Two towns in South Dakota, 13 miles apart, are kindred spirits — in their origin, ruggedness and infamous debauchery.
Deadwood and Sturgis are both municipal offsprings of the Black Hills Gold Rush in the 1870s, and their initial populations were less than docile and law-abiding.
When miners moved to the northern Black Hills in search of fortune, they came across a gold-laden stream running through a gulch full of dead trees. They settled, dubbing the area Deadwood Gulch. The name of the town was subsequently shortened to Deadwood.
The town boomed virtually overnight, attracting a fair amount of charter members such as gamblers, prostitutes, outlaws and gunslingers.
Wild Bill Hickok was one of the legendary personalities to settle in Deadwood, looking for fortune. His stay was quite literally short-lived, however, when only a few weeks after arriving, he was gunned down at a poker table while holding the so-called Dead Man’s Hand — two pair, aces over eights.
Frontierswoman and sharpshooter Martha Jane Cannary, better known as “Calamity Jane,” settled in Deadwood in 1876. She befriended Hickok and is buried next to his grave in nearby Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Wyatt Earp spent the winter of 1876-77 in Deadwood. All the available prospecting land was tied up in mining claims, so he contracted to purchase all the wood a local logger had cut and sold the firewood to mining camps. He cleared about $5,000, or just over $141,000 in today’s dollars, for the several-month venture.
Deadwood prospector Potato Creek Johnny found the largest gold nugget in the Black Hills. His find weighed 7 3/4 ounces, which would fetch nearly $14,000 in today’s market.
Other denizens included Seth Bullock, the town’s first appointed sheriff; and Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Theater, which operated as a saloon, dance hall and brothel. One of the first dancers he hired was Calamity Jane. The Gem’s revenue sometimes reached $10,000 a night, equivalent to a quarter million dollars in today’s money.
Deadwood’s population, which peaked at 25,000 in its early days, now stands at 1,134. Its major industry is tourism, and re-enactors offer daily more than a dozen shootouts and other educational performances and stagecoach rides on the half hour during spring, summer and fall.
For more information, visit deadwoodalive.com.
Sturgis, the namesake of Civil War Union General Samuel D. Sturgis, commander of nearby Fort Meade Cavalry Post, was founded in 1878. It was originally known as Scoop Town, supposedly so dubbed because the saloon and brothel proprietors “scooped up” the money paid by cavalrymen and miners during its lucrative beginnings.
The post was also founded in 1878 and operated as a protective waypoint for Black Hills miners and settlers and served nearly every cavalry regiment in the U.S. Army. Nightly military retreat ceremonies featured the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” long before it officially became the national anthem.
By far the town’s most famous attraction is the annual 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which begins the first Friday in August.
Hundreds of thousands of cyclists from around the globe attend the festival, making it the largest annual motorcycle event in the world. Attendance peaked in 2015 at 739,000 participants, more than 100-fold the town’s population of 7,107.
The rally began in 1938 when J.C. “Pappy” Hoel of the Jackpine Gypsies motorcycle club hosted a dirt track race with nine competitors on Indian motorcycles.
The rally has been held every year since, except for a hiatus from 1942 to 1945 during World War II.
Because of the rally’s prominence, Sturgis has recently remarketed itself as the “City of Riders,” and dual nod to the rally and the 4th, 7th and 10th cavalries once stationed at Fort Meade.
The economic impact of the rally is impressive. Studies show the event brings more than $800 million into South Dakota, with the city of Sturgis earning nearly $300,000 from selling event guides and sponsorships. In 2019, the rally generated $628,116 for local charities, and the event provides 21% of the city’s revenue.
Future plans include making the town famous worldwide as a mountain biking destination.