Rough & Tumble Deadwood, South Dakota

To settlers coming to South Dakota in the 1880s, the atmosphere was electric with prosperity and promise. New lands opened up to homesteaders, gold was harvested from the Black Hills, riverboats ran the rivers, and railroad tracks were laid to new town sites.

Deadwood Central Railroad between Lead and Deadwood

Deadwood Central Railroad between Lead and Deadwood

By 1889, the population of South Dakota was large enough to warrant statehood and on November 2, 1889, the Dakota Territory became the states of North and South Dakota.

In 1891, the railroad connected the town to the outside world. The Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad helped bring the community together as a civic entity. The railroad also brought people to the area from various ethnic groups, among whom were numerous Chinese immigrants who helped to build the railroad.

Hundreds of Chinese came to the Black Hills looking for work in mines or commerce. Many settled in Deadwood, where they sought work in restaurants, laundries, and stores. By the end of the 1880s, Deadwood had a Chinatown, which was at the northern end of present-day Main Street. The Chinese managed to establish a district and a fire department for themselves but struggled in nearly every part of society. Often denied equality in a dominantly Caucasian community, the members of Chinatown strived for recognition as citizens of Deadwood. All too often they were subjected to the suspicion and hostility of whites.

Deadwood, South Dakota by Kathy Weiser

Deadwood, South Dakota today by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Deadwood gradually evolved from a wild frontier town to a prosperous commercial center, due, in part, to the construction of the railroad. Although the community primarily focused on its gold mining industry, Deadwood became the place where people traveled in the Black Hills to conduct their business.

Deadwood moved forward into the 20th century, but the image of the Wild West town has always lingered, due to past events and the individuals responsible for making the town into a legend.

As Deadwood moved forward, the gambling and prostitution establishments were still considered legitimate businesses. However, the new century brought new beliefs and ideas, and the gambling and prostitution came under attack from reformers who believed that the two were partly responsible for causing social problems, such as drunkenness and poverty. These reformers also supported the temperance movement that was sweeping the country.

The Green Door Club was once one of the most famous brothels in Deadwood, South Dakota. Today it is a casino and restaurant. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The Green Door Club was once one of the most famous brothels in Deadwood, South Dakota. Today it is a casino and restaurant. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

In 1919, the U.S. government had passed the Prohibition Act banning the sale and distribution of alcohol. During the roaring twenties, gaming became illegal but continued to operate behind closed doors. With the repeal of the Prohibition Act in 1935, gambling once again flourished in Deadwood until 1947, when it was officially closed. Prostitution remained a business until the 1950s when the state’s attorney shut down many of the brothels. The last one to close was Pam’s Purple Door in 1980. While gambling and prostitution establishments closed, Deadwood became the only city in the United States to be named a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

During the 1980s the question of gaming resurfaced, and a petition was introduced to reinstate gaming in Deadwood. In 1986, local business owners agreed to lobby for legalized gaming to create economic development for the community. As gaming moved through the state legislature, the Deadwood City Commission established the Historic Preservation Commission in 1987 to oversee the restoration of historic sites in the community. In 1988, the gaming issue initiative was put on the state ballot. It passed with 64% of the vote and was authorized to begin on November 1, 1989. The introduction of gaming has enabled Deadwood to preserve its historic buildings and dramatically increase tourism. The lure of gaming is not the only draw to Deadwood people are also fascinated by its unique, colorful history.

Early morning in Deadwood, South Dakota by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Early morning in Deadwood, South Dakota by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The ownership of the Black Hills is still in question. The Supreme Court decision that attempted to settle the issue by paying the Lakota tribes for the land was not accepted by all of the tribes. Many of the Lakota are still trying to gain ownership of land sacred to them.

Today, the historic old mining town is a full-service small community full of historic buildings and sites. With its tourist attractions, Deadwood is again booming, although on a quieter scale. Nearby Lead is home to the fabulous Homestake Mine, America’s largest underground gold mine. It is still active, and still dominates the economy of Lead. Tours are available and are well worth the price.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May 2019.

Also See:

Black Hills Historic Characters & Tales

Deadwood Photo Gallery

Deadwood from Mt. Moriah by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Deadwood from Mt. Moriah by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The Haunted Bullock Hotel

HBO’s Deadwood – Fact & Fiction

Deadwood Timeline


About Deadwood
Adams Museum
Black Hills Visitor Magazine
City of Deadwood
South Dakota State Historical Society

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