Carrying a Big Stick on Deadwood’s Mount Roosevelt – South Dakota, USA

Deadwood's main street
Deadwood's main street

Deadwood. The very word conjures ideas of lawlessness, grit and grime, thanks in no small part to HBO’s recent dramatic series of the same name. Most historians agree that the television program, viewable now only by reruns and on DVD, presented a fairly accurate depiction of the place in its early days. Those muddy, bloody, boozy days of the 1870s didn’t last long. The era of harsh language and daily violence gave way to wealthier and more educated years. The transient prospectors and hooligans moved on, displaced by well-paid merchants and mining engineers. By the 1890s, the city’s maturing population had the railroad, electricity and telephones. Ornate Victorian façades superseded the ramshackle log buildings of the gold rush. National heroes, ranging from Buffalo Bill Cody to Tom Mix, an early silent film star, created long-lasting friendships with Deadwood’s denizens.

Then there was Theodore Roosevelt. During his years on a North Dakota ranch, the would-be president met Deadwood’s, Seth Bullock, a sort of frontier Renaissance man. The two became very close and remained good friends throughout Roosevelt’s presidency. When Roosevelt died, Bullock was devastated. He used his political clout to erect the nation’s first memorial to the trust-busting president on a peak above Deadwood.

To the Top
Nearly nine decades later, Mount Roosevelt still remains one of Deadwood’s most significant sites. Yet, what may be the city’s greatest public space often goes unnoticed, hidden beyond forested hills, down a dusty gravel road. Located a mere two and a half miles from downtown Deadwood, it makes an ideal hike for anyone spending the day in town. However, like most visitors, I cheat: I drive nearly to the top.

Mount Roosevelt dedication
Mount Roosevelt dedication

It’s early morning when I set out. The sun has risen, but just barely. It remains hidden by the high walls of Deadwood Gulch. Even as I reach the edge of town and climb Deadwood Hill, shadows cover everything, except the tip of the summit. I take the most popular way to access the mountain: the aptly-named Mount Roosevelt Road, a well-marked gravel trail off U.S. 85. The road is well maintained, although the landscape is thickly forested and can harbor deep snowdrifts through spring.

Today Mount Roosevelt is maintained by the Black Hills National Forest as a recreational trail and picnic area. The designated parking area below the summit is carefully kept up. As usual, it is empty this morning. There’s room for a dozen cars, but I’ve never seen more than one or two parked here, even in summer. Modest restrooms and a few outdoor tables are nestled in the thick forest, which protects this part of the mountain from any high winds. As is the norm in the Black Hills, the Ponderosa Pine reigns over all, but there are many other varieties of trees, including oak, birch and aspen.

Trail and Summit
I begin to make my way up the trail; well-marked and lined with large rocks. The consistent grade isn’t steep, so I let my attention wander to the forest around me and the views beginning to take shape between the trees. About halfway up, the trail splits into a loop; I know it doesn’t matter which path I pick, so I opt to take the left fork. Adopting a brisk pace to fight off the early morning chill, I reach the end of the half mile trail in about 15 minutes. I would have made better time if I’d walked straight up, but I can’t resist stopping to look at the brass interpretive markers along the way. They’re reproductions of the views at certain vantage points, with a few peaks and canyons labeled. The houses and churches of Lead, Deadwood’s sister town, look like snow covering a mountain top across a wide valley.

The Friendship Tower
The Friendship Tower

The 5,690-foot summit – the 67th highest named peak in the Black Hills – is dominated by the Friendship Tower, a stone memorial that rises about 25 feet above the surrounding meadow. Though deserted, it's noisy: birds hunt for breakfast, squirrels curse me from the trees, and a small marmot rustles in annoyance under some nearby leaves. This location was chosen for its views of the plains that stretch out to the north, beyond the environs of Belle Fourche (where Bullock and Roosevelt first met in 1884), and on into North Dakota, where Roosevelt maintained a ranch.

The dedication of the memorial occurred on July 4, less than three months before Bullock’s own death at the age of 70. He arranged to be buried above Deadwood’s cemetery on Mount Moriah, near the top of the peak. Known as White Rocks, it provides Bullock’s final resting place with an unimpeded view of the memorial he created for his friend during the final months of his life. Though the view is crowded by tree limbs, I can make out the shape of White Rocks to the east.

The tower was built in 1919. It is set in a secluded meadow atop a mountain with views to Wyoming and North Dakota. This stone memorial to Theodore Roosevelt was the first tribute to the president's memory. the entrance has since been closed with an iron gate. Up until a couple of years ago, it was possible to scale the tower’s six-foot-high platform and scoot under the gate – undoubtedly to the chagrin of forest officials, who closed the gap with concrete. The tower is now officially under restoration, thanks to collaboration between the Black Hills National Forest and the National Park Service.

Bonnie Joans, a recreation specialist with the Northern Hills Ranger District, admits that officials have yet to determine if the tower will ever reopen to climbers, but she says that new interpretive panels will likely be installed soon. In the meantime, the outdoor tables, open spaces and sweeping vistas around the tower create a near-perfect environment for picnics and family excursions.

View from the top
View from the top

I watch as the rising sun causes variations in the deep shadows of the hills below. As the light strengthens, I can see a mist start to rise from Bear Butte, a distinctive peak on the edge of the Black Hills, 20 miles distant. It’s barely seven o’clock. I think about all the people finishing their morning jog in some generic suburban neighborhood. As the sun comes up over the Black Hills, mists rise from the forest. Bear Butte is visible; the plains and badlands of western South Dakota lie beyond. Impressive views of the western Dakotas greet the patient hiker at the top of Mount Roosevelt.

I walk back to my car and begin my descent into Deadwood, opting to return via the lesser-known route along Denver Avenue. Steeper, more arduous and not as well maintained as the first route, this section of the road – one of Deadwood’s first stage routes – comes out in a residential neighborhood near the Franklin Hotel and Deadwood's Public Library. As I meander past the outlying houses, I catch the waves of a few residents out inspecting their sloping lawns. Next time, I’ll ditch the car and walk the whole way up.

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  • Terry Towns said at 2012-09-20T22:34:07+0000: We walked up the trail this morning.