USA, SD: Famous Faces in Great PlacesThe Black Hills of South Dakota is famous for the gold rush days of the 1870s and the town of Deadwood, later made famous by the likes of James Butler, also known as ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane which started life in 1876, built on a rowdy history of gold, gambling and gunpowder!
AUTHOR AND PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2013
“The climate in the Black Hills is so damn healthy that you would have to kill a man to start a cemetery.” George V. Ayres, Deadwood businessman and longtime resident.
The Black Hills of South Dakota is famous for the gold rush days of the 1870s and the town of Deadwood, later made famous by the likes of James Butler, also known as ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane which started life in 1876, built on a rowdy history of gold, gambling and gunpowder!
For anyone lucky enough to visit Deadwood 25 or more years ago a highlight was having a drink at Saloon Number 10 where ‘Wild’ Bill was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall while playing cards, holding black aces and eights in his hand . . . now forever known as ‘Dead Man’s Hand.’ Sadly the original saloon is standing forlornly empty with a ‘for sale’ sign in the window.
On November 1st 1989, this notorious Black Hills town once again embraced legalized gambling. From historic to contemporary, today Deadwood’s 80-plus gaming halls enliven Deadwood Gulch with slot machines, blackjack, craps and roulette tables much like they did well over 100 years ago!
However, before we developed a liking for the bright lights and nightlife of Deadwood, Mark, a friend from Sydney and fellow travel writer, spent a day in nearby Badlands National Park, a vast region where on-going rains, freezes and thaws have revealed millions of years of sediment that paint a multi-colourful landscape on the prairies of southwestern South Dakota.
When the Lakota Indians first encountered this barren, eroded landscape with large tracts of prairie and stark rock formations, they aptly called the area “Mako Sica” or “land bad.” Early French fur traders referred to the land as “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” or “bad lands to travel across.” Today, visitors to Badlands National Park can explore this natural wonder easily on foot, on horseback or by car as they drive the scenic loop or hike the many trails.
The park is one of the largest protected mixed-grass prairies in the United States covering 244,000 acres, home to 16 types of wildlife including coyotes, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, bison, venomous prairie rattlers, the swift fox and the endangered black-footed ferret. Antelope and deer are more commonly seen roaming near roadways and picnic areas. More than 64,000 acres of the park are designated as wilderness.
Back in Deadwood there is no end to the number of attractions, art galleries, artifact and mining museums you can visit, such as the Day’s of ’76 Museum, or take a tour through the historic 1892 Queen Anne-style mansion known as Adams House, with original contents intact. There is also the Adams Museum, Deadwoods oldest museum, which features the ‘Wild’ Bill Collection. The Homestead Gold Mine Surface Tour and the Black Hills Mining Museum are without doubt the best places to learn about the history of gold rush in Deadwood.
Situated on a mountainous, spruce laden plateau overlooking Deadwood Gulch is one of the definite must-see sites in town, Mount Moriah Cemetery. This is the final resting place of gunmen, western legends, murderers, miners and good-time madams alongside a fair few pillars of Deadwood’s affluent society. It’s believed to hold approximately 3,600 graves (only about one third are still marked) including the graves of, ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok who died August 2nd 1876 aged 39 and Martha ‘Calamity Jane’ Burke, who requested she be buried alongside him, probably much to his dismay if he’d had a choice.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills is the granite mountainside where the sculptured carvings of four American presidents are located. Sculpted by Gutzon Borglum and later by his son Lincoln Borglum, Mount Rushmore features 60-foot (18 m) sculptures of the heads of former United States presidents (in order from left to right) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The entire memorial covers 1,278.45 acres and is 5,725 feet (1,745 m) above sea level.
South Dakota historian, Doane Robinson, is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the likenesses of famous people into the Black Hills in order to promote tourism in the region. It was Borglum who eventually decided the sculpture should have a more national focus, so chose the four presidents whose likenesses would be carved into the mountain. After securing federal funding, construction on the memorial began in 1927, and the presidents' faces were completed between 1934 and 1939.
Upon Gutzon Borglum's death in March 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum took over construction. Although the initial concept called for each president to be depicted from head to waist, lack of funding forced construction to end in October 1941. The U.S. National Park Service took control of the memorial in 1933, while it was still under construction and manages the memorial to the present day. It attracts approximately two million people annually.
It’s very touristy, but many visitors can’t resist hopping aboard an original 1880s steam train riding the rails through the Black Hills between Hill City and Keystone. It’s an opportunity to experience a historic, scenic ride in a vintage steam train. On the two hour and fifteen minute round-trip you’ll hear the bellow of the engine and the whine of the whistle and see a slice of South Dakota unchanged since those early Wild West gold mining days.
Outside of the town of Custer we drove up to Crazy Horse Memorial, the world’s largest mountain carving in progress. This is the carving of another mountainside monument to one of the best-known Indian warriors, Chief Crazy Horse. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear officially started Crazy Horse Memorial on June 3, 1948. The Memorial’s mission is to honor the culture, tradition and living heritage of North American Indians.
The primary sculptured attraction still has decades of work required to make it a finished sculpture, so most people visit the on-site American Indian Museum to see American Indian artists at work in the educational/cultural centre as well as take a tour of the late sculptor’s log studio-home and workshop.
In the late afternoon we drove the winding roads of the 71,000 acre Custer State Park in search of our campsite for the night, a place that features scenic drives, excellent trout fishing, swimming holes, hiking trails and four lovely campsites. Residing in the park are approximately 1,300 bison and a range of other wildlife that includes pronghorn antelope, deer and elk.
After we’d parked our RV (campervan) for the night at Grace Coolidge Campground I set up my fly rod and walked over to the side of a glassy flat pond where trout were rising to my dry flies all evening long, until the last rays of light turned to dusk.
Later we heaped more logs onto our campfire as the steaks cooked on the barbeque grill and contemplated what we had discovered. Over the last few days we’d seen and experienced some of South Dakota’s finest attractions; towering peaks, expansive prairies, tumbling waterfalls, trout on the line and a few museums and famous man-made monuments.
Play your cards right and roll the dice because a trip to South Dakota and the Black Hills region will without doubt, leave you with long lasting memories of days on the Wild West frontier.
Shane Boocock travelled to the United States courtesy of Fiji Airways ‘The Worlds Friendliest Airline’ who offer daily flights to Los Angeles via Nadi.
South Dakota Attractions:
Badlands National Park – www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm
City of Deadwood Attractions - www.cityofdeadwood.com
Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer – www.crazyhorse.org
Custer State Park, Custer – www.custerstatepark.com
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone – www.nps.gov/moru
Whistler Gulch RV Park, Deadwood – www.whistlergultch.com
1880 Train Ride – www.1880train.com
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