In the days of the old wild west, Deadwood, South Dakota actually was so lawless, that it made Dodge City, Kansas look kind of tame! Right from the beginning back in the 1870s, Deadwood was illegally established on Lakota tribal land that was just created by peace treaty. A local gold rush was all it took to light the proverbial fuse. Some of the hardest toughest characters in the old west were drawn to Deadwood, because this was a place where there was no law to stand in the way of illicit prosperity.
Gambling, booze, prostitution, opium dens, white slavery and every crime in the book was just normal everyday business back in the early days of Deadwood. Deadwood was a place where the six gun was mightier than pen and paper justice, because the U.S. Government law could not be enforced in the sovereign tribal territory. The outlaws knew the arm of justice was tied up in red tape, so lawlessness became a way of life in this place.
Deadwood attracted hardened gunslingers, so this presented an opportunity for shady lawmen like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok to step into the action. It seems like the name Wyatt Earp is connected with the corrupt heyday of every town in the west and Deadwood was one of his prime haunts. Wild Bill Hickok also led a tough life of mythical proportions and in his later years he was a lawman who had a reputation for restoring law and order by force. Needless to say, Wild Bill Hickok made plenty of enemies over the years and he was shot in the back while playing cards at a saloon in Deadwood. The cards he was holding at that moment were black aces and eights, which later became known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”
After the local gold rush turned into an industry, Deadwood started to become civilized. The illicit businesses that capitalized on Deadwood made so much money, that no expense was spared to attract more visitors, which in turn created more action. The railroad ensured that the newest inventions and latest styles were made available to the free spending shady characters that settled this town. The law abiding community within Deadwood also desired to become part of the future, so more emphasis was placed upon luring legitimate big businesses and constructing prime accommodations. Deadwood was one of the first cities in America to get electric power back in the early 1900s and this put Deadwood in the forefront of the new age of prosperity.
Deadwood endured several fires that nearly burnt the entire city down. The last big fire occurred in the late 1950s. It is said that the original Deadwood that was destroyed by fire actually lies 2 to 6 feet underground beneath the present day street level. Most of the old Deadwood that can be seen in the modern age are remnants of the reconstructed buildings from the turn of the 20th century. Most of the old original wooden buildings are long gone, but great lengths were taken to preserve the architectural style of Deadwood in its heyday and this city is now a National Historic Landmark.
Because the last fire disaster curbed tourism and business revenue, Deadwood was a prime candidate for turning back to its old unlawful ways. Deadwood actually is on tribal land, so many old west vices were allowed to continue through the years. In the mid 1900s, there were still plenty of saloons in Deadwood where the whisky flowed freely. The last brothels were finally shut down in the late 1900s, mostly due to a sharp decline in business, but many of the antique signs remain. Legalized casino gaming became part of the Deadwood civic revitalization process, so now Deadwood is once again a wild west gambling mecca!
Deadwood is located close to Interstate 90 near the Wyoming border. This town is just a short hop away from Sturgis, where the world famous motorcycle rally takes place each year, so Deadwood definitely is a wild place to be while Sturgis is going on! I visited Deadwood a few weeks after Sturgis was over and the biker welcome signs can be seen hanging proudly in many of the shops.
The photos in this article display the old west architectural style of Deadwood and it is easy to see that this was once a prosperous town. By comparison, the buildings in Deadwood look much fancier than most old buildings in other historic western cities and one might even say that Deadwood was actually the precursor to modern Las Vegas.
Deadwood is a great place to park the car and do some walking. Touring by foot is the best way to experiences this old historic city, but be prepared to do some serous walking, because the old historic area of Deadwood covers a lot of ground. Organized bus tours are a nice option for the physically challenged and for those who have aching tired feet. Doing the numbered historic marker tour that traces the last days of Wild Bill Hickok is by far the most popular activity to do. The many historic markers and plaques in this town will constantly remind visitors that the famous legendary outlaw characters of the old west were in fact real.
Most of the historic markers in the downtown area add credence to Wild Bill Hickok being a western hero that was larger than life. This man was a Union Spy, gunslinger, U.S. Marshal, card shark and an accomplished actor. Walking in the footsteps of Wild Bill Hickok is easy to do in Deadwood, but this also means having get primed for an all day bar crawl, because Wild Bill left his mark in nearly every saloon and gambling hall in this town. I started my short bar crawl at the Saloon No. 10, with a glass full of Wyoming Whisky. Needless to say, the atmosphere of this old west saloon combined with harsh frontier style whisky is enough get anybody in a mood to explore more of Deadwood!
After spending a few hours touring the gambling halls, shops and saloons, it was easy to see that the old wild Deadwood from the late 1800s has been rekindled in modern times. After walking for hours, I was thirsty enough for another drink, but it had to be a non-alcoholic beverage because I would be hitting the road soon. Then I saw a sign in a store window for old fashioned hand crafted root beer! Root Beer and Sarsaparilla actually were popular saloon drinks in the old west, because these soft drinks originally were revitalizing medicinal tonics. I sat at the counter of the bar in the gift shop and ordered an old west style root beer and while taking the first sip, I noticed a historical sign that said that this gift shop building actually was the old original saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back while playing cards!
I looked out the windows of the saloon and imagined what the day must have been like, way back when Wild Bill Hickok was killed. Bright light shined into the room, yet there was still plenty of darkness. By the time I got to the last sip of root beer, the atmosphere in that old building started to get a bit eerie. All I can say is that the ghosts of the past sure do come to life in old historic Deadwood.
Touring historic Deadwood is something that simply must be done while exploring the Bighorn, Black Hills and the Badlands of this region. For fans of old wild west history, touring Deadwood will certainly be a thrill of a lifetime! Deadwood always has plenty going on. The mild spring and summer seasons are the best time to visit. Deadwood is the place where you can walk in the same footprints that many legendary western outlaws and heroes left behind, so this is reason enough to get up and go!
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