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On the wrong side of the tracks in Deadwood, South Dakota


 

Deadwood is a place where the right kind of man might prosper, but the wrong kind would quickly sink into the mud.

 

I’ve just finished reading Pete Dexter’s novel Deadwood, first published in 1986 and which I’d guess served as inspiration for the similarly excellent HBO series of the same name. It follows the later life of Charles ‘Colorado Charlie’ Utter, loyal friend and companion to ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok, one of the most iconic figures in the American Wild West. To call it merely a Western novel would be a grave injustice – despite its brevity this is a work of immense humanity, depth and wit, and I strongly recommend finding a copy for yourself if you love a good page-turner.

 

Deadwood

 

Deadwood was forged amid the last great American gold rush in the 1870s, when hordes of opportunists, entrepreneurs and ne’er-do-wells in search of fortune descended on what was then still an insubstantial gold mining community, located in a gulch lined with dead trees. Just to the south, the Black Hills mountain range made for a formidable access route, with frequent attacks on wagon trains by Cheyenne and Lakota war parties. What with the ever-present threats of sickness, fire, shooting and mining injuries, to survive in a town as rough-and-ready as Deadwood needed grit and more than a little luck. It’s no surprise that some of the most legendary characters of the Old West wound up here.

 

Hickok and Utter rode into this whirling centrifuge of graft, opportunity and violence in 1876. By this stage in his life, Wild Bill’s legend ran far in advance, though his eyesight and health were now falling behind. Hickok’s stay in Deadwood would not be a long one – within six months he had been gunned down by a drunk named ‘Jack’ McCall.while playing cards – but it has given the town something of a cultish reputation.

 

Deadwood from Mt. Moriah

Deadwood from Mt. Moriah

 

Touring Deadwood

 

We spent a couple of days in Deadwood back in 2015, on our way from Sioux Falls to Yellowstone through the Badlands National Park. I’d been glued to the HBO show when it was first broadcast, and crushed when it was cancelled. Having been fed a steady diet of Western movies in my childhood, making a short stop here to explore a piece of history was a no-brainer.

 

The risk of passing away from a lethal dose of lead poisoning is now greatly reduced, but Deadwood is still pleasingly rough around the edges. Main Street is lined with gaudy bars and casinos, where crowds of bearded men with sleeve tattoos and biker leathers gather outside to drink and smoke. One of these casinos, the Midnight Star, is owned by Kevin Costner, and the walls are covered in posters and memorabilia from his films. Costner of course once portrayed a contemporary of Hickok’s, Wyatt Earp, although Earp had yet to make his reputation as a lawman at the time of Hickok’s death.

 

First-stop was ‘Wild Bill’s Trading Post’, which stands on the site of Nuttal & Mann’s saloon where Hickok met his end. The store sells a vast range of firearms, ‘prepper’ supplies and miscellaneous Western souvenirs. We bought a couple of soft drinks and a toy plane for my son. In the basement of the store there is a recreation of the murder scene itself – Hickok had always been wary of sitting with his back to the room, conscious of those seeking revenge or glory – but on the night in question hadn’t been able to get the chair he wanted. The cards he was said to have been holding at the time he was ambushed – a pair of eights and a pair of aces, all black – is now known in poker as the ‘Dead Man’s Hand’.

 

Grave of "Calamity" Jane

Grave of “Calamity” Jane

 

Bust of "Wild" Bill Hickok in Mt. Moriah Cemetery

Bust of “Wild” Bill Hickok in Mt. Moriah Cemetery

 

Later, we joined a bus tour that took us to Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Hickock’s well-maintained grave can be seen here, alongside that of ‘Calamity’ Jane Cannary. Jane was a renowned frontierswoman and scout but also a notorious drunk. In Deadwood, Dexter treats her with compassion, emphasising the nurturing nature that coexisted with her wild side. She was said to have been infatuated with Hickok and claimed they had married, though the feeling was far from mutual. Wild Bill would probably have preferred she hadn’t been laid to rest next to him, but he wasn’t in much of a position to complain.

 

Right at the top of the cemetery, with a commanding view over the town, is the grave of Seth Bullock. Bullock was the sheriff at the time of Hickok’s assassination and also a prominent businessman. The Bullock Hotel, which he built with his partner, Sol Starr, is still in operation today on Main Street. Just a short walk away is the Mineral Palace Hotel which stands on the site of the former Gem Saloon. The Gem had a very seedy reputation – it was owned by Al Swearengen, who mistreated the prostitutes he kept upstairs and paid enough bribes that he was virtually untouchable by law enforcement.

 

Bullock Hotel, Deadwood

Bullock Hotel, Deadwood

 

Mineral Palace Hotel, Deadwood

Mineral Palace Hotel, Deadwood

 

Site of Wild Bill's assassination

Site of Wild Bill’s assassination

 

We didn’t stick around for long in Deadwood. It’s not much of a family-friendly destination, although there is plenty to do even if you’re not as fascinated with Old West history as I am. But if you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth tying up your horse for a while.

 

Things to do in Deadwood

 

In our experience, most of the action in Deadwood is focused on drinking, gambling and tourism. If like us you’re mainly interested in sightseeing, then there are various organised tours of Deadwood that give an accurate flavour of what life was like there during the Gold Rush – Mt. Moriah cemetery is a must-see. You can also go underground with a tour of the Broken Boot Gold Mine, get pampered at a luxury spa, or even do a little tasting at the several boutique wineries nearby. One of the highlights of our stay was the daily ‘shootout’ for the tourists on Main Street, which our four-year old son loved.

 

Where to stay in Deadwood

 

It’s not hard to find accommodation in Deadwood and the surrounding area, whether you’re looking for high-end hotels, guesthouses or campsites. Had we not been on a budget we’d have tried to get a room at the historic Bullock Hotel, but we ended up in a perfectly good AirBnB owned by a friendly local lady. In the evenings I would smoke cigars and drink whisky in the garden with some fellow guests who had hired Harley Davidsons for a couple of weeks. Midway through our six-month road-trip around the US, this was the first and only time I was asked if I knew the Queen. I don’t, just for the record.

 

Where to eat in Deadwood

 

There are plenty of good restaurants in Deadwood serving everything from primo steaks to easygoing burgers and ethnic cuisine. We stumbled across Saloon No.10 by accident and got a pretty decent feed, not realising until later that in years gone by it was one of the town’s best-known brothels. Oops!

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