That exclamation, shouted in 1875, began the town of Deadwood’s oh-so compelling story.
According to the local historic preservation commission, pioneer Frank Bryant and four friends were just looking for deer to hunt that day, but the sparkling metal Bryant found instead set miners scrambling to wrest their fortunes from the beautiful Black Hills of western South Dakota.
The gold rush lured thousands of fortune seekersinto the area’s lush wilderness.
Truth be told, they found gold, too — a lot of it. Pebble-size pieces but also nuggets as big as candy bars were taken from the mountains and canyons of the northern hills, area historians say.
Deadwood became an instant metropolis, fueled by greed, gold and gunpowder. There was no law, no organization, no order the first few years.
Today, Deadwood’s unique history and gambling venues attract millions of visitors every year. Legalized gambling was introduced in Deadwood in 1989.
From watching shootouts on Main Street and visiting famous graves in Mount Moriah Cemetery to catching outdoor concerts and trying your chances on the one-armed bandits, the town is bursting with things to do.
Long before the modern-day gambling halls were built, Deadwood was known as a lawless town run by infamous gamblers and gunslingers. Bars, brothels and gambling made up this tiny town, which was home to such legendary characters as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Hickok was one of the prospectors who came to Deadwood looking for fortune. Just a few short weeks after arriving, he was gunned down holding a poker hand of aces, eights and the nine of diamonds. And so began the legend of the dead man’s hand.
Every day during the summer, you can see re-enactments of the shooting of Wild Bill and the trial of Jack McCall, the man who shot him.
The entire city of Deadwood is designated a National Historic Landmark, but don’t let that fool you, for behind all the historic facades you’ll find plenty of family-friendly activity.
Gambling was such a part of Deadwood’s history that it seems only appropriate that it has taken over as one of the main attractions in this historic town. More than 80 establishments offer the gamut from penny slot machines to $100 bet limits.
At Midnight Star, the opulence of a bygone era is reflected in the etched glass, hand-rubbed wood and polished brass. That beauty is almost overshadowed by the bright colors, flashing lights and shrill noises of the gambling machines.
You can play slots, blackjack, three-card or Texas hold ‘em. Beverages and snacks are complimentary — as long as you play. Children are allowed to watch the action but must stay at least three feet from the machines.
Gambling aside, the main attraction to Deadwood is its history. Those who delight in the Colonial and Civil War history of the Washington region will be mesmerized by the differences. The architecture, the people and the stories are all unique.
Deadwood also offers a bit of Hollywood glamour. Most prominent is its connection with actor Kevin Costner. At his Midnight Star, you’ll find history of another sort: Costumes, props and memorabilia from his career are on display. You even may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him on one of his not-infrequent visits.
MOUNT MORIAH CEMETERY
A visit to Mount Moriah Cemetery offers a dramatic view from high above the city of Deadwood.
Among the legends of Deadwood at rest here are Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and prospector Potato Creek Johnny along with other notable ancestors of the area’s famous families.
Hickok’s grave recently was restored as part of a three-year, $3 million restoration project. It overshadows Calamity Jane’s simple grave. As per her request, she rests next to Hickok even though most historians agree the two were not really sweethearts.
Those very dedicated to history can travel about 750 feet up a steep trail to Sheriff Seth Bullock’s grave site.
According to its publication, the Adams Museum is the oldest history museum in the Black Hills. It was built in 1930 by businessman W.E. Adams as a memorial to his family and the pioneers of the area.
Artifacts showcase Deadwood’s infamous past, from well-known legends such as Wild Bill and Calamity Jane to its not-so-long-gone prostitution. You will find extensive collections of artwork, photographs, guns, minerals, fossils, 19th-century clothing and home furnishings.
One of the largest gold nuggets ever found in the Black Hills, discovered by Potato Creek Johnny, is owned by the museum, with a replica on display. Among the oddities: a plesiosaur fossil and a stuffed two-headed calf. The museum is open daily through the summer and Tuesday through Saturday during the winter season. Admission is free, but a donation of $3 is suggested. (Visit www.AdamsMuseumAndHouse.org.)
Tatanka: Story of the Bison, is an educational center a mile north of Deadwood. Developed under Kevin Costner’s guidance, it is on the site where the “Dances With Wolves” star had hoped to put a massive resort.
When plans for that project fell through, Mr. Costner adapted the site for this very interesting museum.
I asked Deb Picard, operations manager, to tell me the one thing she most hopes people will take with them from Tatanka.
“Tatanka is a healing place,” she said. “There are different sectors of society that visit. Those who know a lot about the plight of the Native Americans and the bison.
“Then we have the sector who spark their own interest.
“Then we have the sector that knows nothing.
“We hope Tatanka can bring these groups together. We hope it changes the way people think of the past. We hope our effort goes forward in a positive way.”
Tatanka is a Lakota word that means “bull buffalo.” Of course, to be accurate, no buffalo roamed the plains of America — only bison. Though estimates on the number of bison in existence before 1800 vary widely, there is little dispute that the number reached at least 30 million. Before conservation efforts were put into place, that number had dwindled to less than 1,000.
Tatanka’s two main features are its bronze sculptures of a buffalo jump and the hands-on interpretive center.
A buffalo jump was one way to hunt bison. The animals were herded toward some type of precipice, where the animals would fall and be injured, making the kill easier. The sculpture — depicting 14 bison and three American Indians on horseback — is impressive, realistic and haunting.
Tucked away from the bustle of the gambling venues, the site is quiet except for the sounds of soft music playing in the background and the rustle of the wind through the prairie grass. The setting, however, makes you feel the thundering hooves as the massive beasts head to their deaths, the cry of the Sioux as they pursue food for their families.
The detail in the sculptures, originally created for the resort by Peggy Detmers, is breathtaking.
The educational center showcases the connection between the bison and the Lakota people, with examples of many of the more than 100 uses the Indians had for various parts of the large animal. Interpreter Melissa Two Crow does a fabulous job of explaining the history of the area’s tribes and the story of the bison.
In addition to the replicas, storyboards tell the bison’s history through pictures and words. Outdoors, there even are tepees to check out.
Tatanka is open during the summer season only, until Sept. 30 this year. Admission is $7.50; $5.50 for ages 6 to 11. Children 5 and younger are admitted free. Visit www.storyofthebison.com.
Presidents Park was created in 1995 by artist and sculptor David Adickes, who wanted to bring the grandeur of Mount Rushmore to a more personal level.
Nestled among towering ponderosa pines and aspens are 20-foot busts of all 43 U.S. presidents. Made of white Portland cement, they weigh from 16 to 26 tons each. A detailed biography on each sculpture makes the pleasant stroll a unique history lesson.
The park also offers bicycle, ATV and snowmobile options for those looking for additional outdoor recreation.
Presidents Park is a few miles southwest of Deadwood. It is open year-round but closes when the weather threatens in the winter. Admission is $8; $6 for ages 5 to 15. Children under 5 are admitted free.
OK, a lot of strange creatures wander the wilds of South Dakota, but kangaroo and wallaby are not among them. If you have children, you should make time to visit the Roo Ranch, 1½ miles southeast of Deadwood.
The ranch started as a pleasant pastime for the Bell family, which decided to offer public tours in 2006. The ranch has about 50 kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos.
The highlight of the tour is the pen where visitors can mingle with these sweet creatures. Depending on your patience and the animals’ disposition for the day, you may have the opportunity to be sniffed and nibbled while you pet.
Open daily May through September. Admission is $8; $5 for ages 3 to 12. Children 2 and younger are admitted free (www.TheRooRanch.com).
The print information for First Gold Hotel says it is built on the site of the first gold discovery in Deadwood in 1875. Given its location at the base of a mountain, it’s easy to imagine finding gold in them thar hills.
Though the hotel is a bit removed from the action, its famous 79-cent breakfast (two eggs, hash browns and toast) might make the short walk (or trolley ride) to downtown worth your while.
In the heart of the action, lodging options range from the historic Franklin and Bullock hotels to the more standard Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn. If you need traditional activities for your little ones, Gulches of Fun (on the outskirts of Deadwood but along the trolley route) has a family fun park that includes miniature golf, go-carts, bumper boats and an arcade.
Of course, one can’t travel to Deadwood without the thought of what started it all: gold. Plenty of shops offer the distinctive Black Hills gold jewelry.
For those visitors who are curious about the mining process, tours are available at the Broken Boot Gold Mine in Deadwood and the Homestake Gold Mine in Lead.