Gold, ghosts and fires: Deadwood’s Bullock Hotel stands as monument to town's rough-and-tumble past
Famed frontier lawman Seth Bullock established the first hotel in the historic mining town. Now fully renovated, the hotel is still chock-full of history, mysteries and legends.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a larger series that will include stories on the history, violence, vice and historical preservation efforts in Deadwood, a community of approximately 1,200 residents in the Black Hills of South Dakota that boasts a history rich in famous figures, gold and western expansion from the 1800s into the 20th century.
DEADWOOD, S.D. — Seth Bullock. Famed western lawman. Hardware store proprietor. Close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. One of Deadwood’s most renowned founding fathers.
It may not be the first thing people come up with when pondering the historical figure known for being quick with a pistol during his no-nonsense days as a sheriff and marshal in South Dakota and Montana. But his establishment of the Bullock Hotel in downtown Deadwood, South Dakota, remains one of his longest-lasting legacies in the former mining hotbed in the Black Hills.
Today, the three-story hotel stands as a reminder of a past architectural style as well as serves as a landmark that shows the spot where Bullock and his business partner Sol Star established their hardware business in the booming gold mine town that could be as violent as it was profitable.
“The building is the original location where Seth and Sol Star came to town and first started selling hardware to the miners and prospectors,” said Matt Weekly, an employee and a self-described jack-of-all-trades at the Bullock Hotel. “Just right up here in the front of the building. Within a couple of months they had a wooden structure put up and they were selling to everyone.”
While Bullock, who was born in Canada and had lived in Michigan and Montana over the years, did not arrive in Deadwood in 1876 with the intention of pursuing law enforcement, he did end up serving as the first sheriff of the town. But his primary focus was as a businessman, providing hardware supplies to a town that had seen a massive influx of new residents with gold fever.
And they needed everything.
“The No. 1 seller that first month was chamber pots,” Weekly said. “That’s one of the things they needed at the time.”
Fire was an early scourge of the town, and Bullock and Star lost their hardware outpost in 1879 when a blaze took out most of downtown Deadwood. Bullock was determined to not have to start from scratch again, and in early 1880 he rebuilt on the location, only instead of using wood they used solid brick. A new warehouse for the store was also part of the design.
The new warehouse, which was attached to the back of the rebuilt hardware store, survived another downtown fire in 1894, thanks to Bullock and Star taking the unusual step of putting a foot of dirt on the roof. This kept burning embers floating from nearby burning buildings from igniting the structure.
But the front hardware store again burned, and Bullock decided to change gears. Instead of reopening as another hardware store, many of which had sprung up in town over the years, he decided the community needed a first-rate hotel to accommodate visitors from out east.
“The town was only not quite 20 years old and had already exploded to 5,000-plus people. You need a good solid hotel. They used the warehouse as a stepping stool, with big solid brick walls, and said let’s make the most of this thing,” Weekly said.
The inside of the warehouse was transformed into a three-story hotel, and the front facade was added where the hardware store previously stood to match the height. The stone used for the front was quarried in Boulder Canyon, tooled in Sturgis and then hauled to Deadwood for installation on the building front, where it cuts a historic figure on Main Street.
The hotel welcomed visitors from around the country, even future president Roosevelt, although Weekly said when he was in town that he usually stayed at the historic Franklin Hotel, which was bigger and could better accommodate his growing entourage. The Bullock was a 64-room luxury lodge with steam heat and indoor bathrooms on each floor.
A return to glory
Bullock sold the hotel in 1904 to another Deadwood businessman, but it continued to operate primarily as a hotel throughout the years. In the 1980s, businesswoman Mary Schmit bought the structure and eventually spent two and a half years gutting the hotel with the intention of returning it to its Victorian glory.
They took note of paint and wallpaper styles they found as they worked their way through, and reincorporated those old styles into their remodeling.
“They went through and gutted everything down to the studs and documented everything so they could get the colorations and patterns. The colors we have here are from bits of paint and wallpaper they found in the renovation process,” Weekly said, noting the trim around the first-floor casino that sports 20-foot high ceilings.
Today, the Bullock Hotel welcomes guests finding their way to the Black Hills. Weekly said the hotel is about 75% booked through May, and on several weekends it is booked solid. People come for the gaming, the history and the picturesque landscape, among other things.
“We even get people who come in and mention the old Deadwood HBO series. They still talk about it and ask questions like, ‘Were Wild Bill and Seth really friends?’” Weekly said. “They were probably not.”
They also come for the Bullock Hotel’s reputation as a haunted hotel. Guests have reported strange lights, the occasional spooky voice and phantoms that appear in photographs. Weekly shared an oft-told tale of a pair of the workers who were on the renovating job in the early 1990s when they swear they saw the specter of Bullock watching them from across the room, a disapproving look on his face as he stared at them.
The workers promptly abandoned their work posts, but the story still remains.
“We know Seth does occasionally stop to say hi,” Weekly chuckled.
Part of the hotel served as a smallpox quarantine area during an outbreak in the late 1890s, but despite his best efforts, Weekly can find no evidence of anyone having died at the hotel or of any violent incidents at the hotel in general.
Haunting rumors aside, the relatively peaceful history of the hotel reflected Bullock’s time in Deadwood, as well.
A line in the dirt
Despite his reputation as a tough lawman, the violent early days of the community and his appointment as the town’s first sheriff, Bullock’s time in Deadwood was relatively quiet. He managed to keep law and order in Deadwood without killing anyone, something he had not accomplished during some of his previous stints as a peacekeeper.
But he was considered a strong and respected figure in town. In fact, Weekly said that local legend says, in an effort to help transform Deadwood from a lawless, vice-ridden outpost in Dakota Territory to a respectable community, Bullock drew a line in the dirt on the street in front of the hotel.
There he declared that the city on one side of the line could continue with its established ways, tolerating its more lawless elements. The other side of town was to be reserved for respectable businessmen and their families. It was from an ornate cupola atop one of the front corners of the Bullock Hotel that Bullock himself would allegedly sit and keep watch on the lawless side, making sure its elements stayed on their side of town.
Knowing Bullock was keeping watch on them was probably enough for any ambitious criminal to think twice about violating Bullock’s decree. Bullock was, after all, known for his “tall stature, broad shoulders and steel-gray eyes (that) were so intimidating that he could stare down an angry cobra,” according to the official Deadwood website.
Bullock died in Deadwood in 1919 at age 70, and is buried in the town’s historic Mount Moriah Cemetery, along with other Deadwood legends like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Potato Creek Johnny. It’s a peaceful setting that overlooks a now-peaceful Deadwood, a community that eventually dwindled down to a population of roughly 1,200.
Once known for violence, greed and lawlessness, the town is now known for its quaint downtown district and historic preservation efforts, most of which are funded through the proceeds of legalized small-stakes gaming. The entire town is listed under the National Register of Historic Places, and community residents have embraced both the dark of the community’s past and the efforts that have turned it into what it is today.
People still come to Deadwood, but not to seek their fortunes panning for gold. Yet Bullock, all those years ago, was right. Visitors need a place to stay. And they can still do that at the hotel he established right there on the corner he set up his first hardware outpost in 1876.
Weekly said the staff at the hotel continues to enjoy welcoming visitors, whether they come for the gaming, the scenery, the history or the community, including former larger-than-life residents like Seth Bullock.
“We’re actually standing on the shoulders of giants,” Weekly said. “It’s so much fun to be here. There’s just such a feeling to the town, there really is.”