Often on a road trip we map out certain must-see places to stop and overlook other destinations due to the time we allotted for the trip. In South Dakota the big tourist stop is Mount Rushmore. But remember to add Deadwood on the list of places to see in order to get that real Wild West experience.
In 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sparking the last big gold rush in America. Two years later, the town of Deadwood was born. Deadwood Gulch was named after the dead trees in the gulch where it is located and where there was a creek full of gold. Here, you can explore the real Wild West and see that it wasn’t just a popular TV show.
You can go to Deadwood today to channel the past and even stay at one of the old historic hotels on Main Street, such as the Bullock Hotel, the town’s first hotel built by Deadwood’s first sheriff Seth Bullock. In fact, the entire town is on the National Historic Register.
“The Bullock Hotel was built in 1890s,” says Lee Harstad, Deadwood’s marketing director. “That’s pretty authentic. A lot of people have said they’ve seen Seth Bullock’s ghost there.”
It is believed he still oversees the property, thus drawing ghost tours to this hotel, as well as the popular Travel Channel show “Ghost Hunters.”
Explore old Main Street. Unlike many of our city streets today that have the same corporate stores we’re familiar with, shops here are unique. And most of the corners in Deadwood have informational plaques. “We also have a series of QR codes so you can see what it looked like back then,” Harstad said. “Many times it’s very similar.”
Deadwood is still a real thriving town. “It’s an actual city, population 1,400. We’re definitely a visitor destination, but there are a lot of year round residents including myself and we take great pride in this community,” Harstad said.
Deadwood legalized gambling in 1989 and if you miss the sound of coins in a slot machine, you can still find coin slot machines here. “In late 1980s there was a large fire at one of the blocks in town and some history went up in smoke. The town leaders wanted to save the community and a group of citizens went to the state to push for limited state gambling so the proceeds could go towards preserving the history of the town.”
Besides taking in the Wild West aura that Deadwood offers, a big draw are the famous who once lived here such as Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock. Tourists often like to visit their final resting place in Mount Moriah Cemetery.
When the HBO show “Deadwood” came out, it made this real old American West town a stop on many road trip itineraries.
“When that show came out, it had an impact because people saw the show and the grittiness because that’s what Deadwood used to be,” Harstad said. “People saw that and didn’t realize there could be a town like that. So that opened people’s eyes. Whether it’s for the gaming or the history, we offer that for them.”
While in Deadwood, another fun stop is the Broken Boot Gold Mine, which offers tours every 30 minutes. You get to follow the path of old ore carts underground in the old shafts.
“It’s a tour of an old underground mine and they explain how they did it and how the miners had to dig through the rock,” Harstad said.
Another interesting part of Deadwood’s history is that there was a Chinatown. Although there isn’t anything to see there now, some of the Chinese are buried at Mount Moriah Cemetary. Like many old Wild West towns, they came for a better life and many established laundry businesses in Deadwood.
“Chinatown is located on lower Main Street,” Harstad points out. “Archaeologists are out here annually and often find Chinese artifacts. Adams Museum offers Chinese artifacts from the Chinatown.” Some of those include mining and laundry items, which Harstad says will also be exhibited at the new Days of ’76 Museum.