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Dead On in Deadwood

10 August 2001

The Dead Man's Hand is legendary. A pair of aces and a pair of black eights. These were the cards Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot in the back in Deadwood, North Dakota in 1876. And thanks to historic recreations and tours to Boot Hill, the town is still cashing in on the legend. Of course, since the Costner Boys rode into town (movie star Kevin and brother Dan), lots of cash is flowing down Deadwood Gulch these days. About $5 billion in the last decade, according to the latest stats. Not only did the Costners help restore the Wild West town to its disreputable self, they further revitalized it with gambling. Currently, there are only a handful of states that allow gambling off the Indian reservations: Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey and North Dakota. If Las Vegas is Disneyland for adults, then historic Deadwood is the gaming equivalent of Williamsburg, Virginia. Want to see where Calamity Jane knocked back shots of whiskey or where Potato Creek Johnny snagged a gold nugget the size of a doorknob? Want to see the town that gold and greed made successful? Want to sleep in the same room where Teddy Roosevelt spent the night? Or how about Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight? Then Deadwood's your kind of place.

Traveling with my brother, his wife and my daughter, I was eager to explore the little city of Deadwood nestled in the Black Hills, but as we began our climb to almost 5,000 feet, we were sandblasted by hail the size of dimes and a flash flood careening down the mountain road. We couldn't see and we couldn't stop. Thank God the storm did. Welcome to Deadwood!

However, the storm hadn't stopped the slots from ringing or the drinks from making the rounds. After all, this is the town that was three times destroyed by fire and floods, so what's a little hailstorm? Dumping our suitcases and heading for the saloons and tables, we were soon infected by the gambling bug.

Casinos Forbidden

Almost every old hotel, restaurant, and store offers some form of gaming. Even an antiques shop has slots right next to rocking chairs and green Depression glass. And Saloon #10 (where Hickok was gunned down) likes to boast that it's the only museum that allows drinking and gambling. There are 85 such gaming halls in Deadwood, the word casino being forbidden. And while the limit is $5 at any table or machine to keep the gambling fun and family-oriented, even cheapskates like myself can find heaven at not only 25-cent machines, but also penny slots. There is something for everybody.

Back in Time

What is most fun is the feeling you've stepped back in time. A quick look at old postcards from the late 1800's will verify that the only change in the town nowadays is that the streets are paved and the car has displaced the horse.

So be sure to get out and about, seeing the town that began as an illegal mining camp after prospectors found gold in "them thar hills" and stole the land from the Sioux. Overnight Deadwood blossomed (if that's the right word) into a thriving city of saloons, brothels, dance halls, and continuous poker games. A few upright citizens opened general stores, but for the most part in the late 1800's Deadwood was synonymous with sin. The killing of Hickok only verified that fact, especially when the jury found Crooked Nose Jack McCall innocent of shooting Wild Bill in the back.

Several years later he was retried in federal court, found guilty and hanged, all because he couldn't stop bragging about how he was the one who had done the dirty deed. Deadwood was also home to Calamity Jane, a woman who prided herself on being as tough as any hombre, even though she nursed a serious crush on Wild Bill. He was not attracted to the mannish Calamity, but that did not deter her passion for him in life or in death. After his murder, she increased her alcohol intake to medicate her sorrow and when she died, she requested that she be buried next to Hickok on Boot Hill, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had left a widow back East. History has joined Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in death and legend, and if you go up the steep mountain road to Boot Hill, you will find them resting next to each other.

Destination: Boot Hill

Mt. Moriah is the real name of the cemetery, but as a place where many of its occupants died with their boots on, its nickname is more apt. Also buried up there is Deadwood's infamous madam, Dora DuFran, who was buried with her parrot, and Potato Creek Johnny, whose gold nugget weighing 7 3/4 troy ounces fanned further gold fever. Nearby is Preacher Smith, who tried to save some of these poor souls and died trying. Standing high on Boot Hill, you have a bird's eye view of Deadwood and the results of gold mining on the mountains. Still active after more than a century, the Homestake mine not only has drilled nearly a mile down for gold, but is also responsible for open cut surface mining. One hillside still bears naked witness to this type of mining, even as young evergreens attempt to regain a foothold on the eroded mountainsides. No wonder the Indians weep with fury at the rape of their sacred lands.

After all, it was the Sioux who had named the area the Black Hills because of the dense ponderosa pines that covered the five million acres of mountains, making them look black to riders coming across the plains. Today this vast wilderness contains eight caves, five national parks, two dozen mountain towns, miles of scenic drives, lakes, waterfalls, vistas, and teeming wildlife. So don't be surprised to find a buffalo sauntering down the road. As we came around a hairpin turn, we encountered a bull bison on his quest for water, which he finally found in a gully next to the road. Just remember these animals are big and dangerous and always have the right of way.

At the foot of the Black Hills lies Rapid City, which Dakotans proudly call the Star of West, and many people use it as their base to explore the mountains. Major attractions, from Mount Rushmore to Devil's Tower, are easy day trips from this gateway city. But Rapid City itself is worth exploring since it has made a serious effort to not only preserve the historic but to pursue the 21st Century. There is something for everybody, from pow wows and rodeos to Ellsworth US Air Force Base Air and Space Museum. And anyone who collects Plains Indian artifacts has to stop at Prairie Edge (, in a beautifully restored downtown block, if only to browse in a store that has the authentic feel of an Indian Trading Post.

Bear Acrobatics

For people with or without kids, nothing beats a day at Bear Country, USA (, a drive-through wildlife park that allows visitors to see elk, big horn sheep, buffalo, timber wolves, grizzlies, and the largest private collection of black bears up close. Be prepared to fall in love with the cubs that scamper from tree to tree like circus acrobats. Snake lovers usually head to Reptile Gardens ( with its unique blend of botanical gardens of 50,000 flowers and daily crocodile shows. This is also the city that thrives on its unique jewelry made from Black Hills gold. So a couple of hours spent visiting the jewelers at their various factories is a must, especially to see the motifs of grapes and grape leaves molded from rose, green, and yellow gold and to learn how they were inspired by an old prospector's near death experience more than 100 years ago. Even better, you will find some of the best gold prices anywhere. Among the many factories, Landstrom (800-334-0157) has been justly famous for their pieces since 1878.

If all this shopping has given you an appetite, this is the time to be an all-out tourist and try one of the many BBQs. One of the most fun is the Fort Hays Chuckwagon supper and show ( four miles south of Rapid City on the former set of Dances With Wolves. For $14 you'll get a rootin' tootin' show and BBQ beef, potatoes, baked beans, applesauce, ranch biscuits, spice cake and coffee. (If you come for breakfast, come at 6:30 am to beat the crowds for the 99-cent all-you-can-eat pancakes.) Or maybe you'll be hankering for something a little more sophisticated after your day out in the Dakota wilds. Then head back to Jake's atop Deadwood's Midnight Star for a dinner that will empty your wallet ($150 for four), but will give you better than average food, great service, and a beautiful restaurant. My only warning to people used to fine dining -- it hasn't yet arrived in the Dakotas, so lower your expectations and you will enjoy yourself.

However, there is no end of places to put your head. I stayed at the historic Franklin Hotel (800-688-1876) in Deadwood and while I didn't care for the slots in the lobby, the rest of the place was genteel shabby and had the feel of a grand old hotel. I can see why TR chose it. Rooms range from $62 for a single to $150 for a suite for four people. Resorts, B&B's, lodges, motels, and camp grounds abound. Check the Web listings at for the place that's right for you and don't be surprised to learn that most of the rates are more than reasonable.

Just make sure to set aside enough cash to make one more run at the tables or the machines. After all, a 75-cent pull is purported to have netted over $800,000. And if you sit in on a round of blackjack or a hand of poker, just be sure you don't make the same mistake Wild Bill did and sit with your back to the door.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.
Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.