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By Sarah Hurst
For Mining News 

Alaska miners celebrate Gold Rush heroes

Nellie Cashman, adventurer Jack Dalton enter the Hall of Fame over a century after they first became famous for their exploits


April 23, 2006

A woman who appears on a "Legends of the West" postal stamp and a man who killed two people in gunfights were inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in March. Nellie Cashman and Jack Dalton followed very different paths in life, although both ended up in Alaska. Some of Dalton's descendants were present at the evening of historical reminiscences in Fairbanks, but Cashman never had children of her own. Her distant relative, Kay Cashman, is the publisher of Mining News and its sister publication Petroleum News.

Nellie Cashman (1845-1925) was a "highly ethical individual," geologist Tom Bundtzen said in his tribute to her. She came to the United States from County Cork, Ireland as a child and her family settled in San Francisco initially. When the Gold Rush came to the northwest in the 1870s, Cashman stampeded to the Cassiar district in British Columbia and started a boarding house for miners.

"Something happened, a bunch of miners and prospectors got caught in the winter and didn't have enough food with them, and dozens of people ran out of food," Bundtzen said. "They were literally starving to death, so she organized a food rescue mission, got it into the Cassiar." For that achievement Cashman was nicknamed the angel of the mining camp. The incident also influenced Canadian federal policy, so when the Klondike strike hit, officials ensured that enough food was supplied.

Nellie Cashman, a lifelong Catholic, was opposed to the death penalty in an era when hanging was the punishment for horse thieves. "She wanted death row prisoners treated with respect, she was opposed to public hangings," Bundtzen said. Sometimes the graves of executed people were desecrated, so Cashman would try to ensure that they received a proper burial. By the 1880s she was a well-known person in the annals of Western history, according to Bundtzen.

"She had a very creative streak. She knew when to get into a rush, she knew when to get in and make money, and she knew when to leave," Bundtzen said. Cashman lived in Arizona after her stint in British Columbia, went to the Klondike at the turn of the century, then Fairbanks from 1904 to 1907, and for the rest of her life she lived in Wiseman, a small mining community in northern Alaska's Brooks Range.

Cashman never married, but after her sister Fanny died she looked after Fanny's five children as if they were her own. Nellie established restaurants in Tucson and Tombstone, Arizona and helped establish St. Mary's Hospital in Dawson City and St. Matthew's Episcopalian Hospital in Fairbanks. She had a knack of charming and cajoling people into giving donations for these causes.

"She was always involved in this kind of stuff, even though she was also a businessperson," Bundtzen said. "In order to raise money for the hospital she would often go to poker games and if she couldn't win it outright, she'd grab the money and shame them all, and say, you've got to have a hospital here and take all this money." Cashman loved the wilderness lifestyle of the Wiseman area and was an active dog-musher in her 60s.

Towards the end of her life, in her 70s, Cashman raised $100,000 to do some drift mining at Nolan Creek, but she didn't spend a dime of it until she could prove to herself and investors that she could make money. She proved it and the mining was successful, but she returned most of the money, because she didn't need it all. "They gave her piles of money and she could have run away with it, but she didn't do that, she held it in the bank," Bundtzen said.

In 1994 the U.S. Post Office issued a set of stamps called "Legends of the West", depicting Cashman along with famous characters like Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp, Geronimo and Buffalo Bill. A restaurant still exists in Tombstone that is named after Nellie Cashman and it is reputed to be haunted.

Jack Dalton saw opportunity

Fairbanks geologist and Mining News columnist Curt Freeman told the rather less salubrious story of Jack Dalton (1856-1944). "Much as Tom said with Nellie Cashman, the one thing that these two had in common, and it may be the only thing they had in common, was that Jack Dalton saw opportunity before anybody else, he took steps to be part of the opportunity, to make opportunities, and he didn't hang around too long," Freeman said. "He moved on when he felt he had made his mark, he moved on to other places, his entire life was like that."

In his lifetime Dalton saw the horses that he had introduced to Alaska replaced by steam power and then by the airplane. His birth certificate stated that he was born in Michigan, but his family believes that he was born in Indian territories in Kansas or Oklahoma. "It doesn't much matter - what we do know about him is he didn't have a lot of education, he was very smart, very shrewd, he was a self-taught writer, a self-taught reader," Freeman said.

As a teenager Dalton got into a "scrape," fled to Texas and changed his name temporarily to Jack Miller. Over the next few years he migrated slowly west and north, working on ranches, and became a proficient horse wrangler. At a logging camp in Bend, Ore., in the early 1880s he got into another scrape. "One thing that everyone agreed on was that he had a hair-trigger temper, he was a good shot, and he often carried a gun," Freeman said. "This was a true frontiersman."

Dalton lands in Sitka

Dalton fired a cook at the logging camp; the cook returned and tried to shoot him, but Dalton killed the cook. "Jack was the outsider in this part of the world and being a prudent man as well as a tough guy, he moved on, he went to San Francisco," Freeman said. Dalton hired on with a sailing ship to go fur seal trapping on the west coast of Alaska and the Siberian coast, but that was illegal in the area where the ship was headed, so the crew was arrested and thrown in jail in Sitka. There were no real authorities in Southeast Alaska at the time, so after the captain of the ship committed suicide, Dalton and the rest of the crew were released.

"As soon as he stepped out of the Sitka jail, a new life was ahead of him, and Jack spent the next 15 or 20 years in Southeastern Alaska," Freeman said. "He very quickly became a trader with the local Indian bands up and down the northwest coast; he learned their jargon, which is not simple. He became a very good trader and made friends with several influential people in the Juneau area who were lifelong partners in a number of businesses."

In 1886 Dalton was hired to assist in an expedition to climb Mount St. Elias for the first time. At about 6,000 feet the expedition leader became sick and the attempt was abandoned, but Dalton decided that he liked the Yakutat area and had his first brush with the mining industry there, discovering a small coal deposit. He became so famous as an explorer in the area that in 1890 a National Geographic survey named a glacier after him, although the name was subsequently changed.

Dalton joined an expedition to Yukon in 1890, valued for his ability to talk to the Chilkat Indians, whom he hired as guides. Dalton and a partner split from the main group and in their journey west decided to be the first white men to float the raging rapids of the Tatshenshini River in a dugout canoe, 100 miles to the coast.

Dalton improved trail into Yukon

In the Haines area Dalton started trading companies, bought land and built a hotel. He improved the trail down into the Yukon years before the Klondike Gold Rush and brought the first livestock over the trail. Dalton brought four pack ponies to Alaska, sturdy Norwegian and Icelandic breeds. "When he landed in Haines with these ponies, nobody believed that they would survive," Freeman said. Dalton loaded them with 250 pounds of goods and demonstrated that the ponies were capable of working the trail.

Dalton wanted to see some of the Interior Alaska mining camps and sold equipment to prospectors on his way there. Continuing on his travels he reached St. Michael near Nome in 1895, where he tried to hitch a ride to Seattle on the famous revenue cutter Bear, but Captain Michael Healy wouldn't allow Dalton on the ship because of the fur sealing incident. Nevertheless, Dalton somehow found his way to Seattle, bought 14 more ponies and took them to Alaska.

"By the time the Klondike Rush hit, Jack was the way in," Freeman said. "It took 10 days from the time you left Haines until you showed up in Dawson with your kit. Far faster, far safer, far more reliable, and not only could you carry your kit on horseback over a known trail, but he also brought livestock, he brought goats, pigs, chickens, cattle, anything that had legs and could walk, he could herd down this trail. And so he brought a lot of livestock into the country that otherwise would never have gotten there."

One trader didn't like the fact that Dalton could charge a toll for the use of his trail. Dalton confronted the trader, they got into a fight and the trader was shot dead. For the second time in his life Dalton found himself in a jail cell in Southeast Alaska, but he was acquitted as the killing was considered self-defense, and he went back to business in Haines. In 1898 he and three other men grubstaked in the Porcupine district, where ultimately about 80,000 ounces of gold were produced. "He lent money to a lot of people who didn't have two dimes to rub together," Freeman said.

Dalton's other mining achievements in Alaska included hauling large bulk samples of coal from Chickaloon to Knik Arm near Anchorage, and helping to determine the route of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway from Cordova to the Kennecott copper mine. He married twice; after his second wife died in 1929, Dalton started traveling and at the age of 75 he was prospecting for diamonds in British Guiana. He died in San Francisco. The Dalton Highway to Alaska's North Slope oil fields is named after Dalton's engineer son, James, who inherited the violent temper as well as the ingenuity, according to relatives.


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