History hunting in Deadwood

Deadwood: the legendary Gold Rush town of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Our anticipation on arriving in this fabled gold rush community was high.

Deadwood: the legendary Gold Rush town of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Our anticipation on arriving in this fabled gold rush community was high. Would we finally experience a true western town with all its historical trappings?

I came to this town to find the history of its colourful past, and to make connections with Yukon’s own gold rush town, Dawson City.

The town itself was at the bottom of a narrow valley below the now abandoned workings of a hardrock mine at nearby Lead (pronounced ‘Leed’).

Deadwood is nestled in the valley along two or three streets squeezed into the bottom of the cleft, with more streets perched precariously on the slopes on either side. The streets are well maintained and flanked by rows of neatly restored brick and sandstone buildings, many of which came from an earlier era.

Named after the sparse vegetation in the narrow valley in which the town grew, the town came into being when placer gold was discovered in the nearby streams in 1875. By the following year, it was the central community in the Black Hills, having siphoned off hopeful miners from neighbouring communities. Hardrock mining then assured its long term survival.

Like Dawson City, Deadwood had, by the late 1970s fallen upon bad times. Prostitution, which had been more or less condoned, was finally closed down around 1981. The community turned to gambling as a chance to save the town and preserve the history. Four per cent of the proceeds, I was told, are apportioned to an historic preservation commission in the community. Since then, I was also told, $1.5 billion have gone into the slot machines and across the gaming tables there.

The main street in Deadwood included several blocks in which the business section once resided. One, two, and three-storey buildings stood shoulder to shoulder along both sides of the street. Modern structures, fill the gaps in the streetscape, and match the originals in general form design and material. The street is now filled with casinos, bars, souvenir shops and eateries.

A neon sign on one building advertised the Wild Bill Bar; a billboard on the front announced “The Historic Location of Saloon Number 10.”

Inside, at the rear of the narrow establishment, a staircase led down into a rock-walled cellar.

On one side of this chamber was a depiction of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok, complete with mannequins. On the other side was a series of panels describing the events around the shooting. A marker on the floor designated the very spot where he was shot.

What I became aware of during my visit was that this is a part of the mythmaking associated with the Wild West. The brick building in which this little exhibit is housed did not actually exist when the shooting took place. The legendary Dead Man’s Hand, which Hickok was alleged to have held when he was shot, I was told, did not come into existence until 50 years after his death.

The Hickok of legend appeared briefly in Deadwood, where he kept a low profile and spent most of his time playing poker until he was killed. Had he not been shot, he might have been a mere footnote in the history of this community.

Instead, his face is prominently displayed in exhibits and in businesses all over town. Biographies of Hickok line the bookstore shelves, along with a similar array of titles devoted to Calamity Jane, another character whose accomplishments during her time in Deadwood leaned more toward alcoholic consumption than to civic duty. When I visited the Mount Moriah Cemetery on a guided tour, the graves of Wild Bill and Calamity were both prominently featured for eager tourists.

When I inquired about the history, I discovered that the store clerks and others citizens of this small town of 1,400 knew little, aside from the obvious stereotypes.

To further fulfill the image of the Wild West, I learned, there are gunfights in the street at specially scheduled times of day during the summer.

But what was the old town really like? Where would I find the real history? And what were the connections to the Klondike Gold Rush?

Fortunately, Raoul Ponce DeLeon, the tour guide who whisked me and other visitors to the hillside graveyard, was especially well-informed about the historical events of Deadwood.

He took pains to separate the myth from the fact. I thanked him for this, and he directed me to the Adams Museum, where he said I would find another keeper of the history, Jerry Bryant.

Bryant, it turns out, lives for the history of this town. Friendly and bear-like, he warmly greeted me and we talked enthusiastically about archival sources and historical details.

He is hot on the trail of a Yukon connection — Ellis Albert “Al” Swearingen, a main character in the HBO series called Deadwood, who in real life visited the Yukon during or after the Klondike stampede.

Robert Floorman, another Deadwood resident probably passed through Dawson City on his way to Nome, where he died. Did I know either of them? I pledged to track these men down when I returned home.

I considered what I had seen during the two days I was in Deadwood.

The Saloon that had allegedly once, before its construction, been the site of the famous murder, had been gutted and made over into a casino. One wall had been opened up, as had been done in several conjoined buildings down the street, creating, on the inside, one giant gaming hall, while on the outside retaining the appearance of several discrete and separate buildings.

Between the numerous casinos, are liquor stores, saloons, souvenir shops and jewelry stores, all of which define the characteristics of a Vegas-like attraction.

The veneer of history thinly covers the town, and the gift shops shamelessly sell souvenirs evoking images of an idealized Wild West frontier.

Dawson City started out on the same quest to use its history to promote tourism, save the community and inject life into a dying town. The community even opened Canada’s first casino, yet beyond the similarities in origin, they have developed along different paths, one retaining its charm, the other turning into a tawdry imitation of its former self.

Despite an informative and enjoyable visit to Deadwood, personally, I would choose Dawson any day.

Yet there are some serious students of the history of Deadwood who dig below the veneer for the deeper stories of the town. Had I been able to stay longer, I would have gotten to know them better, and the history would have become much more interesting.

Once again, it was the people I met, more than the streets I walked, that made the history come alive.