An Honest Review of Deadwood, SD

December 17, 2021
Things to do in Deadwood SD, Main Street

Deadwood is the most famous city in South Dakota. It holds a place in Wild West folklore, along with Tombstone, Dodge City, Durango, and others. In Deadwood’s heyday, folks of the toughest caliber came to town for whiskey, women, and back breaking labor. Some got paid. Some got syphilis. The whole thing teetered on lawlessness, and we respect that about it. But that was a long time ago.

Unfortunately, Deadwood has abased itself over the years and partially devolved into a slogan-schlepping charade. Not to say there aren’t excellent things to do in Deadwood, SD, because there are and we will focus on them. We just don’t want to mince words — Much of what’s here is middling entertainment for easy to please tourists.

A 20 Second History of Deadwood, SD

Gold was found in the Black Hills in 1874. Despite the land belonging to the indigenous Lakota Tribe, the allure of riches brought a hoard of fortune seekers and miscreants overnight. There were too many to repel, an overwhelming crowd, and the federal government threw up its arms and let it happen. By 1876, the Black Hills had 10,000 new residents.

A cast of characters would arise from the annals of Deadwood. Names like Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, and Dora DuFran have become immortal for their roles in the drama. The ghosts of Deadwood’s heroes and villains haunt the town to this very day in museums, souvenir shops, and on restaurant menus.

So Why Did You Come to Deadwood, SD?

Are you here to drink and gamble? Why? Las Vegas is 100x better. If you don’t know what to do in Vegas, check out our article, The 15 Best Things to Do in Las Vegas.

Is your intention to buy collectable spoons and a mediocre patty melt in a formerly awesome town? Then hot dang! This is your kind of place.

Are you just looking for something to do on your vacation? Here’s our Complete Guide to the Black Hills. There are many, better options than Deadwood, and they are probably closer to your lodging.

Deadwood has some amazing history, and there are several sites that offer a thought provoking experience. We believe Deadwood’s museums and relics are the best way to spend our time and money.

The following attractions are what we consider the four best things to do in Deadwood, SD. All four can be done in the same day with some exertion.

1. Main Street

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Main Street

This is the beating heart of Deadwood. All the famous watering holes, brothels, and hotels are here. It isn’t hard to picture the grizzled drunks having it out in the streets between these historic buildings.

Have a drink at Swearengen’s old bar, the Gem. The TV show, Deadwood, chose this particular bar owner as its chief villain. History shows Swearengen was of lesser influence than the show presents, little more than a self-aggrandizing woman-beater who met an inglorious demise. Still, he makes quite the baddy when played by Ian McShane.

Take a tour of Pam’s Purple Door, the last working brothel in town. The local courts long ignored the illegal nature of the brothels here, but all good things come to an end. To the chagrin of many South Dakotans, Pam’s Purple Doors were shuttered in 1980, the establishment being labeled a public nuisance. The judge wasn’t very popular at the golf course that day.

Or perhaps have a drink at Saloon No. 10 and admire the chair in which Wild Bill Hickock was shot and killed. He had only been in town a month, which is surprising considering he is the most famous Deadwood resident of all. Keep in mind this isn’t the bar in which he was shot — know one knows for sure where it happened — and there is some doubt to the chair’s authenticity.

But hey, whatever puts your wallet on the bar.

Miss Kitty’s Mercantile is the best of the souvenir shops. The Pink Door has stylish women’s clothing.

At the top of Main Street is a grassy concert venue called Deadwood’s Outlaw Square. When the music is flowing out of Outlaw Square it adds to the ambiance on Main Street. You can grab a beer on the balcony next door or bring your camping chairs and sit near the stage.

One could easily spend two hours in the shops and historical joints. We found the strip disappointing, and boring, and kind of insulting, but’s it’s the main thing to do in Deadwood, SD.

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Miss Kitty's Mercantile
America. Freedom. Amerifreedom.

2. Adams Museum

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Adams Museum

Located a few blocks off of Main St., the Adams Museum brings all the history of Deadwood together in one place. This might be the single best thing to do in Deadwood, SD.

It is the oldest history museum in the Black Hills, founded in 1930 by W.E. Adams. The entrance fee is a suggested donation of $5.

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Adams Museum
Pilgrim face is making a comeback

Have you ever heard of Potato Creek Johnny? How about Poker Alice? What role did Seth Bullock play in Deadwood? Why is Calamity Jane buried next to Wild Bill? These questions and many others are answered at the Adams Museum. We recommend stepping directly into the Legends Gallery after you pay. This will give better perspective as you tour the museum.

They have a sea-dwelling Plesiosaur in the basement (photo below). The Black Hills were once under water and all sorts of ocean fossils have been discovered here. Be sure to not skip the basement.

Someone discovered a flat, engraved rock carved by a man in his last remaining days. He had arrived with the Ezra Party seeking gold in the 1830’s, long before the gold-boom and Deadwood era began. This displeased the native Lakota tribesmen. They hunted the Ezra Party down and killed them all.

During his final hours, while hiding from the Lakota warriors he wrote his message on what is called the Thoen Stone. It would be found in the dirt many years later. The man’s final words are rank with fear.

Other incredible things you’ll find in the museum are locomotives, jailhouse doors, models of the road and transportation systems, a gigantic 7 oz. piece of gold, a two-headed calf, and countless artifacts and photographs from the settlers and Lakota Tribe.

The best part of the museum were the hundreds of stories on the walls. Some are shocking, others are heart-warming. It took all kinds of people to make this gold rush happen — good ones, bad ones, ugly ones — and nowhere are they better represented than here.

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Adams Museum
Tallest man ever, Robert Wadlow, 8′ 11″

3. Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center

Three miles southwest of Deadwood is the town of Lead (pronounced leed), which is home to the best producing gold mine in the western hemisphere (photo below). 39.8 million troy ounces of gold were extracted between the years of 1876 and 2002, plus another 9 million ounces of silver. That is the equivalent of 18,677 US gallons of gold.

Four men homesteaded the Homestake Mine in 1876. One year later they sold their claim to George Hurst and two others for $77,000, which is the rough equivalent of $2M in today’s money.

The modern equivalent of those forty million ounces of gold? About $70 Billion. George Hurst would continue to buy out adjacent claims to enlarge the Homestake Mine, as well as win them in the courts. By 1900, the Homestake Mine had 300 claims on 2,000 acres and over 2,000 employees working in the mine.

After 125 years of prosperity, the vein of ore exhausted. At the time of it’s closure in 2002, the Homestake Mine was the largest and deepest mine in North America. 370 miles of tunnels were excavated at depths up to 8,000 feet. The town of Lead fell into decline as a result.

Believe it or not, this preposterously lucrative and leviathan hole in the earth is the less interesting half of what you’ll learn about at the Sanford Labs Homestake Visitor Center.

Homestake Mine viewed from the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center

The Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) is the deepest underground laboratory in the USA. Scientists from all over the world have teamed up with the Sanford Lab to run experiments almost a mile under the earth’s surface.

Now what sort of experiment would require that much separation from the atmosphere? The answer gets a bit heady. To summarize, we really only know about 4% of the universe. The rest is made up of dark matter, which is an undiscovered particle that provides more than 80% of the mass in the universe, as well as dark energy. Scientific researchers don’t necessarily agree what this dark matter is, and that is what Sanford Labs endeavors to discover with the Majorana Demonstrator experiment.

The Majorana Demonstrator experiment, located 4,850′ below the surface, uses 40 kilograms of pure germanium crystals enclosed in deep-freeze cryostat modules — protected by lead shielding — to answer one of the most challenging and important questions in physics: are neutrinos their own antiparticles? If the answer is yes, it will require rewriting the Standard Model of Particles and Interactions, our basic understanding of the physical world.

Honestly, this sounds like nerds gathering in mother’s basement. Can’t you just picture the pale, genius denizens of level 4850? These mole kingdom occupants could give us the greatest breakthrough in space science… ever? And you thought neutrinos were pizza rolls. Shame on you.

Admission is free. The hours are from 9:00-17:00 daily.

The Visitor Center is full of placards and videos. One could spend over an hour reading the signage — it is highly interesting. Unfortunately, there are no tours of the mines or laboratories. Nonetheless, the Sanford Laboratory is definitely one of the best things to do in Deadwood, SD.

4. Mt. Moriah Cemetery

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Moriah Cemetery Sign

Mt. Moriah Cemetery resides on the side of a hill overlooking downtown Deadwood. Since 1878, many great residents of the frontier town, and some nefarious ones, too, have nestled into this mountainside as their final resting place.

The cemetery is quite beautiful, a late-victorian style. The hours of operation are from 9-5 daily with a $2 fee. The visitor center has a 15-minute interpretative video and a handful of panels that focus on the history and symbolism found throughout the cemetery.

At the Visitor Center you will receive a map of the popular celebrity grave sites to visit which include: Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, Potato Creek Johnny, and more.

Seth Bullock’s grave is at the very top of the cemetery, and then up the road a bit. If anyone is the face of Deadwood, it’s Bullock. He was a sheriff and a U.S. Marshall, a politician, a hardware store owner, a hotel owner, and a partner in a mining business. He would eventually become good friends with President Theodore Roosevelt, who later said of Bullock, “Seth Bullock is a true Westerner, the finest type of frontiersman.” One story goes that notorious lawman Wyatt Earp came to Deadwood, perhaps to become the new sheriff. Seth Bullock confronted him and told him his services were not needed. Mr. Earp peacefully returned to Dodge City one week later.

To learn more about our incredible President, Theodore Roosevelt, check out Beautiful Things to do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Moriah Cemetery graves

We would recommend that everyone take their time strolling the beautiful landscape (unless you have a condition or something). Spend an hour or two, breathe some clean air, and admire the hardware of the deceased. Don’t be shy either, walk right up the hillside to the very top — Mr. Bullock is waiting for your respects. Be sure to also make your way to the far end of Mt. Moriah, because that’s where the view is. This is one of the things to do in Deadwood, SD that you don’t want to miss.

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Moriah Cemetery view

Other Ideas for Things to Do in Deadwood, SD

things to do in Deadwood, SD

If we were to spend one day in Deadwood, we would visit the above mentioned attractions. It would be a long day, but we would leave town feeling good about the experience. However, there are other worthy attractions in town, and we’ll mention a few of them.

Broken Boot Gold Mine

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Broken Boot Gold Mine

One of the don’t-miss excursions in the Black Hills of South Dakota is to visit a gold mine, and this mine is as good as any other. It is located on the way out of town as you head toward Lead.

Tatanka: Story of Bison

Things to do in Deadwood SD, Tatanka Story of the Bison

Inspired by his time spent filming Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s Tatanka: Story of the Bison, focuses on the relationship between the Lakota Tribe and the North American Plains Bison. Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for kids under 13. The gate closes at 16:30 sharp.

Days of ’76 Museum

Things to do in Deadwood SD, 76 Museum

The Days of ’76 Museum began as a repository for the horse-drawn wagons, stagecoaches, carriages, clothing, memorabilia, and archives generated by the annual Days of ’76 celebrations. It is now a state-of-the-art facility filled with thematic exhibitions.  

Conclusion

Deadwood was an epic camp in the expanding American landscape that will long outlive it’s renown for whiskey, whoring, and back-of-the-shovel justice. Its blood, sweat, and ability to make folks incredibly wealthy summon our souls to bask in all of its rowdy glory.

The reality is the glory left years ago, slammed shut like Pam’s Purple Door. Today the slots pay copper-nickel and the shootouts are fake. The disparity between the past and the present borders on shameful. We think people should know that ahead of time.

Deadwood’s history and characters are real. Go ahead and bite the gold… also real. If you’re coming to town to learn about the mines and the stories of the people who brought the town to life, you should leave satisfied with your experience. However, to ride a trolley and eat a mediocre meal, pull a slot hammer and say “Yee-haw!”, well, you can do that in dozens of places. There is absolutely no need to drive all the way up here.

We say this will all due respect to Mr. Bullock and the town of Deadwood, SD.

Rather Than Deadwood, SD, try…

Hiking Black Elk Peak

Exploring Custer State Park

Visiting the Devil’s Tower

Touring Wind Cave National Park

Basking in the beauty of Sylvan Lake

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