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By A.J. Roan
Mining News 

Heart of gold: the legend of Nellie Cashman

North of 60 Mining News – March 1, 2024

 

Last updated 2/29/2024 at 12:24pm

Undertake an adventure through the riveting tale of Ellen "Nellie" Cashman, perhaps one of the most inspiring women of the 18th century.

Perhaps no other individual could be regarded as true an American pioneer as Irish immigrant Ellen "Nellie" Cashman. Easily regarded as a quintessential gold mining stampeder with her acumen in business and the nose to sniff out opportunity, she traveled the width and breadth of America, leaving success and hope in her wake.

Known as the Angel of the Mining Camps, this is the story of a woman whose family name may have once been O'Kissane, but through her exploits, lived up to the name Cashman.

Often arriving with the vanguard at a new mining discovery and leaving to search for her next opportunity before the well ran dry, Cashman's foresight took her across America's West, south into Mexico, and later into Canada, and finally Alaska.

Cashman paved her way by establishing businesses, at first through supply stores, boarding houses, and actual mining, and later through the buying and selling of claims and mines. Excess money she would use to build schools, churches, and hospitals from the Mexican border to Alaska.

In 1905, the well-traveled businesswoman would settle down in Nolan Creek, in the remote Koyukuk Mining District, a region of northern Alaska inhabited by miners as tough and self-reliant as she was.

Spending the rest of her years in Alaska, she would later pass in 1925 at the age of 80, in a hospital in Victoria, British Columbia – one she had helped build nearly 50 years prior.

In the end, it was a great life full of great adventure for a "wee colleen" who'd left Ireland nearly seventy-five years earlier to an unknown land filled with uncertainty.

To America

Born in the mid-1840s in the farming village of Midleton, just miles from what is now Cobh in County Cork, southern Ireland, Cashman's parents were Patrick and Fanny O'Kissane, a family name that was later anglicized to Cashman.

Wikimedia Commons

Monument in memory of Nellie Cashman in Midleton, Ireland.

Christened Ellen but known as Nellie, she was baptized on October 15, 1845, shortly after her birth. The elder sibling to her sister Frances – also Fanny – born a year or two later, the Cashman family, like many during that era, adhered to the Catholic faith and lived in abject poverty, conditions exacerbated by the infamous Irish Potato Famine.

However, circumstances would take a further downturn when Patrick either passed away or left his family around 1850.

Seeking greener pastures, Cashman's mother chose to immigrate with her daughters to America in 1860, settling in Boston-the gateway for tens of thousands of Irish immigrants arriving in the New Land.

Out west

Living in Boston for a span, the Cashmans would head west to San Fransisco in 1865. Before leaving, however, some accounts state that the family first moved to Washington D.C., and it was either in Washington or Boston, that a 20-year-old Nellie would get a job as an elevator operator, an occupation typically reserved for men.

During her time as an elevator operator, she would meet many interesting people and overhear a great deal of gossip, but in a story that is almost certainly apocryphal, she would one day meet General Ulysses Grant, who would suggest her family go west where there was more opportunity – a man who later happened to become president.

Whatever the tale, they did indeed move, sailing south along the Atlantic coast and crossing the Isthmus of Panama, before heading northward to San Francisco. Like Boston, the Bay City held a large Irish population, and the Irish always looked after their own.

It was here that Nellie's sister and confidant would meet and fall in love with another Irish immigrant, Tom Cunningham. Established as a successful cobbler, particularly due to the demand for good shoes and boots, Tom would become an aspiring miner over the years with Nellie, operating many businesses in the western mining camps, which often included the sale of Cunningham boots.

Start of a legacy

Records presume Nellie visited and worked briefly in other mining camps, but it was in the silver camp of Pioche, Nevada, where she first began to earn fame as a savvy mining town entrepreneur.

Here, her and her mother opened a miners' boarding house on Panaca Flats, a milling center a few miles from Pioche, then one of the roughest mining camps in the West.

The Cashman's would quickly garner a reputation as good cooks, and honest people upright in moral character in a settlement that otherwise boasted 72 saloons and 32 brothels.

It is estimated that the family arrived in Lincoln County around 1872, leaving late 1873, when there were signs that silver production had peaked and would soon decline. What often carried her throughout the majority of her life was her uncanny ability to arrive with the first stampeders and leave when a camp began to decline.

Although not always successful in her timing, she learned to quickly pack up when the signs began to show, and her insight far outweighed her miscalculations.

Angel of the Mining Camps

Cashman's first trip North would occur in 1874, at the age of 29, joining a few friendly Nevada miners who rushed to the remote Cassiar district in British Columbia. This decision to travel north to Canada rather than sail to South Africa was made on a coin flip.

Nellie opened a combination saloon and boarding house, dealt in mining claims, and grubstaked miners, a pattern she would hold throughout most of her career.

Doing well enough at Cassiar's Dease Lake to take a trip away after the season, during the hard winter of 1874-75, Nellie heard word that miners who had elected to winter over in the district were starving and suffering from illness.

Assembling emergency supplies of food and medicine, including limes to treat several cases of scurvy, she and a handful of miners she enlisted snowshoed hundreds of miles to rescue the miners in snow that was too deep for running dogs.

This journey would be the first of many goodwill efforts that led Nellie to eventually be called the Angel of the Mining Camps.

Although Cashman contributed to or built churches, hospitals, and schools throughout the West, her most favored charities were Catholic, particularly the Sisters of St. Anne. However, she also often donated to the Salvation Army and other religious or civic groups.

In Fairbanks, during 1904-05, she also supported the Episcopalian St. Mathew's hospital when it was in need of funds.

Fortunes in the south

The trip to the Cassiar would also pave the way for Nellie's first excursion into Alaska.

Leaving Victoria, B.C., Cashman would enter the new U.S. territory via the inside passage and land at Fort Wrangell, before ascending the Stikine into British Columbia. During this trip, something about the North must have caught her fancy, however, it would be another 25 years before she would return – first to the Klondike, then permanently to reside there until her last days.

Before that though, she would run her businesses and mine in the Cassiar during 1875-76 but would go home to San Francisco to take care of her aging mother.

By the time she returned to the southern region, her reputation as a miner, businesswoman, and philanthropist was built, and she had the means to form numerous new businesses.

From 1877 until 1898, Nellie made homes and businesses in Tucson, Tombstone, Bisbee, and other places where mining camps would spring up.

Photogravure by artist Mark Hess

Ellen Cashman (lower left) was honored in the U.S. Postal Service's "Legends of the West" stamp series in 1994.

Nellie arrived in Tucson in the fall of 1878, in advance of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and immediately opened a restaurant, Delmonicos.

The restaurant's billboards advertised Delmonicos as having the "Best Meals in the City." She advertised in the Arizona Weekly Star, newly founded and operated by John P. Clum who was impressed by Nellie and would eventually become mayor of Tombstone.

Years later Clum would write: "Her frank manner, her self-reliant spirit, and her emphatic and fascinating Celtic brogue impressed me very much, and indicated that she was a woman of strong character and marked individuality."

Apparently not one to settle, only a few months after establishing herself in Tucson, she moved to Tombstone, one of the richest of the western silver camps that were booming at the time.

In 1880-81, the population was around 5,000, with thousands more in the outlying camps. During this time, Nellie was joined in the rush by the Earp clan, gunfighter-miner Don Neagle, and John Clum, who quickly founded the Tombstone Epitaph, all on the law-and-order side and quite a few others of opposite stripe.

There, she ran restaurants and retail businesses, some selling miners' boots manufactured by her brother-in-law.

However, around this time, Tom Cunningham would pass away at the age of 39, leaving Nellie's sister Fanny widowed with five children.

Immediately, Nellie would move the family to Tucson, where Fanny could help at Delmonicos and other Cashman businesses. Unfortunately, Fanny did not have the iron constitution her older sister seemed to have, one built for long travels and unruly weather.

Helping out the best she could, Fanny would gradually weaken from tuberculosis, passing on July 3, 1884, three years after her late husband. From then on, Nellie would assume all the responsibilities of her nieces and nephews, aged between three and 13.

Business acumen

Looking after her sister's children would not hold Nellie back though.

After this time, a window into how an experienced businessperson in the rough and tumble days of the Wild West can be discerned from her operations in the Harqua Hala Mountains some 80 miles west of Pheonix, Arizona.

While rich veins of gold-in-quartz were discovered there in November 1888, Nellie was quick to set up shop in early December. Although she did not set up a boarding house, she did obtain some valuable claims and promoted the new discovery through the papers.

Turns out in her time prospecting, she'd learned a thing or two about the industry, like the geology of areas rich in valuable minerals and metals.

Understanding the geology of the new district, she wrote eloquently and accurately about it, predicting success for the district.

In the long run, her predictions were correct, but the hard rock ore proved difficult to develop and it's presumed she and other prospectors sold their claims once they sensed that. At this point, she was not just landing as a first mover, she made the first movers.

Nellie prospered from the sale of supplies and equipment and the sale of early-acquired mining claims whose values were promoted in her public statements and articles.

After the Harqua Hala rush subsided, Cashman traveled throughout the west– and further – in November 1889, the Arizona Daily Star reported Nellie was back in Arizona visiting a friend after returning from a trip to Africa. The trip has not otherwise been confirmed, but it is possible as there are substantial gaps in the record of Nellie's travels from 1889 to 1895.

Flitting between Prescott, Jerome, Yuma Arizona, and Kingston in New Mexico, in company with her teenaged nieces and nephews, Nellie also prospected in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

In 1895, she made a quick trip to Juneau, Alaska, mainly to meet with old friends from the Cassiar district. But she usually returned to Tombstone or Tucson where she awaited news of the next big strike.

It was then that one of the biggest opportunities arrived at her doorstep.

Klondike

News of such a strike reached Nellie in July 1897 when the vessel "Portland" landed in Seattle with gold nuggets and bags of gold dust from the Klondike discovery in northwest Canada.

By November, Nellie was making plans to enter the stampede and Arizona newspapers reported her plans to organize an expedition to the Klondike. She staged her expedition from Victoria, B.C., putting together a Klondike outfit twenty-four years after her Cassiar district adventures.

Nellie left Seattle for Wrangell, Alaska in March 1898. Originally, she had planned to go to the Klondike via the Cassiar, but reportedly conditions along the trail were bad, and Nellie elected to take the Chilkoot route out of Skagway.

Now around 54 years old, Nellie arrived by herself in Skagway in mid-March and by mid-April arrived in Dawson City, Yukon. Unlike many of the greenhorns arriving in the Klondike, Cashman was experienced in the workings of a successful mining town and quickly established a new Delmonicos restaurant there.

In most of her earlier endeavors, Nellie was often the only woman. But in Dawson there were hundreds, and a few of them, like Ethel Berry and Belinda Mulrooney, were as tough and driven as she was.

In the end, she acquired a good claim on Bonanza, No.19 below Discovery, and mined it successfully. Later the claim purportedly sold for $100,000.

Despite her grandiose success, being of Irish descent, she was not overly fond of the English and their manner of administrating the Klondike gold camp. Another old story goes that when others proudly displayed the Union Jack, Nellie showed the Stars and Stripes, and quietly waited for an excuse to cross the border into the United States' newly acquired territory just a few miles west.

Back to Alaska

In 1902, word had spread that gold had been found in Fairbanks, causing Klondikers to rush to the district. Nelly arrived by 1904, generally late by most mining standards, but not too poor considering the harsh climate causing many to return to Yukon. There she opened a grocery store and helped raise funds for the new Episcopalian St. Matthews Hospital.

But her journey was still not quite through. It was time for Nellie Cashman to move on to one more mining camp.

In 1907, Cashman, now 60 years old, packed her sled and embarked for Koyukuk in the southern foothills of what is now known as the Brooks Mountain Range.

Still considered quite remote, it is now dissected by the Dalton Highway. During Cashman's time, the district was reached by taking shallow draft steamboats for about 450 miles to Allakaket, smaller boats to Bettle's Trading Post, and up the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk for about eighty more miles to Wiseman and Nolan Creek.

Through all of that, the best pay in this new district was underground on Nolan Creek, where the placer gold was buried by more than 100 feet of frozen, boulder-rich, glacial overburden. It was rich, but because of its remoteness, it had to be rich to return even a small profit. It was, then and now, a miner's district, and Nellie by this time in her life was an experienced miner.

The miners in the district were by and large old and conservative. They seemed to thrive on whiskey, which appeared not to interfere with their mining. Men as diverse as Hudson Stuck, Robert Marshall, and in our time Ernie Wolff and Roger Burggraf, thought that they were unique in Alaska.

As summarized by Cashman's biographer Chaput: "Every person on the Koyukuk could do practically everything. One had to be a blacksmith, a mechanic, steam engineer, logger, geologist, carpenter, baker, cook, dog musher and laundryman. A shirker was out of it, not respected, not tolerated."

These were the kind of men that Cashman had lived with for forty years and she fit right in. If she lacked one or two skills, she hired a couple of men to help her.

Episcopal Deacon Hudson Stuck wrote about the Koyukuk miners: "...some of the best men that Alaska contains are to be found in the Koyukuk and I will not say that some of the worst are not there also."

His counterpart, Bishop Rowe wrote that the men were conservative old timers, "The type which has pioneered the way into this country for their fellow men, and who have the true spirit of the North. I do not believe that you will find a finer lot of men in any community than those Koyukuk miners."

Final days

Nellie did well in those years and made a habit of leaving the district in the winter to visit family and friends, including her favorite nephew Mike Cunningham, who was a successful banker in Bisbee, Arizona.

Nellie was still capable of mushing her dogs hundreds of miles on her trips in and out of the district. The Associated Press documented one dog mushing trip that she made from Nolan to Anchorage in 1922. When she completed a 17-day, 350-mile trip from Nolan Creek to Nenana in December 1923, newspapers all over Alaska again carried the travels of the 78-year-old intrepid miner by the name of Nellie Cashman.

In the early 1920s, Nellie and others tried rather unsuccessfully to promote and raise money for larger operations, at the same time maintaining a small production.

The times after World War I were not auspicious for gold mining capitalization. Younger men, earlier abundant labor, had been lost to the war, and the fixed price of gold at $20.67 per ounce bumped against wartime inflated costs.

In the summer of 1924, Nellie realized that her health was declining rapidly. She stopped briefly at the St. Anne's Mission in Nulato, then went upriver to Fairbanks, where she was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital, then sent to Providence Hospital in Seattle.

Courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society

A photograph of Nellie in 1924, a year before she would pass away. She would be 79 years old in the picture.

Recognizing that her time was almost up, Nellie went to St. Anne's Hospital in Victoria, which she had raised funds for in the Cassiar decades before, and it was here that the life of Ellen Cashman would end, on January 4, 1925, in the company of Alaska Sisters of the Order.

Her life would be remembered through Nellie Cashman Day, celebrated in Tombstone, Arizona on the eve of Women's Equality Day, which commemorates "heroic and liberated women of the 1880s."

Tombstone's Nellie Cashman Restaurant still stands next to a business originally built by her.

Seeing as Alaska was the only place Cashman saw fit to finally settle down in, she was honored by the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame in Fairbanks in 2006.

And finally, her likeness is immortalized on the 1994 edition 29-cent stamp that showcased the Legends of the West.

 

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