The Old West gold rush town of Deadwood, South Dakota, once placed on the Most Endangered List of historic sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has recently earned a spot on another – far different – list: Forbes Magazine’s 2010 List of the Prettiest Towns in America. Tombstone, Arizona, may be known as the “town too tough to die” but Deadwood must also be given credit for surviving against incredibly high odds.
Early arrivals in the storied gulch, found it so clogged with dead wood (the remains of perennial cycles of fires and floods) that they were forced to put prospecting on hold until they could clear enough debris for hastily pitched tents or lean-tos. The wild and wooly gold rush town, illegally located on Indian land, sprouted overnight into the largest town in Dakota, and was home to Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Poker Alice and scores of lesser names. Prosperity came with consolidation of several area mines into one mega-business owned by the Hearst Corporation of California. The Homestake Mine, located in nearby Lead, operated continuously for 125 years, and was for most of that time the second largest gold mine in the world.
But even before the mine closed (there is still plenty of gold in them thar hills; it’s just more expensive to dig it out of the ground than it can be sold for today) the town was slowly losing its prominence. The establishment of Rapid City Army Air Base in 1941 (now Ellsworth Air Force Base) near the foothills town of Rapid City, started that town on a growth spurt which hasn’t stopped yet, and soon eclipsed Deadwood’s population and status.
The final blow to Deadwood’s pride was the closing of its famous brothels – which even the good church ladies of Deadwood picketed to save – in 1980. With only one claim to fame remaining (Wild Bill Hickock died here) revenues dwindled, the neglected streets became pocked with potholes and the outmigration increased.
But Deadwood’s Old West spirit lives in its intrepid citizens, who put their heads together and decided that the one thing that could save their precious town was gambling. Or rather “legalized gaming”. The terms, “gambling” and “casino” are specifically prohibited on signage in the historic Gulch by law. The story of how Deadwood managed to convince the conservative citizens of South Dakota to actually change the constitution to allow “gaming” in just this one town, could fill a book. A book which hasn’t been written because Deadwood is too busy coping with success.
Deadwood may be an Old West town, but it’s 21st century citizens did not inherit the single-minded gold fever of those early residents. The number one priority after gaming was enacted (with 85% of the profits going toward historic preservation) was to replace all the ancient infrastructure. An example of how long routine maintenance had been postponed was found under Deadwood’s Main Street, where 100+ year-old wooden water pipes were uncovered while replacing the sewer, water, gas, electric and telephone utilities.
The Forbes Magazine honor recognizes not just Deadwood’s beauty (virtually every building in town has been restored) but also for its rich history, the heart of the last great gold rush in America.
To learn more, or to visit Deadwood with an expert:
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.