June/July 2012

Boomtown businesswoman

The wide-ranging career of Nellie Cashman

By Correy Baldwin

The winter of 1874 was particularly harsh. Nellie Cashman had al­ready left the Cassiar Mountains in northern British Columbia for the season when she heard a blizzard had stranded a group of miners there. She immediately took charge of a rescue effort, knowing that the men would be in danger of starvation. She collected food and medical supplies, recruited five others to join her, and snowshoed hundreds of miles to find the men – against the advice of the Canadian Army. After 77 days, Nellie and her team rescued the men, who were suffering from scurvy.

After that she was known as the Miner’s Angel, but the affectionate nickname only told half the story, for Nellie Cashman was impressive in many regards – a respected entrepreneur and a strong-willed woman who cut her own path in a world dominated by men.

Nellie left her native Ireland when she was just a child, emigrating to the U.S. with her widowed mother and sister in 1850. When Nellie and her mother opened a miners’ boarding house near the silver mining town of Pioche, Nevada in 1872, Nellie gained an appetite for the mining life. Soon after she followed the gold rush to the Cassiar, and was the first and only woman in the district. There she honed a business approach that would serve her well for the rest of her life: establishing a business (a saloon and boarding house) to finance her mining ventures, prospecting, and investing in and developing claims.

She also became highly involved in charity work, raising donations for a new hospital in Victoria for the Sisters of Saint Anne. In fact, she was delivering $500 in donations to the Sisters when she received news of the stranded miners, and turned back for the rescue. By the time Nellie left the Cassiar in 1876, she had done well financially and gained the respect of fellow miners.

She then made her way to Arizona, first Tucson, and then Tombstone, where she based herself for nearly two decades. Tombstone was one of the richest silver towns in the region, and hosted such characters as Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.

Nellie was a restless businesswoman, and her ventures took her throughout the southwest. She established boarding houses, restaurants, and shops wherever she went, and continued prospecting, investing in and developing claims, and grubstaking other miners. Nellie also remained generous with local charities, helping establish schools, churches and hospitals.

Nellie’s reputation grew. She had a sharp business sense and an impressive will, becoming an influential and prominent citizen everywhere she lived. Even when her sister died of tuberculosis, Nellie managed to care for the five children and continue her business ventures.

In 1898, she joined the Klondike gold rush and ventured to Dawson City where she once again established a restaurant and went about acquiring and developing claims – a tried-and-true approach that brought in a handsome wealth. In 1904, she followed the gold rush to Fairbanks, Alaska, and in 1907, at age 60, she moved north to Alaska’s remote Koyukuk region. Nellie remained in the area and pursued a US deputy marshall appointment for the mining district – a bold request for a woman.

Despite her getting on in years, Nellie would visit family and friends in Arizona. The first leg of the trip was a 350-mile passage by dog sled. These epic journeys attracted the attention of the national press, which covered her trip in 1922 when she was 77 years old, and again the next year. In 1924, she developed pneumonia and was admitted to the Sisters of Saint Anne, the same hospital she helped establish 51 years earlier. She died soon after, in January 1925. She was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in 2006.
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