Arizona History: Nellie Cashman

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Nellie Cashman

Nellie Cashman was born in Ireland about 1845. Her father died when she was very young. Her mother brought Nellie and her sister Frances to the United States and they settled in Boston, Massachusetts. Shortly afterward they moved to Washington, D.C. Young Nellie was surrounded by Civil War time politics. While working as an elevator operator she overheard many fascinating political conversations.

But Nellie and her mother didn’t stay long there either. Soon they were on their way to San Francisco. They sailed the Atlantic, crossed the Isthmus of Panama on donkeys, then sailed the rest of the way to San Francisco, where Nellie finished growing up. Her mother and sister stayed behind, while Nellie spent the next few years journeying from one gold camp to another, doing whatever work she could. She was a small woman, just barely over five feet tall. Her jet black hair and dark eyes contrasted with her pale skin. Her appearance and her brogue endeared her to all the miners.

In 1874, she went north to Cassiar, British Columbia, with 200 miners from Nevada. It was the site of the latest gold rush. She set up a boarding house on Telegraph Creek in a very remote area. While she wasn’t operating her boardinghouse she mined her own claim. In the fall she journeyed to Victoria to wait out the winter and collect supplies. But while there she heard that many of the men she had journeyed with were sick with scurvy. She immediately set out to help them. She hired six men to go back with her. It took them 77 days to reach camp in the bitter cold. They saved the men since they had managed to drag 1,500 pounds of supplies with them.

The following year she again returned to Victoria to stock up on supplies. While there she noted that the city was building a hospital. When she returned to Cassiar, she took up a collection among the miners for the hospital fund. This collection helped fund St. Joseph’s hospital.

She stayed in Cassiar until 1878. Then she returned to San Francisco to visit her mother, sister, nieces, and nephew. From there she returned to Virginia City and Pioche, Nevada to visit old friends. Those towns were mostly past their gold boom days, but she had spent many good times in those places.

She loved the boom towns, and in 1879, when she heard about the latest strikes in Tucson, she headed there. Right away she opened up the Delmonico Restaurant. The citizens thought well of the restaurant and of Nellie. She did very well and made a name for herself. But her wanderlust conquered her again when she heard of the strikes in Tombstone, about 80 miles south. She sold her restaurant to a Mrs. M. J. Smith.

In Tombstone Nellie obtained a partner, Jennie Swift. The two opened a restaurant and hotel, which she called the Russ House, but was popularly known as the Nellie Cashman Hotel. That year when Nellie’s brother in law died, Nellie brought her sister Frances and their five children back to Tombstone with her. They lived in a house near the hotel. In 1882, Nellie and her sister opened the American Hotel.

While she lived in Tombstone, Nellie was one of the leading citizens. She helped organize the city and county hospital. She helped build one of the first schools in Tombstone and also the first Catholic church. Nellie also operated a grocery store and a saloon. She hired people to manage these operations for her. She started a boarding house in nearby Bisbee, as well. In 1883, when her sister died, she became sole support of her five children. She ended up staying in Tombstone for almost 20 years.

Soon after her sister’s death she traveled to Baja California with 21 men. She had heard rumors that gold nuggets could be found there at Mulege. Mark A. Smith, Bill Hogan, and Milt Joyce, owner of the Oriental Saloon, were among those who went with her. She looked just like the men in her flannel shirt, overalls, and Stetson. She worked just as hard as they did too. They nearly died from lack of water, but some Mexicans rescued them. Unfortunately they did not find any gold. They returned to Tombstone.

Shortly after her return she heard of a plot to kill E. B. Gage the superintendent of the Grand Central Mine. The miners were striking so they planned to kidnap him and hold him for ransom because he had opposed their demands. Nellie drove to his house in the middle of the night and spirited him away to the town of Benson. From there he got on a train to Tucson where he waited out the hostilities.

In 1887, Nellie was on the move again, this time to Kingston, New Mexico. She opened another boarding house there. Shortly after that she went on a trip to Africa to explore the diamond mining regions. After that she returned to Alaska for a brief time. Then she came back to Arizona where she opened the Arizona Silver Belt Restaurant in Prescott. She also opened restaurants or boarding houses in Nogales, Prescott, Jerome, Yuma, and Harqua Hala.

Then she put together $5,000 and put together a big adventure to the Klondike. She sailed on a steamer to Skagway and traveled to the interior on the Dyea trail. She and her party camped at Lake LaBarge until the winter was over. Then they went on to Dawson where she opened another Delmonico Restaurant. The restaurant was popular, though her profit wasn’t very high. She was always one to give a man a free meal if he was down on his luck. She also ran a grocery store and was known to give miners loans. As usual, she also spent much time nursing sick people. She lived in Dawson until 1904.

Not quite ready to return home she moved on to Fairbanks. She opened a grocery store there and made a profit of $6,000 in the first year. She stayed there for three years. From there she drove a dog team east on the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, where she spent some time prospecting. She was 79 years old when she drove the dog team from Koyukuk to Seward, a distance of 750 miles.

But it would finally prove too much for her. She came down with a serious case of pneumonia while still in the Yukon. She endured a short stay at St. Joseph’s hospital in Victoria, British Columbia, before she died on January 4, 1925. She was buried at Ross Bay cemetery in Victoria.