I had recently finished binge-ing on HBO’s Westworld on the flight home from Israel when it came time to plan my trip through Wyoming and South Dakota. There was so much to see in the Black Hills, but every single brochure mentioned Deadwood. My only association with the town was the television show of the same name, also on HBO. Can you tell that all of my Western knowledge comes from Timothy Olyphant and James Marsden instead of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne?
The town of Deadwood was established in the 1870s on Native American lands, an all-too familiar story in the American West. Colonel Custer and his troops explored the area and later found gold, signaling the beginning of the Black Hills Gold Rush. Men from all over the country descended upon the town, growing to a population of 5,000. It quickly became known as a lawless place, home to gambling and prostitution, shootouts in the street. Wild Bill Hickok met his end at one of the town’s poker tables. There was even a Chinatown, home to over 200 residents who had made the long journey to rural South Dakota.
Fires were frequent, burning down buildings every few years through the 1800s. A major fire in 1959 destroyed much of the town, but Deadwood was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1961. A major highway was constructed shortly afterwards, but bypassed the area completely. The final nail in the coffin was a raid on the town’s brothels in 1980 that led to them being closed. Gambling was the next to go, but was brought back in 1989.
Today, the gaming industry is alive and well with casinos lining the main street, with spas and restaurants inside their adjoining hotels. Just about every business ties itself to the Wild West history, including the bar where Wild Bill is said to have been killed. It’s equal parts kitsch and Americana, something out of a film. If you’re traveling through the Black Hills, don’t miss Deadwood.
What to See and Do
Mount Moriah Cemetery– Set atop a hill above Deadwood, this cemetery is the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, who is buried alongside him. Grab a map at the visitor’s center to see the Potter’s Field, where prostitutes and orphans were buried, and even an altar for the Chinese immigrants buried in the cemetery.
Deadwood Alive– Catch a reenactment of the shootouts that made the town famous. They’re held daily and are free to attend, showcasing events like the trial of Jack McCall, the man who killed Wild Bill. Younger visitors might be startled by the gunshot sounds, so be aware.
Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower– I’m not an avid hiker, but am glad I went on this short walk outside of Deadwood. Built in 1919, it was idea of sheriff Seth Bullock to honor his friend President Theodore Roosevelt. It was recently restored and you can still climb to the top.
Homestake Mine– Located in neighboring Lead, visitors can tour a mine that is still active as a research facility. The visitor’s center as free exhibits on the history of the mine and its modern-day operations.
Where to Eat and Drink
Saloon No. 10– While two different bars claim to be where Wild Bill was killed, this one contains the chair where he was reportedly sitting. Masks of Wild West characters line the bar. Their menu includes all sorts of whiskeys and beers and they also have a reenactment.
Deadwood Social Club– Located above Saloon 10, this restaurant has a menu of Italian favorites like the wild boar pappardelle. Grab a seat on the back patio and enjoy your meal with a glass of wine.
Pump House at Mind Blown Studio– Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so “fill up” at this former gas station turned coffee shop and glass blowing studio. It’s decorated with signs from its previous life.
Deadwood’s official website has even more listings of where to chow down.
Where to Stay
Deadwood is a good place to base your adventures in the Black Hills because it’s easily accessible to other places and there’s a diverse selection of accommodations for every budget.
Creekside Campground– This campground outside of town was my home for the few nights I was in Deadwood. They have tent camping and tipis, but I cozied up in this cabin, which cost $40 per night.
Silverado Franklin Historic Hotel Gaming, Grand Buffet, & Legends Steakhouse– It’s the original hotel in town has numerous restaurants, gaming facilities, and rooms in the property dating back to 1903.
Airbnb– Another option is this rental site, which has a few properties around town. I almost stayed at a cute room in nearby Lead.