DEADWOOD | Despite light snowfall and temperatures hovering below freezing, Deadwood residents and state officials gathered on Main Street at high noon Friday and listened to a series of speakers as well as the staccato bursts of two Colt six-guns reverberating through the once gold-filled gulch, signaling the 30th anniversary of legalized gaming which has transformed the community.
Thirty years ago, the town became just the third venue in the U.S. to allow legal gaming, behind the state of Nevada and Atlantic City. What was then described as a “revolutionary experiment” touched off a modern-day renaissance for Deadwood, a town thought all but dead.
In contrast to today, Deadwood in 1989 was a community in decline. Visitors to this National Historic Landmark District in the late 1980s found decrepit infrastructure, crumbling facades, boarded-up storefronts and joyless jobs.
In the town's heyday of the 1870s and 1880s, when 10,000 miners, muleskinners and madams descended on Deadwood Gulch in a matter of weeks, gold fueled the economy. But when timber went tepid, cattle prices plummeted and gold declined, leading to the eventual closure of Lead’s Homestake Gold Mine in 2003, the population dwindled and civic and business leaders became increasingly frustrated.
In a town often plagued by wildfires and the vagaries of the economy, one particular blaze became a turning point in Deadwood's history. When the century-old Syndicate Building at the corner of Lee and Main streets caught fire on a frigid night in December 1987, it quickly consumed several businesses as volunteer firefighters struggled against low water pressure, the glaze of accumulated ice and the real possibility of losing an entire block.
That conflagration and video of the smoke still rising from the ruins of the Syndicate Building would become the flash point months later when the “Deadwood Seven" rode to the rescue. In fact, the group was actually comprised of eight local residents — Mike Trucano, Bill Walsh, Tom and Linda Blair, Melodee Nelson, David Larson, Mary Dunne and Betty Whittingham.
The group founded the Deadwood You Bet Committee, which Nelson described Friday as “a small, insignificant group with no money and no power,” with the sole intention of bringing to Deadwood legalized, limited-stakes gambling to provide a funding mechanism to restore and revitalize the once-vibrant mining camp turned declining tourist town.
For third-generation local businessman Mike Trucano, the move was not just about money, but about allowing a small town in the middle of America to simply survive.
“Deadwood’s decline really started when they built the interstate 12 miles north of town in the early 1960s,” he said. “Soon, many if not most of the buildings downtown were unoccupied. It was rapidly becoming a ghost town and a disaster in my view.”
Initially, the committee approached the state Legislature in 1987, hoping to get lawmakers to support their plan to rejuvenate the decaying community. But they drew a bad hand and were summarily rejected. Undeterred by their failure with lawmakers, the Deadwood You Bet Committee worked for many months to collect more than 30,000 signatures to refer the issue to a public vote.
“Gathering more than 30,000 signatures on petitions to bring the measure to a public vote was daunting,” said Tom Blair, a two-term mayor and member of the committee. “We worked for many months, went to Hobo Days in Brookings, hit Sioux Falls and Aberdeen and Huron for the State Fair.”
On Nov. 8, 1988, 64 percent of South Dakota voters said "yes" to Deadwood gaming. The following April, Deadwood voters approved limited-stakes gambling by a 3-to-1 margin. On Nov. 1, 1989, six-shooters fired in front of Deadwood’s Franklin Hotel signaled the advent of legalized gaming in a town where continuous, illicit downstairs poker games had been played for more than a century.
When gaming came to town
Looking back, most of those involved with introducing legalized gaming to Deadwood really didn’t know what to expect. There were no rules in place, and no South Dakota Commission on Gaming to even enforce them if they existed.
“We really weren’t too sure what would happen,” Blair said last week. “I mean, Deadwood was only the third place in all of the United States to approve gaming. We just didn’t know. We had no rules, no gaming commission at the time, and we had to do all that, including licensing. I think we licensed just 10 people in the first few months of gaming. We had no idea what kind of money would be generated, but we knew we just wanted to draw more people to town.”
And, draw them they did.
Improvements started almost immediately, with the city of Deadwood bonding $20 million for infrastructure replacement in 1990, and those improvements starting 10 feet below street level on Main Street in 1991 and 1992. Roughly 1,700 jobs have been created with gaming and, over the last 30 years, legalized gaming has pumped $194 million into the city’s coffers, said Mike Rodman, executive director of the Deadwood Gaming Association.
“Gaming taxes have benefited everyone across the state of South Dakota,” Rodman said. “Gaming changed the face of Deadwood, a town that attracts nearly 2 million visitors annually. I believe that over the last three decades, tourism numbers have climbed by 1 million annual visitors to the Black Hills, and I believe Deadwood can take credit for the lion’s share of that.”
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In remarks on Friday, South Dakota Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen credited Deadwood gaming revenues with providing millions of dollars to his agency to promote the state, “in markets throughout this country and around the globe.”
And no one discounts the fact that Deadwood was ahead of the curve, allowing gaming to become an economic generator long before slot machines and table games swept across the nation.
“The real brilliance of the Deadwood You Bet Committee was they were there long before the National Indian Gaming Act came to pass,” Rodman said. “We led the national campaign for gaming. Nobody else thought that was possible until Deadwood gaming happened, and it led to an explosion and it led to a national trend.”
Deadwood Mayor David Ruth Jr., a fifth-generation resident, agreed with Rodman’s assessment and said he remembered growing up in a small town struggling to survive.
“How revolutionary — at the time it was completely unthought of,” Ruth said. “No one thought gaming was a vehicle that would diversify our economy and save the community. But, at the time, gaming was part of Deadwood’s history so it made sense to pursue it.
“The fact is today you can almost go to any state in the country and recognize that people realized that gaming could be an economic tool,” he added. “Others followed suit and realized that it could be done successfully and changed the playing field.”
While gaming dollars helped fund a wide array of infrastructure improvements in the community in the early years, it took decades to see those dollars devoted to expansion and improvements of public facilities.
Today, Deadwood’s own Boot Hill — Mount Moriah Cemetery — the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, as well as other western legends, has received a $4.8 million facelift. The Days of ’76 Rodeo Grounds have been completely restored, and a new $6 million Days of ’76 Museum is found next door. Just down the street, an expansive new $7 million Visitor Information Center sits in the lower Main Street parking lot, and several million dollars more were devoted to updating and adding an aquatics center to the Deadwood Recreation Center.
Next month, the city expects to conduct a “soft opening” of its newest $5 million project called Outlaw Square, a gathering place for locals and visitors with a large stage, gazebo and water features similar to Rapid City’s Main Street Square.
Bolstered by gaming proceeds, the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce has consistently worked to promote the community in partnership with state Tourism, planning and staging near-monthly special events, including free Main Street concerts that regularly attract more than 10,000 visitors to town.
Furthermore, the private sector placed its own bets with major investments in new hotels, restaurants and convention facilities totaling $350 million over the past three decades, something no one envisioned when the first jackpot was hit so long ago.
“The entrepreneurs and business people have really believed in Deadwood to devote those kind of investment dollars into the town,” Rodman said. “It’s phenomenal.”
When Trucano looks back on where Deadwood was 30 years ago, he remains pleased with what gaming wrought in terms of infrastructure improvements, upgraded municipal facilities, and special events that allow the town to host a couple of million visitors annually.
“With a declining community, it really was all about economic survival,” he said. “We had one thing to sell and that was our history, so we married gaming with the history of this town, and it seems like it’s been a good marriage.”
Blair agrees, and while recognizing that some things have changed in the once-quiet community in the highest reaches of the Black Hills, he said he retains pride in what Deadwood You Bet created and all that has happened since.
“I’m proud when you look at the Black Hills, the tourism center of South Dakota, that with the exception of Mount Rushmore, Deadwood is probably the most visited place in the Midwest,” he said. “I’m proud people come here to partake in our history. Some things haven’t hardly changed at all — we still have the Days of '76 each July, and we still have the same Main Street we had 30 years ago.
“We still have Louie Lalonde at the Saloon No. 10, Bill Walsh still lives in town, and for the next 30 years I don’t see us changing an awful lot. There aren’t that many old places in South Dakota anymore, and I think Deadwood is still a place that people want to take their children to see. And, that’s pretty neat.”