Wednesday, October 30, 2013

DEADWOOD - IN SEARCH OF GHOST TOWNS OF THE OLD WEST

By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Another Halloween is nearly upon us, a time when costumed children (and many adults) will walk about in search of merriment and treats. Jack O’ Lanterns will flicker and glow with a variety of expressions, and even Styrofoam fake tombstones can be found on many a neighbor’s lawn. Ghost stories are told, scary movies are featured both on television and in movie theatres. You may find an autumn festival featuring hayrides, pumpkin decorating, caramel apples, and cornfield mazes. Many towns or organizations often create a haunted funhouse and sell tickets—some with proceeds going to a local charity.

Yet, according to legend, All Hallow’s Eve is also the time when spirits of the dead are able to cross over the invisible bridge that separates their world from ours. Their intention might simply be to communicate with a loved one or create some manner of mischief.

However, there are many people who believe these visits do not happen just one day a year. And one does not have to be psychic or an amateur ghost hunter to believe the bridge between two worlds is never closed or barred, or that ghosts have been frequently seen (and/or heard) by the living at any given time of the year.

It can safely be said that almost every place in the world has some sort of paranormal story in its history books, including major cities like London, Paris, and Rome, or smaller towns with names like Salem, Williamsburg, Tombstone, and Deadwood.

How many of us have stayed at hotels that are allegedly haunted? How many of us have taken a ‘Ghost Tour’ of a historic area just for the fun of it? How many have experienced a strange phenomenon that defies logical explanation? I don’t deny there are many people who roll their eyes and shake their heads at any talk of ghosts, but I’ll be honest. I have a keen fascination with the paranormal—and I’m not talking vampires, werewolves, or zombies.

I love to visit historical sites where one can feel as if transported back in time. Truth is, I search for locations where the past is not only preserved but embraced. A couple years ago I took a ghost tour of Salem, Massachusetts, and it was wonderful. Over the years, I have also stayed in haunted hotels.

But one thing I haven’t done is visit a legendary ghost town of the Old West. Well, not a real one.

As a little girl, I visited my first ‘make-believe’ ghost town. Over summer vacation with relatives I visited Storytown USA, an amusement park in Upstate New York. There were several sections in the park and one was called “Ghost Town”. I don’t remember how I got separated from my family, but I do remember walking around (for what seemed forever) by myself in the western themed Ghost Town. With its version of Boot Hill, gunfights on a dusty street, and piano music that echoed out of swinging saloon doors, it seemed real enough to me. And as I wandered (hot, tired, and thirsty) repeatedly looking for a familiar face, western music taunted me from hidden speakers with the words, “cool, clear, water…water…water.”

I still don’t remember how I got out of there, but I do remember finding the Storytown section and seeing my older sister (who was supposed to be watching me) riding around with Cinderella in her horse-drawn pumpkin coach. Of course, I found it totally unfair that I had been lost and alone in a scary place whilst Karen got to visit (and wave) with Cinderella. But today, as a writer of historical fiction and someone who loves ghost stories, I’m glad I ended up in Ghost Town.

Although it’s too late to visit an authentic Ghost Town for this Halloween, I've been researching potential destinations. At the top of my list is Deadwood, South Dakota. And it just so happens they have a hotel there, allegedly haunted by its original owner, namesake, and the first sheriff of Deadwood, Seth Bullock.

Not only is The Bullock Hotel a historic landmark, employees and guests of the hotel claim to have seen the ghost of Seth Bullock wandering about the hallways. In fact, long before Ghost Hunters ever came to television, the television series “Unsolved Mysteries” (hosted by Robert Stack) featured a segment about the haunted Bullock Hotel. Note: A clip from this segment can be viewed at The Bullock Hotel website.

Located 4,533 feet above sea level in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Deadwood was established in 1876. Originally, the Black Hills were given in perpetuity to the Lakota-Sioux, as stated in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. Forts were even built to prevent white men from settling in the area. Then, in 1874, after a military expedition to the area, Gen. George Armstrong Custer reported gold in the Black Hills.

By 1876, the Gold Rush had hit the territory. Two of its early citizens were Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Although most of the settlers were miners, other people soon followed with a myriad of wild frontier occupations. Before long, the tents were replaced by buildings and saloons, dance halls, brothels, and gaming establishments took over.

Granted, Deadwood had its wild side, but respectable citizens and businesses settled there as well. One such enterprise was a hardware store called the ‘Office of Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants’, co-owned by Sol Star and Seth Bullock. In fact, The Bullock Hotel was built upon the site where the hardware store originally existed.

As mentioned earlier, Bullock (who had previously been a sheriff in Lewis and Clark County, Montana) became Deadwood’s first sheriff. To illustrate how rough a town Deadwood was when Seth Bullock arrived on 01 August 1876, a mere 24 hours later none other than Wild Bill Hickok (whose gun skills were almost legendary) was murdered—shot in the back while playing cards at Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon.

The original wild frontier town entered a new era by 1891 when the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad came to Deadwood. [Pictured: A stretch of railroad celebrated in Deadwood]

The railroad had been built using a labor force of Chinese immigrants who’d been living in Deadwood since 1880. In fact, by the late 1880s these immigrants had established their own Chinatown in an area that is now part of Deadwood’s Main Street.

Today, the spirit of Deadwood continues to thrive amidst the legacy of its Wild West past and the lingering influence of people who lived and died there long ago. How could it escape the echoes of their lives despite the passage of time? Consider all that happened during Deadwood’s turbulent history – reckless violence, murders, dreams, failures, fortunes made and lost, the diverse mix of its citizens including rough miners, respectable settlers, soiled doves, corrupt evildoers, not to mention floods, severe snowstorms, and a fire that gutted the business district in 1894.

[Pictured: A reminder of Deadwood's past. Mannequins posed as soiled doves in a brothel window.]

One does not need to see a ghost or hear a disembodied voice to recognize a place haunted in one form or another. I am taken back as I write to an evening walk I made in Salem, Massachusetts two years ago; the rows of wooden homes and narrow streets, the old, gnarled trees and the misting rain. It seemed then that a peaceful, spiritual imprint still lingered in the air. You could not only see the history; you could feel it.

Consequently, I don’t find it difficult to believe that ghosts of Deadwood might still wander the streets beneath a full moon. Or, that one might not sense the influence still present of those who sleep in eternal slumber amidst towering pines on a hillside cemetery that overlooks Deadwood.

Created in 1878, Mount Moriah Cemetery became the final resting place for a wide range of citizens from the wealthy to the poor, the infamous and famous, including Wild Bill Hickok. But the most respected grave in the cemetery belongs to Deadwood’s first sheriff Seth Bullock.

Thousands of people visit Mount Moriah and the graves of its famed residents each year. They are also able to review public burial records to learn how causes of death were listed in the early days of Deadwood. Comments such as, “bad whiskey”, “summer complaint”, and “God knows” are given as a matter of record. There is even one entry which lists cause of death as, “eating fourteen hardboiled eggs”.

Another location believed to be haunted is the Adams House. Originally built by Harris Franklin in 1892, the Queen Anne styled residence was located in a prestigious upscale neighborhood of its time. Franklin had made his fortune as a businessman in the early days of Deadwood, and had spared no expense in the quality of his home or the amenities it offered, including electrical lighting, central heating, indoor plumbing, hot and cold running water, and telephone service. Together with his wife, Anna, he hosted many elegant parties at their prestigious home. After Anna died in 1902, Franklin remarried in 1905. At that time, he sold the house to his son, Nathan, for $1.00 and moved back East. Nathan, also a successful businessman became Mayor of Deadwood in 1916, replacing the four-term mayor, W.E. Adams. When Nathan Franklin and his wife decided to also leave Deadwood a few years later, he sold the house to Adams.

William Emery Adams resided in the home until his death in 1934. Upon his death, his second wife Mary Adams closed up the house and all its contents were left undisturbed, from the "sheet music in the piano bench, the books in the library, the china in the pantry, and patent medicines in the bathroom". Today, after careful restoration and preservation, the house is now a museum wherein many visitors claim to have seen or heard the ghost of W. E. Adams who died in the house. There have even been frequent reports of smelling his cigar from time-to-time.

Do ghost towns of the Old West still exist? In the case of Deadwood, a thriving modern community has retained its history and preserved its colorful past from generation to generation. Perhaps the hauntings so frequently reported are simply the spirits of former residents who still feel part of Deadwood and appreciate the town's willingness to not forget them. Either way, visiting Deadwood is on my 'to do' list.

Happy Halloween everyone! ~ AKB

Sources:

Haunted Deadwood: A True Wild West Ghost Town - Mark Shadley, Josh Wennes (Haunted America 2012)

The Bullock Hotel, Deadwood, SD

Adams Museum and House, Deadwood, SD

20 comments:

  1. Yes, ghost towns of the old west most definitely do exist. I live right up the mountain from one that hosts ghosts from the 1849 Gold Rush. I have had dealings with them and can attest to it. We also had the team come here and do a twenty minute show on the Cary House Hotel in downtown Placerville. It hosts two ghosts, Stan and George. The building across the street was where I worked in an art gallery for five years. Our ghost wasn't as friendly as the Cary House ghosts. When the offices upstairs were empty we would hear him walking around and slamming doors. One day one of the four foot tall ceramic vases slammed against the wall in the gallery's main room and broke into six pieces and as it hit the leg of the small table it left scratch marks. After that temper tantrum we never hear him again. There is also a ghost who is dressed in black with a top hat that walks the floors of The Hangman Tree Saloon.

    It has always been a great town to explore and I use it as the prototype of my Paradise Pines Series. So far, the ghosts haven't tried to stop me from telling their tales in my books.

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  2. Ooh, okay just added Placerville to my list of places to visit, Paisley. Maybe we could visit together? ((Hugs))

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  3. I love ghost towns. Tombstone and Terlingua are especially haunting. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Angelyn. I do want to go to Tombstone, but the heat factor keeps me away. Maybe in the spring or late fall might be good. I need to find out more about Terlingua, too. :)

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  4. Thanks for this educational post, AKB! I've always wanted to visit Deadwood, but I haven't made it there yet. You might check out Galveston while you're researching haunted places. Often called "a cemetery with a beach attached," Galveston reportedly is one of the most haunted places in the country, thanks to the Civil War and the Great Storm of 1900. The 1900 hurricane killed more than 6,000 people, some of whom apparently decided to hang around anyway. ;-)

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    1. Thank you, Kathleen. I've been to Galveston many times, and even wrote about the 1900 hurricane in my time travel, Whisper in the Wind. I never investigated the haunted places before, but I sure will the next time I go there. A great hotel that is haunted and where I had a ghost encounter with my children is The Menger in San Antonio. Happy Halloween!

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  5. I love ghost stories and such. Once in a while I'll watch Ghost Hunters just in case they really do see a ghost. Ha! Enjoyed the blog.

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    1. Thanks, Sharla Rae. You should watch "A Haunting with Kim Russo" on the Lifetime channel . She is a psychic/medium and investigates places where celebrities experienced a haunting. She went to England recently and met actor Charles Shaughnessy of The Nanny at a 17th c. castle where he experienced a scary haunting as a little boy. She is amazing and each episode she encounters ghosts as well as spirits of loved ones who have passed on but watch over the celebrity. Fascinating.

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  6. We were in Deadwood, I guess two or three years ago this fall. Would you believe we didn't make it to the cemetery. Does the Bullock Hotel have a Casino downstairs? If so, I played the slots there.

    I wish we'd been staying there but we were staying some miles away so didn't spend as much time there as I would have liked.

    Excellent post!

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Linda. I believe the Bullock Hotel does have a casino; there is info about it on their website. How was the weather when you went in the fall?

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  7. What a great blog. Although I am a cynic about ghosts and such, I love hearing about them. I'd love to visit a ghost town in the old west. Your post has inspired me to check out a ghost town. Loved your pictures, too.

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    1. Hi Sarah - So happy you enjoyed the post. Let me know when you go to a ghost town. It's okay to be cynical, so just have fun. :)

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  8. What a great post for Halloween! I love TV shows, books and movies about haunted places, but didn't know Deadwood has the haunted hotel. Would love to visit there, maybe do some research for a future book.

    Thanks for the fun post, Ashley!

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    1. You're welcome and thank you, Lyn. Happy Halloween!!

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  9. Wow, what a great post, so much information! Paisley already knows I love Placerville.

    i have stayed in two supposedly haunted hotels, The Queen Mary and The Hotel Del in San Diego. No bad juju, though...I seriously want to stay at the Menger in San Antonio some time. Yowza.

    I visited Salem but the "witches" who lost their lives there were innocent and that would be a hard tour for me to take.

    Haven't made it to Deadwood yet...that and Mt. Rushmore are definitely on my list.

    Happy "Boo" day, and great post! xox

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    1. Tanya, I also stayed at the Hotel del Coronado and my eldest son had a paranormal experience. Love that hotel! As for Salem, it's strange but there is no negative or oppressive feeling I got there. It is tragic what happened, but I have been told by psychics there that so many prayers and blessings were said to cleanse the negativity. It is important to remember what happened, buf those souls moved on long ago into the light. And I really got that feeling of peace there. At least that was my experience and I visited two years in a row to a writers' conference because I loved the vibe of Salem and its people.

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  10. VERY INTERESTING, ASHLEY! Wow. I loved this post! One thing that caught my eye was one of the causes of death, "summer complaint". My father's younger brother died of this when he was an infant. I asked my mom what it was and she said, basically it was really bad diarrhea and dehydration that babies got. One thing they attributed it to in some cases were babies eating fruits (such as peaches) too early. I don't know if that's the real cause of it, but I'm sure it wasn't in all cases--it must have been a disease, because it was common. I love the pictures. Thanks so much for such a wonderful read. I'll come back to this one again and again!
    Cheryl

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    1. Thanks, Cheryl. I am happy you enjoyed the post. Thanks also for the info on "summer complaint". It does make sense for the time period and lack of medical treatments they had back then. Maybe we should plan a Sweethearts road trip there for book research? ((Hugs))

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  11. Sorry I'm late, Ashley. This was a wonderful post, as yours always are. I had heard of Bullock, but not Adams. How odd that his widow closed up the home and took nothing with her. Sounds as if she was not fond of him or Deadwood, doesn't it?

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  12. Thank you, Carolyn. Here is a little more info about the Adams House. Mary Adams closed up the house after her husband's death, but returned once a year for a short stay to maintain her residency. Still, everything in the house was kept as it had been when she lived there with her husband -- like a time capsule. The house was later sold by Mary Adams to a couple who promised to keep the house and its contents together. From 1988-1992, they operated the house as a B&B so that income could help assist with necessary renovations. Eventually, the couple had to sell the house, but wanted it to be preserved. The Deadwood City Council purchased it and ran it as a B&B until 1999. From 1996 to 2000, the Deadwood Historical Commission stepped in with other private benefactors and extensive renovations were made to restore the home with all its contents intact. It opened as a museum in 2000.

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