Nellie Cashman was the miner’s angel, part 1

Her name was synonymous with warmth and generosity in every mining camp from Mexico to Alaska.

Her name was synonymous with warmth and generosity in every mining camp from Mexico to Alaska.

 

NEWS ITEM: 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. Nellie Cashman deserves our recognition. —Patrick Perry Lydon and Donna Chaytor in the Times-Colonist.

 

Who was Nellie Cashman? I’ve told you about her (in abbreviated form) in the past. But that was long ago so, to help raise awareness for the OCS’s fundraising quest, here’s a look-back at this most remarkable woman whose exploits — like her heart — were bigger than life.

Though records differ as to the date of her birth, her arrival in the New World, even to the colour of her hair, on one fact all heartily concur: That her heart was as large as the great American and Canadian West she conquered with her ever-cheerful smile, her indomitable courage, and her hand outstretched to any man down on his luck.

A Florence Nightingale to miners from Tombstone to the Klondike, when she died in the Victoria hospital she helped establish, thousands of husky, bearded man wept unashamedly for their tiny saint of half a century, Nellie Cashman.

According to one account, the future Miner’s Angel landed in Boston in 1847, at the age of three, sent by her widowed mother in famine-stricken Ireland to be raised by an aunt. Young Nell learned to look out for herself, and others, early. Twelve years later, she was raising her four orphaned cousins. For the rest of her active life, in some way or another, loved one and stranger, Nell would care for anyone in need.

She began setting records early, too, when, aged 16, she became a bellhop in a Boston hotel to support her family. Some believe she was the first female to hold this job but, unlike her later feats, this one is unconfirmed.

Besides tending her aunt’s children, Nell was able to save enough to bring her mother from the Emerald Isle. It was then she decided to answer the call of adventure, a call she’d heed for almost 50 amazing years.

Across the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco trekked the 28-year-old Nell; from there she set out for the rip-roaring mining towns of Nevada to work as a cook, storekeeper and to open what would be a series of restaurants. Charging a dollar for her soon-to-be-famous meals, her establishments were immediately popular with the Comstock kings and the miners who struck a chord in Nell. She realized that these men were of her own: always hoping, always seeking that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Saving enough to buy a grubstake, she trudged into the wilds with pick, shovel and pan. At first her husky neighbours laughed at the determined young woman. But scorn soon gave way to respect and Nell was accepted into the fraternity of eternal hope. She’d follow this elusive trail of wealth — sometimes with success — to the end of her days.

It was back in San Francisco that she decided upon British Columbia. Actually, her decision was made by the flip of a coin. With six other disheartened prospectors, she tossed to see where they’d try their luck. Heads, they’d go to South Africa, tails, to British Columbia. The $20 gold piece winked tails: It was off to B.C.

That summer of 1874, the noisy troop of six bearded, boisterous miners and sedate five-foot, three-inch redhead landed in Victoria, en route to the diggings at Dease Lake. While in Victoria, Nell heard that Cassiar miners were suffering from scurvy. Hiring six men to haul her supplies to open a hotel, she included in her cluttered inventory lime juice and fresh vegetables. By steamer, the expedition headed north to Wrangell, to follow the frozen Stikine River to Dease Creek.

There, they struck upriver through snowdrifts and sub-zero temperatures, Nell, in snowshoes, gamely towing a sled with 200 pounds of supplies every inch of the way — 160 miles — for 77 days.

(To be continued)

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