Angel of the Mining Camps
Women, as well as men, traveled west in the 19C to pan for gold. One was an Irish immigrant named Nellie Cashman. A restless adventurer, Nellie ranged the West for 50 years prospecting for gold & helping others wherever she traveled. She ran restaurants & boarding houses, never refusing a meal or a room to some hungry, down & out miner who had no money to pay.
Ellen "Nellie" Cashman (1845-1925), better known as Nellie Cashman, became noted across the Western United States & in western Canada as a nurse, restaurateur, businesswoman, Roman Catholic philanthropist in Arizona, & gold prospector in Alaska. A native of County Cork, Ireland, she & her sister were brought as young children to the United States by their mother about 1850, to escape the poverty of the Great Famine. The family lived first in Boston, Massachusetts, where the girls also worked when old enough, before migrating to San Francisco, California, in 1865.
Following the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush, Cashman left her family home in 1874, for the Cassiar Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. A lifelong Catholic, she set up a boarding house for miners, asking for donations to the Sisters of St Anne in return for the services available at her boarding house.Cashman was travelling to Victoria to deliver $500 to the sisters of St. Anne, when she heard that a snowstorm had descended on the Cassiar Mountains, stranding & injuring 26 miners, who were also suffering from scurvy. She took charge of a 6-man search party & collected food & medicine to take to the stranded miners. Conditions in the Cassiar Mountains were so dangerous, that the Canadian Army advised against attempting the rescue. Upon learning of Cashman's expedition, a commander sent his troops to locate her party & bring them to safety. An army trooper eventually found Cashman camped on the frozen surface of the Stikine River. Over tea, she convinced the trooper & his men that it was her will to continue, & that she would not head back without rescuing the miners. After 77 days of harsh weather, Cashman & her party located the sick men, who numbered far more than 26, perhaps as many as 75 men. She administered a diet containing Vitamin C to restore the men to health. She was afterward known in the region as the "Angel of the Cassiar."
About 1880, Cashman moved to Tombstone, Arizona. She raised money to build the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, & committed herself to charity work with the Sisters of St. Joseph. She took a position as a nurse in a Cochise County hospital but also opened another restaurant & boarding house.
Her sister Fanny (Cashman) Cunningham was widowed in 1881, following the death of her husband Tom, a bootmaker. Cashman arranged for Fanny & her 5 children to move to nearby Tucson, Arizona. Fanny died in 1884 of tuberculosis, leaving her children in Cashman's care. Honoring her sister's wishes, Cashman raised the children as her own. In the late 1880s, Cashman set up several restaurants & boardinghouses in Arizona.
Soon after her sister's death in 1884, Cashman travelled to Baja California after hearing rumours of untapped gold & silver deposits. She joined 21 men in a short-lived prospecting venture. Sixteen hours into the 100-mile journey, in conditions of extreme heat & drought, the group had already nearly depleted their water supplies, & most of the men were suffering from dehydration. They abandoned their venture.
In December 1883, bandits committed the Bisbee Massacre in Tombstone, killing four innocent bystanders & wounding 2 others in the course of a robbery. The 5 men were convicted & sentenced to die by hanging on 28 March 1884. Many people were eager to make a spectacle of the execution. A local carpenter built a grandstand next to the hanging site, planning to charge for tickets. Cashman was outraged, feeling that no execution should be celebrated. She befriended the five convicts, visiting them to provide spiritual guidance. Cashman convinced the sheriff to set a curfew on the day of the hangings to prevent a crowd from forming. The night before the execution, Cashman & a crew of volunteers tore down the grandstand. The hangings proceeded as scheduled, but out of public view. When Cashman learned that a medical school planned to exhume the bodies of the convicts for study, she enlisted two prospectors to stand watch over the Boot Hill Cemetery for 10 days.
Cashman & her associate Joseph Pascholy co-owned & ran a restaurant & hotel in Tombstone called Russ House, now known as Nellie Cashman's. According to a popular legend, a client once complained about Cashman's cooking. Fellow diner Doc Holliday drew his pistol, asking the customer to repeat what he had said. The man said, "Best I ever ate."
In 1886, Cashman left Tombstone to travel across Arizona, opening restaurants & boarding houses in Nogales, Jerome, Prescott, Yuma, & Harquahala, near Phoenix.
In 1898, Cashman left Arizona for the Yukon in search of gold, staying until 1905. Her prospecting ventures took her to Klondike, Fairbanks, & Nolan Creek. She later owned a store in Dawson City. She settled in Koyukuk, along with other established miners.
When a miner was killed in a mining accident there were no benefits for the widow & her children, Nellie headed straight for the saloons with her hat turned upside down, collecting money. She always left with a hat full. She made & lost, or gave away, a number of fortunes during her adventurous lifetime.
She was always willing to grubstake some prospector on the slim chance that he might strike it rich; in which case she’d share in the bonanza. More likely though she’d lose her investment. But that never dampened her enthusiasm for betting against the odds. She loved to make money, & she spent most it on charitable causes. One of her grubstakes did pay off handsomely, netting her $100,000, enough for a secure retirement. But Nellie gave most of it away. Her philanthropy earned her the respectful title, “Angel of the Mining Camps.”
She had many marriage proposals, but she preferred to stay single. When her brother-in-law Tom & sister Frances died of tuberculosis leaving 5 orphaned children Nellie raised them & saw they all got good educations.
In 1898, Nellie joined the gold rush to the Klondike. On the way she climbed up the daunting 33 mile, snow-covered Chilcoot Pass, & then she negotiated the rapids of the Yukon River in a kayak to Dawson. She spent her last years with her dog sled team combing the vast lands of the frozen north searching for one more gold strike. She became known as the “Champion Woman Musher of the Yukon.” When she was nearly 70 years old, Nellie mushed a dog sled 750 miles across the tundra to the edge of the Arctic Circle to a mining claim she’d staked out.
In January 1925, Cashman developed pneumonia, & friends admitted her to the Sisters of St. Anne, the same hospital which she had helped to build 51 years earlier. She died & was buried at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia.