The real Deadwood

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

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Deadwood day

Today's Deadwood is a tidy town of 1300 in the green Black Hills.

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  • Deadwood day

    Wild Bill Hickok's monument presides over Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

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."


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