A business partner and I visited Rapid City and stopped in Deadwood in 1995 looking at a business to buy. Much has changed since then. Some of it is good.
There has been tremendous growth along I-90 west of Rapid City. There are lots of new housing developments and the interchanges are all built up. I could not find the nine acres and little auto, truck repair and towing shop we looked at. I suspect the ultimate buyer sold it to either a large hotel chain or oil company.
Gold was found in Deadwood Gulch in 1876. The town remained busy for a long time partially because local businessmen brought in the railroad. Another factor may have been that the Homestake Mine, founded by George Hearst whose tracks we saw in Virginia City and San Simeon, operated from 1876 until 1998. The mine is in Lead (pronounced leed) just a mile up the road.
Nonetheless, Deadwood was looking pretty sad by 1989 when they legalized gambling. By 1995, it was a pretty prosperous little town. Today, there are new hotels and casinos everywhere, and it seems like every building is tied to gambling. It is interesting but not really our cup of tea.
Deadwood was named for the dead trees on the hillsides. I noted that many trees in the area are now dead, killed by the pine bark beetle. “Lead” comes from the term for a vein of ore showing at the ground.
While we prefer prettier or more rustic towns, as we had a great room at a great price at Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort, we decided to stay a while.
Deadwood streets have excellent historical signs with photos dating as far back as 1876. One evening walking along the main street, we also saw signs proclaiming the site where Wild Bill Hickok had his last meal, where he was shot, and where his killer was caught. A sign on entering the town proclaims it is “where legends are born.” It seems more that it is where legends die.
For one dollar per person, the Mt. Moriah Cemetery (referred to by tour companies as “boot hill”) has an excellent guide that not only tells where there are interesting graves but also has a little biography of their residents. It appears gamblers leave coins, cards, cigarettes etc. by Wild Bill’s grave. The inscription reads “Custer was lonely without him,” but that seems to be a modern addition.
Not all are notorious. Among the beloved characters are Potato Creek Johnny and Preacher Smith.
We had a glass of wine on the Franklin Hotel (1901) veranda. The woodwork, interior columns and ceilings are architectural gems, but obscured by hundreds of slot machines.
Our hotel did not have a free breakfast, and I decided to postpone it until we had traveled down the road on a day trip. Seeing a sign, “Fresh trout served all day,” I pulled in. The owner and cook were sitting on the porch, and I asked if I could get a trout for breakfast. The owner looked over her shoulder and hollered to a guy nearby, “catch one trout for breakfast.” He did.
The cook did a perfect job with the trout. While we waited, she regaled us with stories of her travels. After cooking for twelve years for the Busch family in St. Louis, she began to travel, cooking in such diverse places as Alaska, Hawaii and here. During the last winter, she cooked in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and plans to go back next winter.
If you have never been to Mount Rushmore, you should visit. It is part of our national heritage and is quite impressive. If you have been there before, you might want to skip it or just take pictures from one of the wayside pullouts. The nearby town of Keystone has grown tremendously in the last seventeen years and is touristier than Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee combined. There is no charge for the monument, but a huge concession parking garage that dominates the entrance charges eleven dollars. Even this early in the season, there was a line waiting to get in.
A better bet is to drive down S.D. Route 16 and pay fifteen dollars to enter Custer State Park, motto “Custer had it coming” (not really). The entire place is lovely, but there are three spectacular drives. The Iron Mountain Road from Keystone has three one-lane tunnels and pigtail bridges where the road curls above itself. Our route took us over the Needles Highway which also has three narrow tunnels, pigtails and spectacular rock formations.
Further south, we went into Wind Cave National Park where we saw more antelope, prairie dogs and buffalo. A short tour of the cave was not available for an hour and a half and Alie was not up the three hundred steps of the tour that was beginning. However having seen Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park a few weeks ago, we did not feel deprived. In any case, the most interesting features are only seen on a special tour.
We drove on up to Rapid City just to get the car washed – dirt roads had left it caked. The last time we were out this way, the Harley rally was going in Sturgis and there was not a room available within one hundred miles. We had to stop in the town just to see it. Main Street looks much like the scenes on TV minus the bikes and women flashing their breasts. Many of the buildings seem to be only used for special events. But around it was a very conventional and nice town.
Our final day trip was to Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Declared the first national monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, it is 867 feet tall and has a thousand foot diameter at the base. The top, the mythical landing site from “Close Encounters Of A Third Kind,” is just more than an acre in size. Taking a dirt side road to a hiking trail, we found a place with a view to picnic all alone despite the crowds at the visitors’ center.
Taking the less-traveled route back to Deadwood, we went through Aladdin, population 15. (Buford Wyoming has a population of one, a man who serves as mayor and janitor.) The store, still open, was started in 1896.
Aladdin was the site of a coal mine from 1896 to the 1940s although from about 1916 on it just produced enough for local consumption. In 1900, there were 65 miners who received seventy-five cents a ton. Freeman Knowles, described by the Mt. Moriah Cemetery guide as a “flaming socialist,” went to jail several times for his “biting editorials which usually defended the miners’ union.”