The television series ‘Deadwood’ portrayed Al Swearengen as a cold blooded killer. When he arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1876, the camp was a violent, illegal settlement. Miners invaded lands protected by treaty with Native Americans in quest of gold. Placer gold was found by prospectors that accompanied George Armstrong Custer’s expedition in 1874. Immediate news reports opened the floodgates. When gold was found in streams along Deadwood Gulch in the northern Black Hills a year later there was no stopping the influx of fortune seekers. With the miners came people ready to exploit their need for supplies and services.
Deadwood was still a shanty town thrown up along the creek. Its main street was a muddy track. Men gambled and fought over claims. Murder was commonplace. The lawless era saw exploitation of Chinese that emigrated first to find gold then to provide laundry services and open restaurants. Al Swearengen came to provide women. He set up camp and operated a dance hall. Eventually he built the Gem Theatre, a euphemism for his house of prostitution, saloon and gambling joint. His General Manager was Dan Dority, his Floor Manager Johnny Burns, both actual characters portrayed as Al’s henchmen in the television series.
The Gem Theatre was reopened after every fire that swept Deadwood’s shanty town until 1899 when it burned to the ground and was closed for good. In its heyday the Gem took in $5,000 a night; on exceptional nights $10,000. This was at a time when gold was selling for $20.64 an ounce. There was more money to be made selling women and booze than panning the streams for placer gold and nuggets. In the end Al Swearengen left Deadwood and died a pauper, killed trying to get onto a freight train in Denver.
The Gem Theatre and Saloon lives on. Rebuilt atop the Mineral Palace Hotel and Casino it is on the very same spot where Al Swearengen presided over his domain at 601 Main Street. Looking out windows on the third floor of the restaurant one can imagine wagons and horsemen, the clatter of robust life on the street below, perhaps even imagine gunshots as miners vied for their lives in the once lawless town.
Deadwood has preserved the character of Main Street, rebuilt after devastating fires. Its brick, stone and wood fronted buildings are now given over to stores and saloons, gambling parlors and tourist attractions. Taking a meal at the Gem in modern surroundings does not detract from the history steeped in this place.
Server Nate Richman is from Lead. Lead adjoins Deadwood and is home to the world famous Homestake Mine. “At one time Homestake was the largest gold producing mine in the world,” Nate said. It closed in 2001 when gold prices were low. There was still plenty of gold ore to be had but costs of production outweighed its profitability.
“When I worked there gold was $270 and ounce,” Tom Corkins explained. Tom now works at a popular hotel in town. He spent twenty years at Homestake’s ball and rod ore crushing plant. Tom’s father spent 45 years as a Homestake miner working below ground. “It cost $300 an ounce to bring it up.” Tom described the reason for Homestake’s closing. Had they been able to anticipate current gold prices they likely would have continued operations.
As with thriving enterprises of Deadwood’s early days, The Gem Steakhouse and Saloon mines tourist dollars offering fine food and drink in convivial surroundings. Their wine list is simple and straight forward. House wines run $5 a glass or $19 the bottle and most popular selections from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay are available. Bottled wines include Chloe Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley $28 a bottle, Pinot Noir from Sean Minor in Napa Valley $29 even Broquel Trapiche, an oak cask aged Malbec from Argentina, for $30 a bottle. Sparkling wines include Ballatore Moscato rose from California at $16 a bottle and classic Dom Perignon Champagne from France at $229 the bottle.
Menu items are named for popular legends in the territory, like the Badlands Buffalo Pops. The lawless section of Deadwood was the Badlands. These pulled chicken wing appetizers are smothered in hot sauce and served with carrot sticks, celery and a bleu cheese dip, $9.95. There is Gold Strike Chislic, breaded or unbreaded, beef served with Gem’s choice of sauces, $8.95. There are soups and salads was well as buffalo chili.
Main courses include 21 day dry aged steaks. Al’s porterhouse is thick cut 22 ounces of grilled center-cut steak, $34.95. Johnny’s ribeye is a 12 ounce portion of succulent beef. Hearst’s New York strip is a 12 ounce portion served to perfection. For those that want a 34 ounce bone-in ribeye try the Mineral Palace selection charcoal grilled to perfection, $39.95. Their Prospector’s prime rib comes in 8, 12 and 16 ounce portions runs $13.95 to $22.95 The meat is succulent, slow cooked and marbled to be tender, tasty perfection.
Other selections include Mr. Woo’s pork ribs, $12.50 the half-rack and $21.95 for a full rack. There are also gold nugget shrimp, Joanie Stubbs grilled swordfish steaks and Wild Bill’s walleye $16.95. For those that prefer vegetables and rice try the red and wild rice medley with Shiitake mushrooms or Mr. Woo’s rice and fire roasted vegetables, $9.95. All dinners include soup or salad, vegetable of the day and choice of potato.
Desserts at Gem run about $4.95. Home made carrot cake and ice cream are sweet temptations. The food is plentiful and served with fun in comfortable, casual surroundings. Gem is a great place to relax after a day prospecting in the Black Hills. The original Gem Theatre is part Deadwood’s legend. The tradition continues with good food and drink in at the modern resurrection of Al Swearengen’s Gem Theatre that once stood on this spot.
For more information about Deadwood visit www.deadwood.com or call their visitor center at 1-800-999-1876. To make reservations at the Gem Steakhouse and Saloon atop the Mineral Palace Casino call 1-800-847-2522 or 605-578-2036 or visit www.mineralpalace.com.