Nellie Cashman By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
June 6, 2014
Ellen (Nellie) Cashman was born in County Cork, Ireland about 1850. Her folks were struggling farmers who had been devastated by the failed potato crops, and were being persecuted by the British rule of the country. The situation contributed to the death of Nellie’s father, who died leaving two children and no viable means of support for them. Nellie’s mother set sail to America with her daughters, arriving in Boston only to find the city overcrowded with immigrants. Even so, life in Boston was an improvement over their previous circumstances. When Nellie was old enough to get a job, she was hired as a bellhop in a fancy Boston hotel. One of the many guests she met was Ulysses Grant. Grant was impressed by her ambition, and encouraged her to go west where young women were needed to help settle the wild frontier. She took the situation to heart, and for the next few years saved her money for the trip, and in 1869, Nellie, her sister, and her mother boarded a train in search of a rich mining camp. Nellie first traveled to Virginia City, Nevada. Silver and gold finds were making multimillionaires out of prospectors. She found work as a cook, and the grateful miners paid handsomely for her meals. By 1872, she had enough money to purchase a boarding house. In 1874, news of a rich find in Northern British Columbia reached Nellie’s ears, and she packed her things and left Nevada. She settled along Dease Lake, and bought another boardinghouse and a restaurant. Nellie had a head for business, but she had a heart for helping the hurting and needy. She consistently offered her help to those down on their luck, and her selfless giving earned her the nickname “Miner’s Angel” Once again though she headed south, to Arizona, where she started another restaurant in Tucson before making her way to the booming silver town of Tombstone, where she established two businesses, a boot and shoe store, and a grocery store. She used a portion of the profits to build churches and support hospitals. For a while she was content to stay in Arizona, her sister and her sister’s five children were now living in Tombstone, and Nellie divided her time between her family, and her businesses pursuits. By 1883 however, she was on the move again, this time to Baja, California. This trip, however, proved to be unprofitable, and she returned to the Southwest, where in 1884 her sister died of tuberculosis and Nellie was left to raise her nieces and nephews. The task was daunting but it did not keep her from her charity work or her efforts to civilize the territory. She was against public hangings and fought tirelessly to stop government from making them a form of entertainment. Finally in 1897, Nellie joined the Klondike gold rush and traveled to Dawson City, Alaska where she opened a café and supply store, making a fortune selling supplies to eager prospectors. She never turned away a miner who had no money though. She made sure they were cared for regardless of their means. In 1924 Nellie came down with a severe cold, which sent her to the hospital in Fairbanks. Although she was released, she never fully recovered, and she died on January 4, 1925. Because she had been so well known, newspapers in San Francisco, Tucson, Fairbanks, and Denver all carried stories of her death. She was buried next to her sister in Victoria, British Columbia. She is remembered in history books as a woman who possessed the unquenchable spirit of the Old West.
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