“From the farthest north mining camp to New York City is her trail trip this time, and any obstacles that surmount the trail between here and New York might just as well get out of the way for she’s hit the trail and is going through!”—1924 newspaper.
February 1898. The fabled Trail of ‘98 was in full swing and Nell was to be part of it. She was in her 50s but this fact mattered little to Nell. She joined the mad rush through killing snows and untold hardships through infamous Chilkoot Pass to Dawson City, lugging her own gear and supplies as one of a human chain that struggled up the Chilkoot trail, then back down again for more goods and another go. Not once, not twice, but 20 gruelling trips!
She spent seven years in Dawson, the Old Cemeteries Society’s Patrick Perry Lydon and Donna Chaytor recently noting in the Times-Colonist that, besides operating her restaurant, “she was active in mining and as usual very involved in charitable work and helping the Sisters of St. Ann with donations to St. Mary’s Hospital in Dawson City”.
More hectic years came and went, Nell sneaking prospecting trips into her crowded schedule, always hoping for that lucky strike. When Dawson began to slow, she settled in Fairbanks, Alaska. Then it was off to the distant wilds of Tanana and Koyukuk, to claim the most northerly mining property on the continent.
Before leaving Dawson, Nell had made the best strike of her career, No. 19. Years later, she recalled: “It proved to be a rich claim. I took out over $100,000 from that claim. What did I do with it? I spent every red cent of it buying other claims and prospecting the country. I went out with my dog team or on snowshoes, all over that district looking for rich claims…”
After moving to Fairbanks in 1904 she opened a grocery store and “made $4,000 the first winter. In 1907 I went to the Koyukuk district. I had a funny experience going down the river on a raft. I went with an old sourdough. If you know anything about that river you know how many rocks there are in the channel and how swift the rapids are. In any event, coming down through some swift water we struck a submerged rock that wrecked our craft. It knocked all the middle logs out.
“All we had left were the two cross pieces and the two outside logs. Sure, we got to shore all right, and fixed up the raft and went on. There is always something interesting happening. You never quite know what’s going to happen next, or when your time will come to cash in your chips.
“It all adds interest and variety to life.”
But the end was nearing at last for the amazing colleen whose name had become synonymous with warmth and generosity in every mining camp from Mexico to Alaska. In 1924, at the age of 80, ‘Miss Alaska’ mushed 750 miles to Seward! Said the local newspaper: “From the farthest north mining camp to New York City is her trail trip this time, and any obstacles that surmount the trail between here and New York might just as well get out of the way for she’s hit the trail and is going through!”
But, this time, Nell faced a tougher obstacle than snow or river rapid: pneumonia. Upon reaching Victoria, she was met at St. Joseph’s, the hospital she helped to establish so many years before, by Sister Mary Mark, the superior, and Dr. W.T. Barrett who’d “performed lifesaving abdominal surgery on Cashman in St. Mary’s Hospital in Dawson City in 1902.” A newspaper noted that she “scorned to be carried in, but walked ‘on her own two legs’ into the ward”.
It was her last shot. Days later, on Jan. 4, 1925, Nellie Cashman “cashed in her chips,” as she’d have put it. The trail that spanned more than half a century and half a continent had finally come to the end.
Just before the last, Nell had been asked if she wished her body sent to relatives. No, she replied, the old determined fire in her eyes. She wanted to be buried in Victoria, that her tiny estate might be put to better use aiding the poor.
This is the incredible woman for whom 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.