During the gold and silver rush many towns appeared spontaneously on the map. These towns turned into ghost towns after the gold or silver were mined out. Not Deadwood, which is very much alive in spite of or maybe thanks to its rowdy past. Deadwood has overgrown its early day’s lawlessness, drinking, gambling, and prostitution and became a Historical Landmark and an entertainment hub for kids and adults.
After watching a TV series we were excited to see what the real Deadwood looks like. We wanted to walk the streets where legendary heroes and infamous scoundrels of the Old West once walked. We wanted to look into the saloons where they gambled. The list of famous people who lived or visited Deadwood during its lawless days is long: Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, Sol Star, Charlie Utter, Al Swearengen, George Hearst, Jack McCall, Con Stapleton, Boone May, Wyatt Earp, the Sundance Kid, and Poker Alice. Some of them were killed. Some of them persevered and made this town a great place to live.
We started our first day in Deadwood by taking a trolley from our Super 8 hotel to its historic downtown. The hotel was nice and cozy with a great view of a turbulent stream which runs behind of the hotel. We enjoyed this view from a porch during our breakfast.
Trolleys are part of the historic Deadwood as well as Stagecoach rides. The trolleys transfer visitors to the main attractions of the town. They run once or twice an hour. If you don’t want to wait, drive your car. There are a few public parking lots in the town. Our trolley was late, which added more excitement and anticipation to our first sunny morning in Deadwood. The driver was very welcoming. We took a seat next to an open window and enjoyed our ride and views of Deadwood all the way to the Welcome Center, which was the last stop in the northern part of the town. At the Center we picked up a map, a schedule of events, and asked for recommendations. We then began our tour of Deadwood.
The northern part of Main Street use to be Chinatown. Chinese came to Deadwood, as well as other immigrants from all over the world, during the gold rush. Nowadays on the place of Chinatown there is Dahl’s Chainsaw Art workshop. There are lots of skillfully carved wooden bears, eagles, horses and other figures on display.
Main Street is lined with two-story or three-story brick or mortar houses built during or shortly after the gold rush era. The architectural styles are eclectic and range from the Victorian to the Southwestern adobe style. Some buildings have the year of construction etched at the top under the roof. We saw the years 1879, 1894, and 1895.
Walking along Main Street we saw the Gem Steakhouse & Saloon. The Steakhouse is not the original Gem Theater. The original Gem Theater was owned by a ruthless businessman named Al Swearengen. The Gem Theater served as a bar, a gambling place, and a brothel during the early days of Deadwood.
The Gem Theater was built of wood and was burnt to the ground during two major fires that devastated Deadwood in 1879 and 1894. When the Gem Theater was burnt to the ground a third time in 1899, Swearengen decided to leave Deadwood for good and moved to Denver.
We realized that we are in the middle of the Badlands, when we noticed female mannequins dressed in lingerie posing in the windows of the second floor of the brick house with an old fashioned sign “Historic Green Door Club.” The Badlands used to be the seedier part of the town, where most of the saloons and brothels were located. Legitimate businesses were located on the first floor. Brothels were located on the second floor and were not labeled at all. A city ordinance prohibited keeping and maintaining houses of ill fame on Main Street. They were known as establishments on the edge of accepted morality. Another ordinance prohibited the selling of opium on Main Street as well. During the gold rush days there were thirteen saloons, one liquor wholesaler, three gun shops, a dance house and wine room, three gambling clubs, and two female boarding houses in Deadwood.
Then we saw a sign “Original location of Saloon # 10” and could not resist going into the saloon. Saloon # 10 is where Wild Bill Hickok was killed. The saloon looked like a museum. The first things we saw were a moose head with giant antlers and sad eyes on the wall and a stuffed black bear standing upright in the corner. There were other hunting trophies on the walls, such as the heads of elk, bison, and pronghorn sheep. There were lots of memorabilia related to Wild Bill Hickok and the Old West. There were two replicas of Wild Bill’s guns with ivory handles and cards showing his poker hand: two aces, two eights, and a fifth card, the “dead man’s hand.” There was also a collection of different guns from the 1800s with ammunition on display and much more.
On the corner of Main Street and Wall Street there is the magnificent Bullock Hotel. It was built in 1895 by two friends and business partners, Seth Bullock and Sol Star. They came to Deadwood on August 1, 1876 on a wagon full of hardware and then opened a hardware store. Bullock also served as sheriff in Deadwood and later as a deputy Marshall. Sol Star served five terms as the town’s major. He was also an active member of the Jewish community and performed other civil duties. In 1894 Bullock and Star hardware store was burnt down and two partners decided to build a luxury hotel instead.
The hotel had 64 rooms and indoor plumbing, which was a luxury at that time. In fact, the hotel is still one of the finest hotels in Deadwood. There is a casino on the first floor, where tourists can place their bets and also a fine restaurant. The beautiful interior of the casino, good air conditioning and drinking fountains with cold water are very enticing for a quick stop.
We went back to the Bullock hotel for an “Old-Thyme Hoe Down” concert later. A trio played acoustical melodies of the old west. The band was made up of the actress and actors who portrayed Calamity Jane (soprano), Con Stapleton (banjo), and Jack McCall (guitar). We enjoyed cheerfully performed old western songs and Calamity Jane taught the audience one of her favorite songs. She gave us rattling white plastic balls, and asked us to shake them in rhythm when we sang along.
She has a nice voice and her boisterous character made singing along a fun experience.
At that time we had to take a break in our tour for juicy and delicious hamburgers at Mustang Sally’s restaurant at the corner of Main and Wall Streets.
After lunch we rushed to the Tin Lizzie Resort to listen to “True Tales of Deadwood” told by Calamity Jane, played by the talented Jena Sierks. There was already a crowd of listeners around her hungry for old west stories. Both children and adults were captivated by Jane’s charm, of her external frontier roughness, and of her sensitive, artistic psyche.
She told stories about her frontier adventures while being a scout on Colonel Custer’s military expedition. The expedition traversed the Black Hills, where they discovered gold. She also told stories about fighting Indians. Calamity Jane told how she was a bull whacker on a wagon train, run by Charlie Utter, and about Wild Bill Hickok who was in the same wagon train. Wild Bill was her friend and had a special place in her heart. But it was unrequited love. Wild Bill was recently married and was in love with his wife. He came to Deadwood to make quick money in gold mining.
Calamity Jane was a tough character, fearless, dressed in men’s clothing, drinking, swearing and always ready to whoop it up. She was also an excellent sharpshooter and very capable of standing up for herself and her friends. She told her stories with a cheerful, die hard sense of humor, which helped her to survive all calamities and troubles in her life.
Her real name was Martha Canary and she was born in 1856 in Missouri. In the middle of the 1860s, during the gold rush, her parents moved to the Montana territory. Her father was not successful in finding gold and the family struggled financially. In a few years both her parents died. Martha and her siblings were placed for adoption. But Martha had an independent character. She ran away and started living on her own.
To make her living she worked as a prostitute. She also became addicted to drinking. She followed Colonel Custer’s troops, but some of Custer’s officers said that she had never been a scout or fought Indians. Never mind, she told fascinating stories about it and who cares?
However, nobody denied that Martha cared for and nursed sick people during an epidemic of smallpox in Deadwood and saved many lives. She did not contract the disease. She was always on the go, moving from town to town, had friends everywhere, and was a frequent “jail bird.”
In the end of her life she told stories to anybody for a drink and paid her debts by giving away her pictures. She died broke at the age of 47 and her friends buried her at Mount Mariah cemetery next to Wild Bill, as she wished. She got her nickname because she always got into trouble, but Jane sure had another story for that.
We did not have to walk too far for the next show. It was a shootout, which started on the Main Street, close to the Tin Lizzie Resort. It was called “The Strange Tale of David Lunt.”
When a crowd gathered for the performance the director of the show, Andy Mosher, who played the role of Marshal Con Stapleton, introduced his troupe “Deadwood Alive.” Unlike the HBO “Deadwood” drama, peppered with cursing, the “Deadwood Alive” show is a comedy full of hilarious pranks, sparkling humor and old western valor. The show is kids friendly and their jokes caused explosions of laughter in the crowd.
After Marshal Con Stapleton introduced his troupe, “Deadwood Alive,” he warned spectators to stay on the sidewalks. He also warned that a real gun, like a Remington made in 1858, will be used in the shootout. He announced that the gun is loaded with 15 grams of black powder followed by cream of wheat, because the shooters are “cereal killers!”
Then he summoned all kids for a swearing in ceremony. Kids graciously sweared to be his deputies.
He told them to raise their right hands (or whichever hand works for them) and repeat after him out loud.
Marshal: “State your name!”
Kids: “State your name!”
Here the crowd cracked up with laughter.
Then Con Stapleton made kids to repeat the words of the oath: “I swear to obey the laws of Deadwood Gulch and to track down that lowlife, dirty dog, snake in the grass, weasel which did not do dishes (take out garbage, clean his room) for his mother! We swear to do dishes every day (take out garbage, clean our rooms) for our mothers! Please, help Marshal Con stay away from ice cream!”
After the “swearing in ceremony” which caused busts of laughter, young deputies were dismissed and ran proudly to their parents.
Then the show started. David Lunt was a likable man, genial, and well respected among residents of Deadwood. On a cold winter day on January 14, 1877 he and his buddies, including Marshal Con Stapleton, were sitting at a table at Al Chapman’s saloon talking, and raising their shot glasses “to the Union!” See video here.
Suddenly, a man by the name of Tom Smith broke into the saloon with a pistol in his hand. He shouted threats and pointed his pistol at the saloon’s patrons. Con Stapleton stood up, grabbed the bully by the hand and tried to disarm him. They wrestled and the pistol went off. A bullet barely missed the Marshal’s head, but it hit Lunt straight in the forehead. See video here.
Lunt fell on the floor motionless. His buddies surrounded him thinking that he was dead. But suddenly he moved, stood up, and said: “It was a close one.” He was staggering and his friends helped him to walk away. The bullet went straight through his brain.
Tom Smith was arrested for shooting an officer, but found not guilty and released. Soon thereafter he moved away to San Francisco.
David Lunt continued to do his daily activities for another 67 day. On March 22, 1877 he started to complain about having a terrible headache. His friends took him to bed at the Centennial Hotel and nursed him, but his died later in the evening. After an autopsy was performed a doctor found out that his brain became infected by a piece of scull bone. The bullet carried the piece of skull bone deep inside his brain. This caused an abscess.
After Lunt’s death sheriff Seth Bullock issued a warrant for the arrest of Tom Smith. He was arrested in San Francisco and was taken to Yankton, Dakota Territory to stand trial for murder.
To be continued.