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The Legendary Nellie Cashman
Dawson City, Alaska 1899
Ellen "Nellie” Cashman
Ellen "Nellie” Cashman was born in Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland to Patrick Cashman and Frances Cronin in 1845. Her father died when Nellie was just five years old. Her mother, along with Nellie and her sister Fannie immigrated to the United States during the great potato famine.
Nellie was to become one of the Old West’s first original business women, as well as a prospector. Roaming through the frontier mining camps, she became known for her charity and courage, often fulfilling the role of “angel of mercy.”
Nellie got her first job working as a hotel lift operator in Washington, D.C. where she often overheard people discussing Civil War politics and stories about the Western frontier. On one occasion, she met General Ulysses S. Grant, who advised her to go west.
Apparently Grant made an impression as the family moved to San Francisco around 1865. Fannie soon married and began raising a family. However, Nellie inspired by all the gold rush talk headed for the Nevada mining camps where she hired out as a cook. She saved her earnings with the goal of opening a boarding house.
The Miner’s Boarding House at Panaca Flat opened for business in 1872. She was said to have a soft spot in her heart for miners, often feeding and providing lodging for those down on their luck. Later she would be described as "Pretty as a Victorian cameo and, when necessary, tougher than two-penny nails."
However, most mining camps were temporary. As soon as the gold played out miners would head for the next reported gold strike location. And so it was Nellie would open a boarding house, do a little prospecting on the side and care for the prospectors.
In 1874, gold was discovered in the Cassiar Mountains of British Columbia, Canada. Nellie joined a group of 200 Nevada miners headed north. Settling at Telegraph Creek, she set up another boarding house. As always she provided help for her friends when they needed it and cared for the sick. Nellie, a devout Catholic, saw the need for a hospital as the task of caring for the ill of the mining camps was too large for one person. Therefore, she began collecting money for Sisters of St. Anne in Victoria to build one.
Sometime later, Cashman arrived in Victoria with $500 dollars in donations to help the nuns in building St. Joseph’s Hospital. While there, she overheard talk of 26 miners being stranded in a snowstorm in the Cassiar Mountains. Promptly, Cashman organized a rescue expedition with six men and 1,500 pounds of supplies.
Conditions in the Cassiar Mountains were so extreme even the Canadian Army had refused to mount a rescue. However, when they heard about a brave, fearless woman attempting what they wouldn’t, the commander sent troops to find and return her and the men back to safety. However, the commander had underestimated Nellie’s’ determination. When they found her, she refused to return without the stranded miners. Seeing she wasn’t about to budge, they joined her.
After 77 days, she finally found the stranded group, numbering more than 75 rather than the reported 26. The decimated party was suffering from severe scurvy so Nellie administered large doses of Vitamin C and monitored their diets nursing them back to health.
When the Cassiar strike petered out in 1879, Nellie headed for the silver fields of Arizona and settled in Tucson. There, she opened the Delmonico Restaurant. Though she frequently gave food away to feed the hungry, her restaurant was a success. But shortly thereafter in 1880, she sold the restaurant and moved to Tombstone where large deposits of silver had been discovered.
In Tombstone she briefly ran a boot and shoe store before opening the Russ House Restaurant. One story is told about a restaurant patron who made a few unkindly remarks about Nellie’s cooking, in front of Doc Holliday. Holliday drew his pistol and asked the customer to repeat the statement. The customer promptly declared, "Best I ever ate.”
Cashman continued running her business but also kept up her charitable efforts in the Catholic faith. She helped raise money to build the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tombstone and worked as a nurse. She also worked raising money for the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Miner's Hospital. Nellie soon earned a reputation as an "Angel of Mercy.”
In 1881, Nellie’s sisters’ husband died leaving her with five children. Nellie invited them to join her in Tombstone. Fannie was to die from tuberculosis about five years later. Nellie raised the children from that point on.
In December, 1883, five killers committed a robbery and killed four people in Bisbee. The incident became known as the Bisbee Massacre. Local authorities quickly captured the outlaws and a trial in Tombstone sentenced the five to hang on March 8, 1884. An enterprising business man built bleachers around the gallows and began selling tickets to the event.
Outraged at the towns’ behavior and feeling no death should be "celebrated,” Nellie objected adamantly. She pleaded with the Sheriff to set a curfew during the time the hangings were to take place. The sheriff agreed and most of the gawkers and curiosity seekers were not allowed to watch the "event.
The five were buried in Tombstone’s infamous Boot Hill Cemetery. It was rumored there was a plan to steal the bodies for a medical school. Nellie wasn’t about to let that happen either and hired two guards to watch the graves for ten days. The graves were left undisturbed and remain at Boot Hill today.
After her sister’s death in 1886, Nellie sold her restaurant and left Tombstone with the children. Nellie continued traveling to various mining camps setting up restaurants and working part time at prospecting.
When the Klondike Gold Rush began, Naturally, Nellie couldn’t resist and headed to the Yukon in 1898. In Dawson City, Alaska she set up another restaurant and mercantile. In 1904, she went to Fairbanks where she opened a grocery store, all the while, collecting claims which she worked on.
Finally, due to advancing age, she settled down in Victoria, British Columbia in 1923. Two years later, in January, 1925, she died of pneumonia in the hospital she had helped to build, St. Josephs.
When she died her eulogy was published in papers as far away as New York. Nellie had made her mark as one of the first women entrepreneurs in the west, as well as a miner. Nellie had earned many titles such as: The Frontier Angel, Saint of the Sourdoughs, Miner's Angel, Angel of the Cassair, and The Angel of Tombstone.
On March 15, 2006, Nellie Cashman was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.