In the fall of 1875, gold was discovered in Deadwood Gulch, Dakota Territory. By 1876, about 10,000 people had turned their camp into an instant city — one gritty enough to inspire an HBO series.
Early Deadwood’s Main Street was crowded with gold seekers. The lucky ones got to spend their earnings in the town’s array of bars and brothels. Today's Deadwood is tamer, but it’s still easy to have fun.
Main Street today
The town has struck gold again with HBO's show, which features a smoldering Sheriff Bullock and villainous Al Swearengen, owner of the sordid Gem Theater. Tourists stroll Main Street in search of landmarks like the Bullock Hotel (left) and the Gem (no longer standing). They seek out the side-by-side gravesites of the Old West's superstars, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Hidden in pines, Sheriff Seth Bullock’s grave used to be mostly ignored. Not anymore.
Deadwood's new hero
Timothy Olyphant stars as Deadwood Sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO. Canadian-born Bullock and his partner Sol Starr arrived in town in August 1876 and established a hardware store. Bullock became Deadwood’s first sheriff after the famous murder of Wild Bill Hickok.
The real Seth Bullock
Sheriff Bullock had a long, successful career as a businessman and rancher. In 1884 he met future president Theodore Roosevelt. The two became fast friends, and Bullock volunteered to be a captain in Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.
The Bullock Hotel (633 Main St.; 605/578-1745) anchors Main Street today. Seth Bullock built it in 1895, when the town was prospering off the Homestake Mine. Its stone construction was meant to prevent a repeat of a disastrous fire in 1879.
You can still stay at the hotel that was Seth’s pride and joy. Its bar is a good place to sit back and collect Deadwood gossip. If you’re a fan of ghosts, check out Room 211, said to be haunted by Seth himself.
Grim, funny, and profane
A stagecoach drives through young Deadwood in a scene from the show. From its first episode, Deadwood created a panorama of the American West not seen before on television: violent, grim, funny, exceedingly profane.
In the words of one local archaeologist, “Our history is based on liars, loners, and lowlifes.”
Today’s Deadwood has a population of 1,300. Wild West history, casino gambling and great scenery are the attractions now. Visitors can tour the sites by stagecoach.
Wild Bill Hickok was already famous as a gunslinger when he arrived in Deadwood in July 1876, hoping to increase his fortune through gambling. Three weeks later he was shot in Saloon No. 10 while playing cards. He was holding two black aces and two black eights, now known as The Dead Man’s Hand.
Hickok’s memorial is among the star attractions of Mt. Moriah Cemetery above Deadwood. Calamity Jane's grave lies next to his. Seth Bullock’s is farther up the hill.
Creative signs divert traffic for staged gunfights and a recreated shooting of Wild Bill. In summer the poker-playing Hickock meets his match daily at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m. at Saloon No. 10, 567 Main St. (605/578-3446).
Upstairs from the saloon, the Deadwood Social Club serves sophisticated Italian dishes and boasts a notably good wine list.
Broken Boot Gold Mine
There’s still some riches left in these hills. At Broken Boot Gold Mine, on Upper Main Street (605/578-1876), visitors can pan for gold, walk through the mine's abandoned tunnels, and learn about the Gold Rush of 1876, the last great gold rush in the continental United States.
History gold mine
Deadwood’s Adams Museum and House has terrific exhibits about the town’s violent, passion-filled history. 54 Sherman St., (605) 578-1714.
While most dugouts were temporary structures built by settlers from sod bricks, this humble dwelling on the Frawley Ranch north of Deadwood was built partly with stone.
In Seth Bullock’s days, coming to Deadwood was a weeks-long ordeal by horseback or stagecoach. (The railroad didn’t arrive until 1891.) Today it’s a lot easier to reach this part of southwestern South Dakota: You just drive or fly to nearby Rapid City, then continue 40 miles northwest to Deadwood.
The area holds a lot of other good places to visit: Mt. Rushmore National Memorial; Sturgis, with its famous motorcycle rally (August 7-13 in 2006); and, across the Wyoming border to the west, Devil’s Tower National Monument.
Experience more of the real Deadwood and the series it inspired: