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Set your watch to 1876

Deadwood, S.D., made newly famous by the HBO series, has hitched its wagon to history. Tourists are taking notice. And they're wild for Wild Bill.

June 27, 2004|Beverly Beyette

Deadwood, S.D. — Perhaps you've been watching "Deadwood," the HBO series. Well, this town of 1,300 in the Black Hills is the genuine thing, where the real Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane hung out.

Basking in its new celebrity -- and with the series (filmed in Santa Clarita) renewed for 2005 -- Deadwood is pumping up efforts to lure visitors, most recently by erecting a $150,000 block of Old West facades downtown, where most 1876-era buildings burned down long ago.

"People ask, 'Where's old Deadwood?' Well, we've never had one. Now we have one," said Mike Lloyd, director of the "Deadwood Alive" troupe, which stages shootouts twice daily at the site. The facades are authentic, insofar as they are modeled after museum photographs of old Deadwood buildings. Visitors taking rides in an 1880s stagecoach may find themselves victims of a stagecoach "robbery."

Deadwood is nestled in the northwest corner of the state near the Montana border, only 50 miles north of Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, which draws 2.2 million visitors annually. But only 1.2 million came to look at Deadwood -- until the March debut of "Deadwood." For most visitors, the town has been an overnight stop on the way to Yellowstone National Park. But that's changing.

Hits on the Chamber of Commerce website,, have tripled since this time last year, to 4.9 million in May, and the chamber projects an increase of 800,000 visitors this year.

"The first thing people say is, 'We didn't know this was a real town,' " said executive director George Milos. They ask, too, if the show's minor characters were real. Some were, including Al Swearengen, the proprietor of the unsavory Gem Theater.

"[The show's] been a good thing," said Mayor Francis Toscana, though some folks are "upset with the language and nudity."

"The story itself is not like the historians might tell it, but I enjoy it."

Miles to go

South DAKOTA has been described as "miles and miles of miles and miles" or, as a rock musician I met at a B&B in nearby Spearfish concluded after driving much of the state: "six hours of billboards."

Having visited for the first time last summer, I'd say neither description is quite fair. First, there's Mt. Rushmore, which is surprisingly compelling, once you get past its gateway town, Keystone, with its presidential wax museum and kitschy jumble of shops flogging fudge and Black Hills gold jewelry.

On a sizzling late June day I flew into Rapid City, rented a car and drove downtown for lunch at the Landmark restaurant in the Alex Johnson Hotel, which is itself a landmark, with its German Tudor architecture (a nod to the region's early immigrants) and Lakota Sioux art and artifacts.

From Rapid City it was a 23-mile drive southwest to Mt. Rushmore, where I took a quick look before heading into the Northern Black Hills. There I would spend five days exploring Deadwood, Lead (pronounced leed), Spearfish, Belle Fourche and Badlands National Park.

First overnight: Spearfish, population 9,500. In the big, beautiful public park, kids were riding inner tubes in Spearfish Creek. A footbridge over the creek leads to the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery (1896), which introduced trout -- now a menu staple--to this area and where trout ogle visitors from a big viewing tank.

Off Interstate 90 on the edge of town is the High Plains Western Heritage Center, a regional museum with a rich Western collection, including an original Spearfish-Deadwood stagecoach.

The museum was born of an effort by two local ranchers to bring the National Cowboy Hall of Fame here, said executive director Peggy Ables. After losing out to Oklahoma City, they decided "there was enough history in this area to build their own facility," which opened in 1989. It's a nice one.

Spearfish is the gateway to spectacular Spearfish Canyon, where highway 14-A, a national scenic byway, meanders between evergreen-dotted cliffs and past waterfalls, with Spearfish Creek rushing through. My destination was Spearfish Canyon Resort, a bucolic retreat 13 miles south of town.

The woodsy lodge is exactly what one would hope to find in this setting, with its octagonal great room with soaring river-rock fireplace. My standard room was just high-end motel, but the teddy bear snoozing on my bed was a nice touch.

At a deck table at Latchstring Restaurant across the road, you can hear the rush of the creek and, at breakfast or lunch, toss tidbits to the yellow-bellied marmots that beg below. The restaurant is like a big, pretty log cabin, and the stream trout is delicious.

The resort is just five miles from the southern entrance to the canyon and Highway 85, the road to Lead and Deadwood, so I made it home base for two nights.

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