2002 – Deadwood, SD

An Unforgettable Roundup in Deadwood, South Dakota

by Kitty Pelkan

A record number 67 members of the Texas Jack Association gathered in Deadwood, SD for the never-to-be-forgotten 2002 Roundup, June 26-29. Martha Sullivan, daughter of Association founder Frank Sullivan, was the organizer of this roundup, and everyone was immediately--and continuously--singing her praises for an excellent event.

The whole town of Deadwood is a National Historic Landmark. It is located not far off Interstate 90, situated on the western edge of South Dakota in the Black Hills National Forest. This locale was chosen because Deadwood is where James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was shot and is buried. From September 1873 to March 1874, Wild Bill performed on stage with John Baker "Texas Jack" Omohundro, Josephine Morlacchi (Jack's recent bride), and William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody in Ned Buntline's play Scouts of the Plains. Having visited sites in previous roundups associated with Texas Jack, Josephine, and Buffalo Bill, it was now time to pay respects to Wild Bill.

Happy Beginnings

Headquarters for this, the eleventh roundup, was the Historic Franklin Hotel. Registration began at 4:00 Wednesday afternoon in the upstairs Fainting Room. We were checked in by Edna Nees and Jason Swingle and given hefty registration packets that included a souvenir Texas Jack notepad and pencil.

After registering, attendees greeted old friends and made new ones while enjoying light refreshments on the second floor verandah. On hand was Association member Thadd Turner dressed as Wild Bill, graciously posing for photographs, answering questions, and selling/autographing his book Wild Bill Hickok: Deadwood City~End of Trail. Elsewhere in the hotel one could pick up a copy of the May/June 2002 Deadwood Magazine for which Thadd had written an excellent three-page article about Texas Jack. A sidebar in the magazine announced, "Western history buffs pay tribute to a gallant western frontier scout when the Texas Jack Association holds its biennial roundup in Deadwood the last week of June."

Later that evening many ate dinner in the hotel's 1903 Dining Room. Bill Walsh, the proprietor of the Franklin, welcomed the TJA, pointed out some of the historical features of the room, and invited us to wander throughout the hotel which is a treasure trove of antique furnishings and fixtures. One can still ride the original Otis manual elevator, operated by Bill Buckholtz. But if "Mr. Bill" isn't around, Bill Walsh himself will give you a lift, after first parking his cigar in the nearby receptacle.

Thursday: Tours, Mt. Moriah Cemetary, and Trail of Jack McCall

Thursday morning dawned hot and sunny. After a continental breakfast in the Emerald Room, we boarded two open-air buses for a guided tour of the town. A fast-paced narration informed us that the discovery of gold in a gulch full of dead wood led to the town's first name, Deadwood Gulch. The dead wood was the result of a pine beetle infestation which reoccurs every ten years or so. On a hilltop we could see the Homestake Mining Company in Lead (pronounced "leed"--it's a mining term) which had operated continuously for 125 years until its closing last year. Riding down historic Main Street we passed an archaeological dig and learned of the large Chinese population that once lived in Deadwood, second only to San Francisco's at the time. We heard about the first madam of the town, Miss Kitty, who was shot and killed at age 25 by her fifth husband. We rode past the saloon where Wild Bill was assassinated, and learned that he had lived in a tent on the edge of town for only one and a half months before he met his destiny. Two outdoor sculptures immortalize Wild Bill: a bust created by Korczak Ziolkowski (of Crazy Horse renown) and a bronze statue by Korczak's daughter Monique and her sculpting partner Jim Borglum (the grandson of the Mount Rushmore sculptor).

We also learned about the casinos! Deadwood had nearly become a ghost town until 1989, when gambling was legalized once again. There are now some 80 gambling establishments in the area. The money that has poured in has paid for an upgrade of the town's infrastructure and continues to finance the restoration of many of its 1880's-era buildings. Tax revenues from Deadwood gaming have also financed historical restorations in other cities and towns in South Dakota. Many members of the TJA contributed to this worthy cause by playing the slot machines that were everywhere one went--including our hotel lobby!

The bus tour continued to nearby Mount Moriah Cemetery where Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, and other colorful characters of the past are buried. Located on a wooded bluff overlooking Deadwood, the cemetery is undergoing extensive restoration. We negotiated the steep and dusty terrain and gathered at Wild Bill's gravesite. Our tour guide recounted the story of Wild Bill's and Calamity Jane's tenure and demise in Deadwood. Afterwards, the Association held a wreath-laying ceremony which included readings and remarks by Thadd Turner and a visit from Calamity Jane. The occasion was covered by local television and radio stations. We then walked back down to our buses for a short ride to the edge of town where we disembarked at a wonderfully shady park and feasted on a scrumptious catered lunch.

Later we regrouped at the Wild Bill Hickok Interpretive Center, located within the Wild West Casino and Entertainment Complex. On the walls of this small museum one can read the life story of Wild Bill written, in large part, by Thadd Turner. Wild Bill's brief association with Texas Jack is mentioned and accompanied by the formal photograph of Jack standing behind Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill.

Thadd has done extensive research on the circumstances surrounding Wild Bill's assassination by Jack McCall on August 2, 1876. He has carefully sifted fact from fiction and logically reconstructed the story of what happened that fateful day. We were spellbound as we listened to his retelling of the famous poker game, the tragic shooting, the quick capture, the two trials, and finally the hanging.

Later in the evening we attended a re-enactment of the capture of McCall out on Main Street in front of the Old Style Saloon #10. It had been rumored that some of the TJA members would be participating. Our first surprise was the eye-popping sight of Edna Nees in 1880's regalia! Next we walked to the Deadwood Theater to witness "The Trial of Jack McCall." The Judge warmly welcomed the TJA and led everyone in singing "Happy Birthday" to Isabella Willard, whom he had called to the stage. Soon the trial began and we had our second surprise of the evening when Kyle Bacon entered the scene as a deputy in charge of guarding--at gunpoint!--the dangerous Jack McCall. The audience was encouraged to hiss and boo throughout the play, and we did so with increasing gusto. The next surprise came when David Maus joined the actors and kept up a running gag with his hat. Later, jurors were called from the audience: John Omohundro, Dennis Greene, Terry Omohundro, and Mark Greene. Each was searched for weapons and then questioned by the Judge. This little segment produced some priceless moments and even the Judge lost his composure when Dennis gave his deadpan answers. The whole crazy play was a lot of fun for everyone!

Friday: Train Ride, Crazy Horse, and Mount Rushmore

The next day was Friday and another hot, hot day. At 9 am we boarded two air-conditioned coaches and headed up Highway 385 to Hill City. En route, our bus driver told us some of the history of the region.

The Black Hills, older than the Appalachian Mountains, were named by the Lakota Sioux because of the dark appearance of the mountains from a distance. The Black Hills spruce is the state tree of South Dakota. Ponderosa pine, aspen, and birch also grow in the Black Hills. This region has provided Christmas trees for the White House several times.

In 1874, the U.S. government sent Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer to the Black Hills, ostensibly to survey the land, but really to check out the rumors of gold. When the rumor proved to be true, news of its presence leaked to the public and sparked a gold rush. This became a problem (or was it the plan all along?) because the Black Hills were part of the Great Sioux Reservation set aside for them in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. Federal troops were not able to keep out the hordes of white men who flocked to the Hills. A series of miscommunications then ensued, ultimately leading to the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. Wild Bill Hickok mourned the death of his friend Custer, only to be dead himself less than two months later. Neither man had yet reached age 40.

As we rode up Highway 385 along Strawberry Hill, the driver mentioned that the region is in its fourth year of a drought. It's so severely dry, in fact, the Fourth of July fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, one of the top fireworks shows in America, had been cancelled. In addition, a $5,000 fine will be levied on anyone caught displaying fireworks of any kind, even hand sparklers.

We made a rest stop at the visitor center on Pactola Reservoir, constructed in the early 1950's under the federal CCC program. An unexpected find: a photograph on display that included Texas Jack!

The next stop was the Alpine Inn in Hill City where Monika and her capable staff were immediately ready to serve us a most delicious lunch. The Inn was started by Monika's mother who came to the U.S. from Stuttgart, Germany; thus the Bavarian theme in this former mining town.

After a little browsing and shopping, we boarded the "1880 Train" of the Black Hills Central Railroad. This collection of restored steam engines and railcars has for 45 years carried tourists along the same route once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad to service the mines and mills between Hill City and Keystone. Our hostess pointed out landmarks and wildlife and informed us about the area. Over 50 kinds of minerals have been found in the Black Hills. It is a semi-arid region, typically getting 18 inches of moisture per year, but not recently. Once again we were told about the four-year drought. We passed a meadow which allowed us a view of Harney Peak, "the highest point between the Swiss Alps and the Rocky Mountains," claims a tourist brochure. Normally, on a clear day, one can see five states from atop Harney Peak (elev. 7242'): South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas. But today there is a forest fire in the area and the mountain is closed to hikers. Even from this distance we can see the heavy mass of smoke hanging in the sky.

Our hostess also taught us the language of trains: two toots of the whistle means "go," one toot means "stop," three toots signals "backing up." There is an interesting story behind that familiar sound of 2 long-1 short-1 long blasts of the whistle: This sequence represents the letter "Q" in Morse code. The British Navy used this signal to alert the harbor when the Queen was arriving in port. After a time it began to be used whenever she arrived by train, as well. Today the signal is used universally, by law, to warn that a train will be crossing a roadway. We heard this sequence 16 times in one hour!

Upon arrival to Keystone we reboarded our buses and headed for Mount Rushmore National Memorial. This amazing sculpture, carved out of granite on the side of a craggy, pine-covered cliff, was completed in 1941 by Gutzon Borglum and a team of 400 men. The project took 14 years to complete, most of it spanning the Great Depression, for a total cost of about $1 million. The faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are each 60 feet high and represent 120 years of American history. Considered by many at the time of its creation to be a project of pure folly, Mount Rushmore now attracts nearly 2.7 million visitors yearly including, today, the members of the Texas Jack Association. The Grandview Terrace gave an excellent straight-on look at the Faces and the winding half-mile Presidential Trail provided dramatic views from other angles. As we were leaving, the bus stopped at a look-out point off the highway that gave a spectacular view of Washington's profile.

The excessive heat was sapping our energy but we soldiered on, heading next to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial, another impressive mountain sculpture. In fact, while watching the progress of Mount Rushmore, Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Brulé Band of Sioux conceived the idea of a memorial for the American Indian. He invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to undertake the project saying, "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too." Korczak accepted the offer and together they chose the legendary Sioux warrior Crazy Horse to be the subject of the sculpture. Crazy Horse was born in the Black Hills and had fought fiercely at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He refused always to sign any treaties, and when asked sarcastically by a white man, "Where are your lands now, Crazy Horse?" he replied, "My lands are where my dead lie buried." It is this proud and defiant attitude that is depicted in Korczak's sculpture: Crazy Horse astride his steed, fiercely pointing to the far distance. The monument has been a work-in-progress since 1948. Korczak's wife Ruth and seven of their ten children have continued the project since his death, guided by his detailed plans and scale models. The non-profit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation is completely supported by private donations and admission fees and it funds so much more than just the mountain sculpture. Already it has assisted 1,000 American Indian students with college scholarships.

Our last destination of this busy day was the Circle B Ranch. By now wilted and weary, we trooped into the enormous Chuckwagon Barn--large enough to seat 1300--and had our meal. On the way back to Deadwood our bus driver remarked that no one actually lives in the historic part of Deadwood. The residents, instead, all live on the ridges and bluffs that rise up on either side. As we descended Strawberry Hill, he pointed out the Northern Hills General Hospital, the Gulches of Fun amusement park, and a little nest of homes and trailers at the very edge of town. In a few minutes we were back at the Franklin and the energetic ones in the group headed out to the casinos. Others made a beeline for the ice cream shop. Some cooled off on the verandah or sat in the famous red rockers on the front porch. Many just simply went to bed, exhausted from the heat.

Saturday - Forest Fire!

Saturday, June 29, dawned hot as blazes again, but the air-conditioned Gold Room was nice and cool for the biennial meeting of the membership. It was a lively and productive session, presided over by president John Omohundro.

The rest of the day was unscheduled until that night's farewell banquet, always a looked-forward-to-event. It was so hot, the men were conspiring not to wear ties. We women were contemplating dispensing with hosiery and heels. In the meantime there was lunch to eat, sights to see, slot machines to be played. Off we all went in various directions--to Gulches of Fun with the kids, to Lead to pan for gold, to the Adams Museum, to the Adams House. Devout Catholics Betty Woods and Barbara Weitekamp went off to church. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, an explosive wildfire was heading toward Deadwood! First sighted at 2 pm in Grizzly Gulch one mile south of Lead, the fire came raging over Strawberry Hill in a matter of hours. An initial crew of 200 firefighters--assisted by 7 heavy air tankers ("slurry bombers") and 6 bulldozers--were working furiously to push back the flames and dig a dozer line. Local fire trucks were spraying water on homes threatened by the encroaching flames. Sixty-five troopers of the South Dakota Highway Patrol were driving to homes to warn residents they should evacuate.

David Howell of Grizzly Gulch went outside to check on his barking dog, saw the smoke, quickly returned to his house, and found the sheriff at his door telling him to leave. In the time it took him to grab important documents, get the dog, and jump in his truck, the fire was over the ridge and 50 yards from his home.

Tom Blair, owner of the Whistler Gulch Campground said, "I've fought some wildland fires, I never seen it roar like that. You can't describe how she was coming down that hill." (Rapid City Journal, 7/01/02, Dan Daly, reporter)

Down in Deadwood, many people were unaware of the approaching danger. When the fire knocked out the main power line to the town, many thought it was just a blown circuit in their own particular building. Gradually, word got around that the Hills were on fire. People became uneasy, not sure what to do. The air was dry and smoky, parching the throat. It was unsettling to see the ever growing black and orange smoke roaring into the sky. A swirling arid wind gave the awful sense that at any moment the fire was going to be sucked down the steep walls of the gulch and consume Main Street.

Then the fire jumped Highway 385 and Gov. Bill Janklow ordered a mandatory evacuation of Deadwood.

Evacuation

Fr. Paul Dahms, priest at St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Deadwood, was beginning his late-afternoon mass when the city police chief walked in and gave the evacuation order. At the Franklin Hotel, many of us were already packing our bags--just in case--when the official evacuation order came. With no lights, the inner stairway of the hotel was pitch dark and it was difficult to haul our suitcases to the lobby. Over at the Wild West Complex, Dan and Lyndall Foral (our banquet entertainers) were also struggling down a dark stairway, trying to get their sound equipment and instruments out to their vehicle.

All the while, volunteer fire departments from 60 South Dakota towns and cities were rushing to the scene. Record 100-plus-degree temperatures and very low humidity had made already dry conditions even drier. Dead trees from a pine beetle infestation fueled the flames, and strong shifting winds made the fire erratic. Abandoned mine shafts presented hazards for the firefighters and civilian use of cell phones was jamming their communications systems. Because there are so many private homes in the Black Hills, the Grizzly Gulch Fire soon became the number one priority of the National Forest Service. Within 90 minutes of the request, FEMA funds were authorized to help fight this blaze. Elite Type I crews, trained to fight the most dangerous fires, were on their way from Portland, Oregon.

As fire personnel rushed in, some 1380 residents and countless thousands of tourists formed a long slow line of vehicles heading out. As Karl, Judy Phillips and I drove away we kept watch out the back window and saw the slurry bombers drop load after load of fire retardant. Locals from outlying areas were phoning the radio stations to offer their pastures for displaced livestock. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were already organizing food and refuge.

David Howell and his dog were now at a Red Cross shelter in Spearfish. He told a reporter from The Black Hills Pioneer, "I don't know what I've lost. I don't know what I still have." But he was thankful to have his life.

"On Main Street, Franklin Hotel operator Bill Walsh smoked a cigar as he and an employee remained at the Main Street landmark. 'The Franklin has never closed its doors,' he said in explaining why he remained. He said the hotel was used by firefighters during Deadwood's 1959 fire." (Rapid City Journal, 6/30/02)

Then, a miracle. About 9 pm the winds shifted and began to push the fire away from Deadwood.

Fighting the Fire

But the fire continued to burn intensely to the south and east and crews worked through the night, hampered by steep terrain, thick smoke, and whirling winds. The next day, Sunday, the Rapid City Journal gave this weather report: "The outlook for moisture is still dismal with no immediate improvement on the near horizon." Flare-ups were still occurring along Strawberry Hill and Highway 385. Deadwood remained closed and now Lead was evacuated, too. Deadwood Mayor Francis Toscana drove through his deserted and smoke-filled city and remarked, "It's like a science fiction movie." (The Black Hills Pioneer, Spearfish, S.D.)

By now the Type I crews had taken over command of the Grizzly Gulch Fire. Heavy air tankers continued their relentless slurry drops. The Army National Guard had brought in bulldozers, manpower and, later in the week, two Black Hawk helicopters that could carry 2,000-gallon water buckets. Forest Service employees, state fire officials, and crews from the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to assist, as did state prison inmates who were Forest Service trained and certified. At the height of the battle, over 900 personnel were fighting the fire, even though the ranks of firefighters, who will travel great distances to help each other, were stretched thin due to fires in other states. Firemen Lloyd Siemonsma and Chad Rotert--who live near Sioux Falls--had just returned from helping with the wildfire near Durango, Colorado. Despite not having been home in ten days, they immediately began helping with the Grizzly Gulch Fire, though Siemonsma said he probably wouldn't stay to the end. "I've got hay to put up." (Rapid City Journal, 7/01/02)

Tim Hill, manager of both the Bullock Hotel and the Wild West Complex, emptied the freezers of his establishments, set up grills on the deserted Main Street and barbecued meals for the firefighters and state troopers almost around the clock. "These people came here to keep our town from burning down and we're gonna take care of them." (Denver Post, Ron Franscell, reporter) The TJA banquet food was part of this marathon barbecue.

Deadwood was finally allowed to reopen for business at 8 pm Monday, July 1. The Grizzly Gulch Fire was declared controlled (meaning the fire posed no threat of escaping the perimeter) as of 6 pm Friday, July 12--fourteen days after it had started. All told, 10,744 acres had burned. There were no deaths nor severe injuries, but seven families had lost their homes. It is believed the fire was started by lightening, but officials have called in specialists to help determine the cause. Local papers reported that flames got to within 1/2 mile of Deadwood and crept to within yards of the uppermost homes. Mount Moriah Cemetery was threatened but did not burn. A newspaper photo shows the fire within sight of the Northern Hills General Hospital. Crews were able to save the Mile Hi Mobile Home Manor that we had driven by just the day before, near the south end of town.

A press release from the Office of the Governor, July 15, from the South Dakota Website:

(Pierre)--Gov. Bill Janklow publicly thanked the dozens of volunteer fire departments who responded to the Grizzly Gulch Fire in the northern Black Hills. "Sometimes we don't say it (thank you) quick enough or often enough, but when there's trouble, they come. They're South Dakota's Minutemen, citizens who are ready at a moment's notice to drop everything and fight to protect our lives and our property.

The Denver Post reported that the 3-day evacuation of Deadwood cost the town's casinos more than $2 million a day. The region lost untold millions in structures, forest resources, and Fourth of July tourism dollars. We Roundup attendees were lucky. We only lost our banquet.

We've learned that Mercy Hogue of the Wild West Complex had decorated the room beautifully and set the tables elegantly. Dan and Lyndall Foral had written a song for the occasion, "Virginia's Texas Jack." We were going to have a fine meal, take lots of group photos, and say proper thank yous and farewells. It was going to be a grand evening indeed, but... nature had a different plan.

Altogether, it was truly an unforgettable roundup!