If you want to see history as it was more than a century ago, Deadwood, South Dakota, offers a mother lode of entertainment.
The city is also the nation’s largest historic restoration project.
Deadwood was born out of a gold rush frenzy that lured thousands of fortune seekers to what was then a Black Hills wilderness. By 1876, Deadwood was a dirty, boisterous mining town where Lt. Col. George Custer’s expedition had reportedly discovered gold.
Today, visitors find an immaculate town with a unique architectural style and enough tourist attractions to hark you back to the days when Wild Bill Hickok played his last hand of poker.
He’s probably the only guy to have had a bad time in Deadwood, after he broke his rule never to sit with his back to the door. He’s buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery—also known as Boot Hill—as is Calamity Jane, his colorful and somewhat bawdy friend. Jack McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head and you can peek into the past by watching the re-enactment of Jack’s trial, a block from the site of Hickok’s untimely demise.
You can also relive Hickok’s murder at the Old Style Saloon No. 10. The original No. 10 burned with the rest of Main Street in the late 1890s. An ornate mahogany bar runs almost the full length of the sawdust-littered saloon. Trappings from pioneers, miners and cowboys hang from the rafters, recalling the way folks celebrated their occasional good fortune in saloons and gambling houses. With its raucous amusements, stout drinks and gambling, the saloon is still one of the West’s great entertainment complexes.
Start your day trip by following the footsteps of Victorian entrepreneurs and Wild West legends on the Deadwood Historic Walking Tour. Boot Hill Tours also offers an open-air bus tour, with historians narrating Deadwood’s past.
The Adams House & Museum is the oldest history museum in the Black Hills, with its Victorian mansion dating to 1892, and the museum to 1930. Although no one knows for sure what poker hand Hickok held when he was murdered, the museum and popular legend says it was aces and eights—the so called “Dead Man’s Hand.”
If you want to see Deadwood Gulch ghosts, amble over to the Wax Museum where 50 life-size figures depict the settling of Dakota Territory. For a night on the town, head to the Deadwood Social Club Restaurant for a great steak amid Italian ambiance, and to the Charlie Utter Theater for live family entertainment. Or you can gamble the night away at Utter Place.
Music lovers should make Deadwood home from April through September, when the city vibrates with rock concerts, jazz and blues festivals. Mid-summer brings the Days of ’76, a PRCA event named “Best Rodeo” for three consecutive years.
For more information, call Black Hills Central Reservations at 800-529-0105.
M.J. Van Deventer is the editor of Persimmon Hill magazine.