The Good Life! ~ The Promises Are Still Here!
In 1874, Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. This announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the new and lawless town of Deadwood, which quickly reached a population of around 5,000.
The search for Gold, Riches & Fortunes are still a main attraction to Deadwood today! The Rubicon is located only 2 or so miles as a crow flies but 8 miles by road to city center.
In early 1876, frontiersman Charlie Utter and his brother Steve led a wagon train to Deadwood containing what were deemed to be needed commodities to bolster business. The gamblers and prostitutes resulted in the establishment of several profitable ventures. Demand for women was high, and the business of prostitution proved to have a good market. Madam Dora DuFran would eventually become the most profitable brothel owner in Deadwood, closely followed by Madam Mollie Johnson. Businessman Tom Miller opened the Bella Union Saloon in September, 1876.
Photo-textured 3D laser scan image of Bullock-Clark Building, 616–618 Main Street (1894)
A saloon called the Gem Variety Theater, opened in April 7, 1877 by Al Swearengen who also controlled the opium trade. The saloon was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1879. It burned down again in 1899, causing Swearengen to leave the town.
Deadwood became known for its wild and almost lawless reputation, during which time murder was common, and punishment for murders not always fair and impartial. The town attained further notoriety for the murder of gunman Wild Bill Hickok. Mount Moriah Cemetery remains the final resting place of Hickok and Calamity Jane, as well as slightly less notable figures such as Seth Bullock. Hickok’s murderer, Jack McCall, was prosecuted twice, despite the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against double jeopardy, because of a ruling that Deadwood was an illegal town in Indian Territory and thus lacked the jurisdiction to prosecute or acquit McCall. This decision moved McCall’s trial to a Dakota Territory court (“Indian Court”), where he was found guilty of murder and hanged.
As the economy changed from gold panning to deep mining, Deadwood lost its rough and rowdy character and developed into a prosperous town. In 1876, a smallpox epidemic swept through, with so many falling ill that tents were erected to quarantine the stricken. In 1876, General George Crook pursued the Sioux Indians from the Battle of Little Big Horn on an expedition that ended in Deadwood and is known as the Horsemeat March. The Homestake Mine in nearby Lead was established in 1877. For years, it was the longest continuously operating gold mine in the United States. Gold mining operations ceased in 2002, but the mine is still open to tourists. On September 26, 1879, a fire devastated Deadwood, destroying more than three hundred buildings, and consuming the belongings of many inhabitants. Many of the newly impoverished left town to start again elsewhere.
A narrow-gauge railroad, the Deadwood Central Railroad, was founded by resident J.K.P. Miller and his associates in 1888, in order to serve their mining interests. The railroad was purchased by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in 1893. A portion of the railroad between Deadwood and Lead was electrified in 1902 for operation as an interurban passenger system, which operated until 1924. The railroad was abandoned in 1930, apart from a portion from Kirk to Fantail Junction, which was converted to standard gauge. The remaining section was abandoned by the successor Burlington Northern Railroad in 1984.
Some of the other early town residents and frequent visitors included Al Swearengen, E. B. Farnum, Charlie Utter, Sol Star, Martha Bullock, A. W. Merrick, Samuel Fields, Calamity Jane, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, the Reverend Henry Weston Smith, Aaron Dunn and Wild Bill Hickok.
The gold rush attracted Chinese immigrants to the area. Their population peaked at 250. A few engaged in mining; most worked in service enterprises. A Chinese quarter arose on Main Street, encouraged by the lack of restrictions on foreign property ownership in Dakota Territory and a relatively high level of tolerance. Wong Fee Lee arrived in Deadwood in 1876 and became a leading merchant. He was a community leader among the Chinese Americans until his death in 1921.
The quarter’s residents also included African-Americans and Americans of European extraction. The state sponsored an archeological dig in the area during the 2000s.
20th and 21st centuries
Another major fire in September 1959 came close to destroying the town again. About 4,500 acres were burned and an evacuation order was issued. Nearly 3,600 volunteer and professional firefighters, including personnel from the Homestake Mine, Ellsworth Air Force Base, and the South Dakota National Guard’s 109th Engineer Battalion worked to contain the fire, which resulted in a major regional economic downturn.
In 1961, The entire town was designated a National Historic Landmark, but the town continued to decline for the next two decades. Interstate 90 bypassed Deadwood in 1964 and its brothels were shut down after a 1980 raid. A fire in December 1987 destroyed the historic Syndicate Building and a neighboring structure.
The fire fueled interest in the area and spurred the “Deadwood Experiment”, in which gambling was tested as a means of revitalizing a city center. At the time, gambling was legal only in the state of Nevada and in Atlantic City Deadwood was the first small community in the U.S. to seek legal gambling revenues as a way of maintaining local historic qualities. Gambling was legalized in Deadwood in 1989 and immediately brought significant new revenues and development. The pressure of development since then may have an effect on the historical integrity of the landmark district.