The real Deadwood

Peter Fish explores the South Dakota town made famous by the hit TV show
Peter Fish

This is a tale of two cities. The first is a mining camp in the Black Hills, where greed, lust, and violence kindle in such volatile combinations, you think they may burn the whole town down. The second is a tourist attraction whose tidy Main Street throngs with tourists jingling the quarters they won in the casino slots.

The first town is Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876, as experienced on the HBO series Deadwood. The second is Deadwood, South Dakota, as experienced in real time in 2006. The genuine and virtual towns have become inseparable. It's Deadwood's real history that made the television series possible. It's the television Deadwood that is breathing new life into the real town ― proving that in 2006, some juicy Western history can be as valuable as gold.

For proof of that statement, you can ask Mary Kopco. Director of Deadwood's Adams Museum & House, she was in her office when someone from Hollywood phoned to gather facts about her town. How much would a miner's pick have cost in 1876? What about a gold pan?

"I'm not a big TV watcher," Kopco says, but at that point, she learned what was going on. Television writer and executive producer David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue, was filming a new HBO series set in Deadwood. Milch had initially pitched a show about ancient Rome. But he was told the network had already scheduled a Rome series. He then realized that for drama and intrigue, the American West was easily Rome's equal.

Looking back at how Milch's show has changed her job, her museum, and her town, Kopco says of answering those first telephoned questions: "Well, I'm glad I ran a little faster to the archives."

A history of liars, loners, and lowlifes

If you've ever watched HBO or held a passing interest in Western history, you likely know something about Deadwood. In fall of 1875, gold was discovered in Deadwood Gulch. By 1876, 5,000 to 10,000 people ― mostly miners, mostly men ― had formed an instant city in the Black Hills.

"Our history is based on liars, loners, and lowlifes," says Jerry Bryant, a historical archaeologist who works at the Adams Museum. "Wild Bill Hickok. Calamity Jane. They became our icons."

 

What's remarkable about Deadwood is how fast those icons were made. Wild Bill was famous when he first arrived in Deadwood; when he was gunned down three weeks later in Saloon No. 10, he rose to legend. Likewise, Calamity Jane almost immediately became a hot topic of the dime novel ― the HBO series of its day. More than riches, Deadwood granted fame.

Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were among the stories Milch had to work with. But the power of Deadwood comes less from the characters you've heard about before than from the ones you haven't ― above all, from Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen, both drawn from real life. A former Montana Territorial senator, Bullock represents (if somewhat shakily) progress, order, civilization. Against him plots Swearengen, proprietor of the sordid Gem Theater and crime lord. As played by Ian McShane, Swearengen is a character the equal of Hannibal Lecter or Richard III: villainy raised to high art.

From its first episode, Deadwood created a panorama of the American West not seen before on television: violent, grim, funny, exceedingly profane, and willing to ponder the big questions. "What I love about the show is that it's not a western," Kopco says. "It's about society. And how it forms. Do we want law? Do we not want law? It's a quandary."

Deadwood's blessing

Certainly, it can be a quandary, figuring out how a historic Western town can survive. Ask any resident of Cripple Creek, Colorado, or Tombstone, Arizona, or Lincoln, New Mexico. Once the mines play out and the cattle boom passes, you're left with rickety old buildings, lurid stories, and not much else.

Deadwood's true glory days arrived after the era that the series covers. Mining baron George Hearst ― seen skulking around town this season ― acquired the Homestake Mine, eventually the deepest gold mine in the Western hemisphere. It was the Homestake's wealth that built the ornate, mostly brick Deadwood you see today, and kept the town prosperous for much of the 20th century.

But by the late 1980s, the Homestake was on the verge of closing. "We had crumbling façades, boarded-up storefronts, no jobs," says advertising executive and Deadwood Magazine publisher Tom Griffith. The town turned to gaming, becoming the third venue in the nation (after Las Vegas and Atlantic City) to offer legalized gambling ― blazing a trail that would be followed by Cripple Creek and other Western towns. But today, with competition from Indian casinos and Internet gambling, even slot machines aren't the sure bet they once were.

Which is why Deadwood was and is such a blessing. "You know that saying about everybody getting their 15 minutes of fame?" Griffith asks. "Well, Deadwood is getting 60 minutes a week. We're seen in England, in France, in Brazil." Once the show premiered, hits on the Adams Museum website went from a few thousand to 6.6 million per month. Tourists stroll down Main Street, searching out landmarks like the Bullock Hotel (still in business) and the Gem Theater (no longer standing).

 

Deadwood has even disturbed the dead. Mt. Moriah Cemetery has long attracted visitors wanting to view the side-by-side gravesites of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. Farther up the hill, hidden in pines, Seth Bullock's grave was mostly ignored. No more. Now Deadwood fans hike up to pay respects to the show's hero, placing flowers, change, and phone cards on his gravestone. Also notes: "Vic and Becky from Christchurch, Dorset, England. Come all the way to see you."

Back to the future

Deadwood's third season runs into this fall, and a fourth season seems unlikely. But the show has already altered the town for the better. "The Hollywood Deadwood and the real Deadwood have become a family," says Kopco. Cast members have come to visit; Kopco and her husband have gone to California to see filming there. ("Especially during the night scenes, it was positively eerie," Kopco says. "I felt like I was going back in time.")

Deadwood has even helped Deadwood preserve its history. In 2005 the fate of the Homestake Mine's archives ― 126 years' worth of irreplaceable history ― was suddenly in question. Odds were the collection would be sold off or donated in pieces and scattered around the country.

"I told David Milch about it," recalls Kopco.

"He said, 'Would $25,000 help you out?' " Now the Homestake archives will remain in Deadwood, housed in their own building not far from Adams Museum, and will be viewable to scholars around the world via the Internet. Thanks to a violent, profane television show, a town's legend is being polished for the pleasure of future generations. Up on his mountainside, Seth Bullock should be smiling.

Info: Adams Museum & House (free; 54 Sherman St., Deadwood; 605/578-1714). Visit www.deadwood.org, www.adamsmuseumandhouse.org, and www.hbo.com/deadwood for more info.