Deadwood, South Dakota!
Several western destinations that are outside of the immediate Desert Southwest region have been featured in this travel website this summer. One reason why is because these scenic destinations fit in with the "beat the extreme summer heat" travel destination theme. These places interest readers in the Southwest that are looking for someplace interesting to go that offers a cool summer breeze.
The other reason why destinations outside of the Desert Southwest are featured is historical significance. Many western destinations greatly influenced events that occurred in the Desert Southwest during the era of pioneers and the gold rush. For example, when reading stories about lawmen, outlaws and natives of the old Southwest, one would be surprised at how many times that places like Dodge City, Kansas or Deadwood, South Dakota are mentioned. In modern times, these destinations are simply east of the Rockies, but back in the day these places were truly gateways to the west.
In a previous article, Dodge City was mentioned as a starting point on the Santa Fe Trail and it was a place where many cattle drives from the Southwest came to an end. Dodge City was not quite the romantic little town that Hollywood portrayed in the Gunsmoke television series. In fact, Gunsmoke was never even filmed anywhere close to Dodge City. The real Dodge City was so rough and rowdy that this place actually had the reputation of being "The Most Wicked Little Town In The West!"
In the days of the old west, Deadwood, South Dakota actually was so lawless, that it made Dodge City look kind of tame. Right from the start in the 1870's, the Deadwood settlement was illegally established on Lakota 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 that stood in the way of illicit prosperity.
Gambling, booze, prostitution, opium dens, white slavery and every crime in the book was just normal business back in the early days of Deadwood. Deadwood was a place where the six gun was mightier than pen and paper justice, because U.S. Government law could not be enforced on tribal sovereign territory. The outlaws knew the arm of justice was tied up in red tape, so lawlessness became a way of life.
Places where lawlessness and corruption prevailed attracted hardened gunslingers, like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok. 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 led a tough life of mythical proportions and in his later years he was a lawman that 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 were Black Aces & Eights, which became known as the Dead Man's Hand.
After the local gold rush turned into a gold industry, Deadwood started to become civilized. The illicit industries that capitalized on Deadwood made so much money, that no expense was spared to attract more visitors, which in turn would create more action. The railroad ensured that the newest inventions and latest styles were made available to the free spending characters that settled this town. The law abiding community within Deadwood also wanted 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 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 1950's. It is said that the original Deadwood that was destroyed by fire actually lies 2 to 6 feet underground beneath the present street level. Most of the old Deadwood that can be seen in the modern age are remnants of the old buildings from the turn of the 20th century that were reconstructed. Most of the old original wooden buildings are long gone. Great lengths were taken to preserve the architectural style of Deadwood in its heyday and this city is now a National Landmark.
Because the last fire curbed tourism and business revenue, Deadwood was a prime candidate for turning back to its old ways. Because Deadwood is on tribal land, many vices were allowed to continue through the years. There were still plenty of saloons in Deadwood where the whisky flowed freely. The last brothels were finally shut down in the late 1900's, mostly due to a sharp decline in business. Because of the recent National Landmark status, gambling was taboo, but this would soon change. Legalized casino gambling became part of the Deadwood civic revitalization process. Now Deadwood is once again a wild west mecca!
Deadwood is 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. Deadwood 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 in many of the slideshow photos.
The slideshow photos definitely show 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. One might say that Deadwood was 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. There are so many historic markers and plaques in this town, that a visitor will constantly be reminded that the famous stories and 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 means getting primed for an all day long bar crawl, because Wild Bill left his mark in nearly every saloon and gambling hall in this town. I started my 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 of touring the gambling halls, shops and saloons, it was easy to see that the old wild Deadwood from the late 1800's has been rekindled in modern times. After walking for hours, I was thirsty enough for another drink, but it had to be non-alcoholic 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 were revitalizing medicinal tonics. So, I sat at the counter of a bar in a gift shop and ordered an old west style root beer. While taking the first sip, I noticed a historical sign that said that this gift shop building actually was the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back while playing cards.
I looked out the windows 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 of 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 historic Deadwood.
This has been a temperate start to autumn this year and the daytime temperatures have been comfortable even as far north as the Dakotas. This means that there is still time to tour historic Deadwood by foot before the winter weather arrives in the Badlands. If not now, then the lifetime bucket list of travel destinations is where Deadwood belongs, especially if you just happen to be an old west history buff!