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, in 1876, tantalizing rumours of a rich strike in Arizona, it was all the prompting Nell needed. In Tucson she opened the Delmonico Restaurant and tried her hand at prospecting but with little success so, within a year, she was off to Tombstone. It would be her home, off and on, for 20 exciting years.
By then she was almost penniless, her savings having gone to help the needy. “Her principle [sic] business was to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, and her chief divertisement [sic] was to relieve those in distress and to care for the sick and afflicted,” praised John Chum, editor and friend.
She wasn’t long in the lawless camp when she heard a miner had broken both legs. Hands extended, she canvassed the town, visiting every establishment, respectable and otherwise, until she’d raised $500 for the ailing man. Then, once her restaurant and general store were established, she sent for her family. Over the following years, she stole time from home and business to explore the surrounding region; gold, silver and copper strikes attracted her and wherever she found a likely camp she’d open a restaurant. When the local diggings petered out she’d move on to the next camp or back to Tombstone for a while. Among her famous clientele were the Earps, the Clantons, Doc Holliday, Johnny Ringo and Pat Garrett.
Nell’s attention had early been drawn to the fact Tombstone boasted 50 saloons and “nary a church”. The result was a one-woman campaign that saw the Sacred Heart Catholic Church open its doors, Feb. 1, 1881.
Then she noticed that Tombstone lacked a hospital. Her answer was to journey to Tucson and return with three nuns to serve as nurses. And Tombstone had its hospital.
When miners struck the town’s three leading mines in 1884, Nell heard that the outraged miners were going to lynch the superintendent of the Grand Central Mine, Edward B. Gage. Nell had an answer to that problem, too. Hiring a horse and buggy, she smuggled the frightened Gage to a nearby town. When the lynch mob called on the intended victim, to find he was safely en route to Tucson, they dispersed and the crisis passed.
By the mid-’80s, Nell and her family were following the rainbow again: Montana, Wyoming, back to Arizona, then Oregon and Washington, then back to Arizona once more. In 1889, she was talking of diamonds in Africa but ended up in the more promising gold fields of California. More years passed, Nell ever on the move. Idaho and even Mexico hosted the indomitable Irish adventuress. Some times, she was lucky, finding enough to keep her family going. Any extra money was spent on anyone who needed nursing, a hot meal or a grubstake.
February 1898 saw Nell back in Victoria, staying at the Burns House. 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 — 20 gruelling trips as one of a human chain that struggled up the Chilkoot trail, then back down again for more goods and another go.
In Dawson she opened another restaurant, again calling it the Delmonico. Her fare was as popular as ever. Because provisions were almost impossible to obtain, “meals ran anywhere from two or three to five or six dollars. At that, I didn’t make any fortune. Part of the reason, though, was because if a young fellow was broke and hungry, I would give him a meal for nothing.”
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”.
(To be continued)