Finding Inspiration in Unexpected Places: The Origins of "The Savior of Deadwood"

27 May 2021

Inspiration is the bedrock of historical studies. Researching and writing take hours of diligent work, with plenty of frustrations along the way. Yet, working on a topic that inspires you keeps you going. Growing up in Wyoming, I fell in love with the romance and excitement of the “Old West,” and when I visited family in Lead and Deadwood, my interest in the topic reached new heights. What more could a young Western history enthusiast want than the lore of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane? But as I explored Deadwood more deeply, I couldn’t help but notice the large pile of black rocks sitting at the lower end of town. After a little digging, I soon discovered that it was slag, or metal byproduct from gold smelting. This pile of rocks piqued my curiosity and inspired me to learn more. I discovered that the slag is one of the last remnants of the town’s influential gold rush past. Yet, Deadwood’s origins are often ignored and mostly forgotten.

For historical research to have a direction, inspiration needs to be followed by a question. In this instance, my basic question was: who was responsible? While searching for an answer, I came across James K. P. Miller. While he died before most of the slag had been created, he was nevertheless the person who got the smelter going. When I dug more deeply into Miller’s past, I found other questions to ask, and soon realized that he had left his imprint all over Deadwood. He built railroads, business blocks, and ran the largest mercantile in the Black Hills. He also became a community promoter, working to ensure that the town would flourish even after the gold rush ended. He certainly did more for Deadwood than Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, and many other more famous pioneers. Ultimately, my encounter with Deadwood’s slag pile led me on a quest that went on for years, culminating in this biography.

But a book about a Deadwood businessman cannot be written without accounting for the world he lived in. After all, Miller could not be called the “Savior of Deadwood” unless the town needed saving. As he worked to transform the gold camp, he had to deal with problems ranging from violent outbursts to economic downturns. The reality of life in Deadwood affected everything Miller did, and it is an important part of this story. Within this larger context, the narrative details how a middle-class merchant survived and eventually thrived in a raucous gold camp setting. Running a business was no simple affair, however, and Miller faced intense competition. He had a vision for Deadwood, however, and became so enamored with the town’s possibilities that he persuaded East Coast investors to spend money there. Two of these financiers came from Delaware, and at Miller’s behest, they built the Deadwood & Delaware Smelter in lower Deadwood. It operated from 1891 to 1903 and produced the slag that exists today, reminding us of Deadwood’s gold rush past, and, on occasion, inspiring authors.

—David A. Wolff


9781941813355.jpgPictured at top is the Deadwood & Delaware smelter, Library of Congress.

The Savior of Deadwood: James K. P. Miller on the Gold Frontier by David A. Wolff is now available from the South Dakota Historical Society Press.