DEADWOOD, S.D. — This old Western town of gunfights and gambling is going through an identity crisis.
For more than a century, the promise of fortune has drawn outsiders to Deadwood, a gold rush settlement in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But where saloons and brothels once lined Main Street, storefronts today draw tourists with a different lure: blinking slot machines.
Few shopkeepers here dress in frontier attire anymore. Century-old bars have been replaced by spinning sevens and casino lights. Harley-Davidsons park where hitching posts once stood, the motorcycle engines clashing with street shows and family-friendly shootouts.
“It feels more modern, a little bit more Vegas style,” said Russell Lehmbeck, 43, a tourist from Wyoming who complained that Deadwood seemed confused about what it wanted to be. “It used to feel like I could get on a horse and ride down the road and no one would say a thing.”
Gambling brought Deadwood back to life a quarter-century ago, when South Dakota followed the leads of Nevada and New Jersey to become the third state to legalize gambling. In a city of 1,200 residents, taxes from three dozen casinos have funneled money into historic-building restorations, a new museum and municipal improvements.
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But as gambling in other states grows, drawing the masses to this remote destination may soon depend on whether Deadwood can remake its brand. A “revitalization” committee is holding meetings this week to take stock of the city’s strengths — its casinos and concerts, its outlaw history and outdoor recreation — and somehow package them all into one cohesive and, they hope, more competitive image.
“What do they have in Deadwood that can’t be found closer to home?” asked Roger Brooks, a tourism consultant hired to help Deadwood with the identity adjustment. “Whatever we come up with, we have to deliver on that promise.”
Since the 1870s, Deadwood has been known as a place of lawlessness, debauchery and legend — home to Calamity Jane and resting place of Wild Bill Hickok, the gambling gunslinger who was killed at a poker table while holding two pair — aces and eights, which came to be known in the game’s parlance as a “dead man’s hand.”
About 50 miles north of Mount Rushmore, Deadwood has for decades lured families, bikers and other travelers off the highway to explore its downtown, which received a National Historic Landmark designation in 1961. Preservation concerns reached critical mass after a fire engulfed a historic building on the city’s main drag in 1987, leading to the formation of a “Deadwood You Bet” group that lobbied state lawmakers to approve gambling and create a new tax revenue stream.
Deadwood’s first casinos opened two years later, bringing in $145 million in bets to the Black Hills during the first eight months alone, according to the chamber of commerce. Kevin Costner, whose movie “Dances with Wolves” was filmed in South Dakota, opened his own casino and restaurant.
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So many out-of-towners flooded Deadwood in those early years that one casino had to empty its machines three times a day so they would have enough tokens, said Mary Larson, who ran Deadwood Dick’s, one of the city’s first gambling parlors.