’s history.  Old buildings have been preserved, and 100-year-old facades have been restored.  It feels new and old, all at the same time, but not the least bit phony — not for a second.

In the picture above, you see two of Deadwood’s most prominent buildings: the Lawrence County Courthouse (on the left) and the old federal courthouse and post office (on the right).

Deadwood’s post office/federal court house was finished in 1907.  The foundation was built with stone quarried in Deadwood, and the walls were made of sandstone from Hot Springs.  The county courthouse was completed in 1908.

Across Sherman Street from the post office, a Texaco station stands frozen in time.

There’s an ugly, yet historically significant building, just one block behind the old post office.  It even has an ugly name: the “Slime Plant”.  The old plant was used from 1906 to 1973, to separate gold from the other minerals in the crushed rock, that came from the nearby Homestake Mine.

The Slime Plant used a process involving cyanide to separate gold from the muddy, finely-crushed rock that came from the mine.  The ore was dried, then soaked in cyanide, which dissolved the gold. 

As of late 2008, restoration is well underway at the Slime Plant.  Plans include converting the old building into an entertainment complex, that will seat up to 2,500 people for live music performances.  Developers hope to have it finished by mid-2009.

Deadwood’s old train station now serves as a visitor information station.  It’s worth at least five minutes, to wander around inside and learn about the history of the town.

From the train station, walk one more block to Main Street.  It’s hard to miss the Silverado Franklin Hotel on the hill, overlooking everything.  The Franklin is the largest casino on Deadwood’s Main Street.  It was constructed in 1933, and expanded in 1995, a few years after the town legalized gambling.

The rest of Deadwood’s historic Main Street has a nice, authentic feel to it.  It’s almost easy to miss noticing that some chain hotels are hidden inside those old brick-front buildings.  Casinos, restaurants, and souvenir shops are plentiful, as well.

You’re likely to see quite a few references to Wild Bill Hickock around town, and there’s a good reason.  The famous gunslinger met his demise in a Deadwood casino, on August 2, 1876.  His murderer, Jack McCall, had a score to settle: Hickock had killed McCall’s brother.

You’ll find a bust of Wild Bill in a small courtyard, off Sherman Street.

You can also visit Hickock’s grave, in Mount Moriah Cemetery, on the hill directly above the statue.  Calamity Jane is buried here, too.  I had never before seen a cemetery that charges admission, but this one does.  (Of course, I’m too cheap to pay, so I just took a picture from the parking lot.  The famous graves are up there, somewhere.)

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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