Ask town archivist Mike Runge how he views Deadwood, South Dakota, and he’ll likely start talking dirt.
No, he’s not passing along town gossip. The city’s archivist is referring to the soil upon which Deadwood has been built and rebuilt. Digging and sifting through the various levels of earth is, for an archivist, like opening packages on Christmas morning. Soil stratigraphy — examining layers of soil — is important to understanding Deadwood’s past, Runge explains.
“Deadwood’s history can be divided into several distinct episodes (marked by) catastrophic disasters, primarily fire and flood. Evidence of these disasters leave traces in the soils, including ash, burnt wood or fine silty soils. …artifacts found with the layers provide archaeologists and historians a window into the past. They help tell the story of the people and businesses that once occupied an area.”
We are in the basement of Deadwood City Hall, now a special facility to house and restore artifacts and the city’s paper records. Runge showcases some of the treasures that have been excavated from various locations.
“We are all about preserving Deadwood’s past above and below ground,” he explains.
For instance, the soil under Nelsons Garage in Deadwood’s Badlands District indicates that there have been several fires and floods in the town.
“Some of the artifacts (we found) … contained manufacturers’ marks that could be dated and then compared to the written records chronicling the local events of the mining camps,” Runge says.
This basement “vault,” with its valuable artifacts, is a stop on one of several new behind-the-scenes tours offered at the visitors’ center. Today’s guide is longtime resident Raul Ponce de Leon, who says that “Deadwood is the most recognized Wild West towns in the U.S.”
Ponce de Leon takes us in and out of buildings and side streets, demonstrating that Deadwood is a treasure trove of history that tells much about our Western frontier. We learn that as our country was celebrating its centennial in 1876, surveyors in General George Custer’s illegal exploration party discovered gold near what was to become Deadwood. (The exploration was illegal because a recent treaty had designated this land as exclusively Native American — mostly Sioux.)
The usual flood of fortune seekers followed, and the population swelled to 13,200. With the boom came legendary figures like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny, Poker Alice and 15-year-old Dora DuFran, a highly successful madam and town benefactor.
One mine, the Homestake, the largest and deepest in North America, eventually produced 10 percent of the world’s gold supply. It operated until 2002.
Because of its colorful history, and perhaps thanks to the HBO series “Deadwood,” the town welcomes 2 million visitors a year — all the more remarkable because Deadwood has only 1,267 residents.
“When the show first started airing we saw a huge increase in visitation,” says Amanda Kille, marketing director at the Deadwood Chamber & Visitors Bureau. “At the time, we developed materials to help visitors understand what was real and what was fiction in the series. (The show’s) creators worked directly with Deadwood-based museum staff to blend history with Hollywood.”
The popularity of streaming series has kept the visitors coming, Kille adds.
And here’s another amazing number: $6.8 million.
This is what Deadwood’s visitors’ bureau, historians, archeologists and preservationists reap annually because of — like it or not — gambling.
In 1989, South Dakota legalized gambling, which one might liken to striking it rich in the Homestake Mine a century earlier.
“Historic preservation began in 1989,” Runge says. “Prior to that, Deadwood was just a sleepy little town. Gaming opened Pandora’s Box for us and allowed us to do a lot of things.”
Things like buying the building that we are standing in — a former millworks — and converting it to City Hall with a costly, customized basement vault where priceless artifacts and city ledgers are stored, including the town’s original, hand-written incorporation documents. Other projects include improving the town’s infrastructure, putting utilities underground, and modernizing the fire department.
“Anyone can build a fake Old West town,” Runge says. “Deadwood is the real thing.”
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.