Deadwood — a trip back to the 19th century

Deadwood — a trip back to the 19th century
This monument stands at the grave of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok in Mt. Moriah Cemetery. He was shot in the head in 1876 at the age of 39 while playing cards in a Deadwood saloon. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Some say the two once were sweethearts, but no one can prove it and most think it unlikely. But both had reputations that preceded them wherever they went, and now lie next to each other on a hill overlooking the dramatic wooded gulch that cradles the historic mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota.

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok and Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary are just two of the famous and infamous characters that call Mt. Moriah Cemetery their permanent home. Walking through its forested acres is like walking into history, each grave marker a piece of the story that is Deadwood’s. One section of the cemetery was reserved for the 350 children who died from scarlet fever and diphtheria from 1878 to 1880. Another area is a mass grave for the victims — mostly lumber mill employees — of an 1883 boarding house fire. Still another section has been designated for Civil War veterans.

The Days OF ‘76 Museum, named after the year that gold was discovered near Deadwood, displays these and dozens of other antique coaches, carriages and wagons. Special tours take visitors behind the scenes to see some of the precious artifacts that belong to the collections. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Mt. Moriah wasn’t always this peaceful, scenic and cared for.

Before 1989, monuments were deteriorating and the grounds were dusty or muddy. No bronze monument stood at Wild Bill’s grave. Then 1989 happened. South Dakota legalized gambling and Deadwood established gaming. Now this town of less than 1,300 reaps $6.8 million annually to use toward historic preservation. (It also gives $250,000 annually to preservation projects throughout South Dakota.)

In 1990, nearly $5 million was used to restore Mt. Moriah to its current beauty.  The summer brings 2 million visitors to Deadwood and many come to the cemetery, its gift shop and mini-museum, chock-full of historic photos and memorabilia. One, a list of the causes of death taken from town records, tells a lot about life in Deadwood during the gold-boom years. Reasons for demise in those days include “wounded by buffalo;” “killed by bear;” and “hanged by mob.”

Other causes are head-scratchers: “hit with a bottle,” “broken thumb,” “14 hard-boiled eggs” and “God knows.”

Revenues generated from gaming also finance many other history-rich projects and attractions designed for those looking to immerse themselves in the lore of the Old West. A half-dozen tours, new this year, take visitors back to 19th-century Deadwood:

• Miner’s Morning — Visit the Broken Boot Goldmine, eat the Miner’s Breakfast, and learn how to mine gold in Whitewood Creek. 

• Eureka! Go for the Gold — While mining at Whitewood Creek, hear stories of the fortune-seekers of Deadwood. 

• Lawman’s Patrol: Guided Walking Tour — Walk the streets of Deadwood with the town’s first marshal and see why the entire town was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1967.

• Behind the Scenes Tour of the Days of ’76 Museum — Go where none have gone before, see valuable artifacts from gold-rush days and learn how they are discovered and preserved.

• Archaeological Collections of Deadwood: An Ethnic Oasis — Combine a walking tour of the town and visit with the city’s archivist to learn about the city’s rich ethnic heritage and excavating artifacts. 

• Tea and Tour of the Adams House — Enjoy tea and a guided walk through this beautiful, meticulously preserved and restored 1892 Queen Anne-style home built by a wealthy businessman.

All tours require walking, long periods of standing and navigating stairs. Most are limited to 12 to 15 people. Best to make reservations. www.ExperienceDeadwood.com or call (800) 993-1876.

More fun: Summer shootouts on Main Street four times a day (free); Days of ’76 Museum — 32,000 square feet of beautifully maintained antique wagons and carriages, 19th century clothing and Native American artifacts. Also, learn the history of the rodeo; Celebrity Hotel — displays dozens of clothing and personal items that belonged to the stars (free); Deadwood Trolley — stops at many hotels, restaurants and attractions every 20, 30 and 60 minutes ($1); Mickelson and Homestake hiking trails — the former starts in town; the latter (3 miles long) starts in nearby Lead.

For more photos, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

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