Victoria’s Old Cemeteries Society has established a special Nellie Cashman Fund to raise money for a centennial stone to be placed on her grave in Ross Bay Cemetery.
Having heard that Cassiar miners were suffering from scurvy, Nell hired six men to haul her supplies, including lime juice and fresh vegetables. From Wrangell, they followed the frozen Stikine River to Dease Creek then struck upriver through snowdrifts and sub-zero temperatures. Nell, in snowshoes, gamely towed a sled with 200 pounds of supplies every inch of the way — 160 miles — for 77 days.
Asked many years after whether she’d been afraid of being the only woman on that hazardous journey, Nell had chuckled: “Bless your soul, no. I have never carried a pistol or gun in all my life. I wouldn’t know how to shoot one. At one time for two years I was the only white woman in camp. I never have had a word said to me out of the way.
“The ‘boys’ would sure see to it that anyone who ever offered to insult me could never be able to repeat the offence. The farther you go away from civilization, the bigger-hearted and more courteous you find the men. Every man I met up north was my protector, and any man I ever met, if he needed my help, got it, whether it was a hot meal, nursing, mothering, or whatever else he needed. After all, we pass this way only once, and it’s up to us to help our fellows when they need our help.”
One of the adventures on the trail had been the night her companions erected her tent on “a steep hill where the snow was 10 feet deep. The next morning, one of my men made a cup of hot coffee and came to where my tent was… It had snowed heavily in the night, and to his surprise, he couldn’t find [my] tent. Finally they discovered me a quarter of a mile down the hill, where my tent, my bed and myself and all the rest of my belongings had been carried by a snowslide. No, they didn’t dig me out; by the time they got there I had dug myself out.
“We finally reached our destination, and I put off running my hotel until I had nursed a lot of the sick miners back to health. Word went out to the nearest military post [Wrangell] that I had cashed in my checks. The commanding officer sent a detail of soldiers in to get my body and bring it out to the post. It was a mighty nice thing for them to send clear to there to get my body so I could have [a] Christian burial. I appreciated it, and got those soldiers the best feed they ever had.”
Actually, the officer’s concern had been for her mental health; any woman who’d hike 200 miles through northern wilderness in the dead of winter had to be mad, he thought. But when the rescue party found Nell “cooking her evening meal by the heat of a wood fire and humming a lively air, so happy, contented and comfortable did she appear that the ‘boys in blue’ sat down and took tea at her invitation and returned without her.”
Nell hiked out that fall to spend winter in Victoria. While there, she learned that St. Joseph’s Hospital was being built. Back at Dease Lake with the spring thaw, she canvassed the miners for contributions and collected a respectable sum.
The following autumn, she again hiked down to Wrangell, intending to spend winter in Victoria.
But while in the Alaskan port she heard that a group of prospectors also heading downriver had been stricken by scurvy. With medicines and spruce bark, the indomitable colleen raced back up the Stikine. When all finally reached Wrangell, the miners said Nell had saved their lives.
In 1876 Nell heard tantalizing rumours of a fabulously rich strike in Arizona. It was all the prompting she needed. Packing up her few possessions and what money she’d saved, she headed for Tucson, to open the Delmonico Restaurant. In her free time, she tried her hand at prospecting but with little success and, within a year, she was off to Tombstone. It would be her home, off and on, for 20 exciting years.
(To be continued)