Magazine article Sunset

Deadwood Days

Magazine article Sunset

Deadwood Days

Article excerpt

A hit TV show proves that some juicy Western history-and a really good villain-can make a town rich. PETER FISH explores a small-town revolution

This is a tale of two cities. The first is a mining camp in the Black Hills, where greed, lust, and violence kindle in such volatile combinations, you think they may burn the whole town down. The second is a tourist attraction whose tidy Main Street throngs with tourists jingling the quarters they won in the casino slots.

The first town is Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876, as experienced on the HBO series Deadwood. The second is Deadwood, South Dakota, as experienced in real time in 2006. The genuine and virtual towns have become inseparable. It's Deadwood's real history that made the television series possible. It's the television Deadwood that is breathing new life into the real town-proving that in 2006, some juicy Western history can be as valuable as gold.

For proof of that statement, you can ask Mary Kopco. Director of Deadwood's Adams Museum & House, she was in her office when someone from Hollywood phoned to gather facts about her town. How much would a miner's pick have cost in 1876? What about a gold pan?

"I'm not a big TV watcher," Kopco says, but at that point, she learned what was going on. Television writer and executive producer David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue, was filming a new HBO series set in Deadwood. Milch had initially pitched a show about ancient Rome. But he was told the network had already scheduled a Rome series. He then realized that for drama and intrigue, the American West was easily Rome's equal.

Looking back at how Milch's show has changed her job, her museum, and her town, Kopco says of answering those first telephoned questions: "Well, I'm glad I ran a little faster to the archives."

If you've ever watched HBO or held a passing interest in Western history, you likely know something about Deadwood. In fall of 1875, gold was discovered in Deadwood Gulch. By 1876, 5,000 to 10,000 people-mostly miners, mostly men-had formed an instant city in the Black Hills.

"Our history is based on liars, loners, and lowlifes," says Jerry Bryant, a historical archaeologist who works at the Adams Museum. "Wild Bill Hickok. Calamity Jane. They became our icons."

What's remarkable about Deadwood is how fast those icons were made. Wild Bill was famous when he first arrived in Deadwood; when he was gunned down three weeks later in Saloon No. 10, he rose to legend. Likewise, Calamity Jane almost immediately became a hot topic of the dime novel-the HBO series of its day. More than riches, Deadwood granted fame.

Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were among the stories Milch had to work with. But the power of Deadwood comes less from the characters you've heard about before than from the ones you haven't-above all, from Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen, both drawn from real life. A former Montana Territorial senator, Bullock represents (if somewhat shakily) progress, order, civilization. Against him plots Swearengen, proprietor of the sordid Gem Theater and crime lord. As played by Ian McShane, Swearengen is a character the equal of Hannibal Lecter or Richard III: villainy raised to high art.

From its first episode, Deadwood created a panorama of the American West not seen before on television: violent, grim, funny, exceedingly profane, and willing to ponder the big questions. "What I love about the show is that it's not a western," Kopco says. "It's about society. And how it forms. Do we want law? Do we not want law? It's a quandary."

Certainly, it can be a quandary, figuring out how a historic Western town can survive. …

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