DEADWOOD, S.D. -- Gambling and booze are mixing again in this tiny town long known for decadence. The good times have returned in old Saloon No. 10, where Wild Bill Hickok was shot while playing poker in 1876 and where Calamity Jane, Deadwood Dick and Poker Alice made a name for themselves when Deadwood boomed during the 1870s gold rush.
This time, the high life is legal.
Deadwood, pop. 2,200, is nestled in the Black Hills and today celebrates the first anniversary of the legalization of slot machines, poker and blackjack games. As one of the nation's smallest towns to allow casino-style gambling, Deadwood is experiencing another gold rush.
Until a year ago, the liveliest place in town was the cemetery where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried and where tourists often stopped on the way to or from Mount Rushmore 50 miles away. Today, Main Street is clogged with tourists eager to gamble in commercial buildings and saloons whose value as real estate has doubled, even quadrupled. Nearly $35 million in private capital investment has poured into Deadwood within the last year, just in time to rescue it from becoming just another sleepy Old West town.
Gambling was declared illegal in 1964 although it had been synonymous with Deadwood since the town opened as a gold-mining camp in 1874. "But even after '64, you could still get into a good poker game in some saloon basement," said Bill Walsh, who headed a committee to persuade the legislature and voters to legalize gambling.
"The problem was, you couldn't sustain a town's economy with just three months of summer tourist business."
The opening of Interstate 90 in 1965 brought Deadwood closer to economic disaster, allowing drivers to bypass the town and buy retail goods in Rapid City 45 miles southeast.
"Everybody underestimated how well gambling was going to go, and nobody understands yet what the potential is," said Joe Massa, general manager of Prairie Edge Gaming in the heart of what used to be a block of brothels that boasted as many as 400 prostitutes in its heyday about 1900.
Deadwood's blue entertainment was legendary. Locals jokingly tell of sheepish visitors to brothels who used to buy a dressed deer to haul out of town to disguise the real purpose of their foray into the Black Hills. Federal agents closed the last brothel in 1980.
Town officials insist that, because bets are limited to $5, the new money glut will neither bring back the raucous days of booze and brothels nor attract high rollers and organized crime.
"We're not Las Vegas or Atlantic City, and we have no intention or desire to be like them," said Vince Coyle of the Chamber of Commerce, careful to note that locals prefer the term "gambling halls" over "casinos."
A visitor to the "halls" finds no showgirls or elaborate volcanic fountains and circus neon, a la Las Vegas. But one can have a buffalo burger and fries for $3.75 while tugging on slot machines in modestly renovated western-style buildings with fake storefronts. The Gold Dust, with chandeliers and red decor, is about the glitziest place in town, occupying the building that once housed the far less flashy Anthony's Department Store.
"We're not high rollers out here, just good, midwestern home folk," said Walsh, also part owner of the landmark Franklin Hotel.
Goldberg's Grocery Store, once the oldest food market west of the Mississippi River and the only store here that delivered groceries to senior citizens, was among the last businesses to yield to slot machines and now is one of the town's 85 gambling halls. At first, one wall was lined with slots, but then the whole store was converted to a hall that operates next to the store's authentic 1950s-style soda fountain.
"Initially, I thought a place like Goldberg's would have two or three slots, but the success of gambling here is becoming the first big breakthrough since Mount Rushmore," Walsh said as he sat on the Franklin's veranda overlooking Main Street.
Gambling has brought in about $250 million, and after deductions for winnings and taxes, more than $6 million has gone to Deadwood.
The housing market is strained because gambling establishments have hired about 2,000 employees, and hotel rooms are even harder to find.
Shuttle buses run between Main Street casinos and new parking lots built to prevent traffic jams on narrow streets.
As Deadwood expands, residents have been promised that gambling money will be spent on badly needed renovation of historic buildings.
After several historic landmarks were destroyed by fires in 1987, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the town as one of the nation's 11 most endangered historic places.
Some opponents of gambling have said it tars the flavor and history of the Old West with commercialism and, at worst, makes Deadwood tacky.
"A lobby full of slot machines is hardly restoration," said Herbert Alf, a consultant for cultural heritage restoration in Spearfish, S.D. "Cultural restoration needs to be done along with architecture and design."
Mark Wolf, historic preservationist for Deadwood, said: "You have to think of Deadwood as an old house. And before you can deal with the people that live there, you have to put money and work toward the sewers and fix water lines and roofs. Then you can do a paint job and rent the place out."
Wolf said the city's infrastructure has deteriorated so much that some sidewalks and water systems date to the turn of the century. All building renovation now must adhere to strict codes, and sprinkler systems are mandatory.
Massa said that, before gambling, the town had few ways to find enough funding to restore buildings before they crumbled or burned. "Private enterprise is essentially restoring Deadwood," he noted.
For Larry Feiock, 30, a former mechanic, becoming a blackjack and poker dealer at the Last Chance Saloon ended nearly a year of unemployment. "Overall, gambling is making Deadwood fun again," he said. "Sure, there are drawbacks because we're running out of room, but I'm just happy to be working."