Nellie Cashman: An Unstoppable Force
David Eusebio // Columnist
When I moved to BC, I stepped up my hiking game. I didn’t have a chance to explore Ottawa’s trails, but it would be hard to top BC’s. I’ve done the Grind and the Chief. One day, I hope to hike the West Coast Trail at Pacific Rim National Park.
Many people from around the world come to tackle this five-to-seven-day hike. For Nellie Cashman, this would equate to a stroll in Stanley Park. It doesn’t compare to the 77-day journey she took from Victoria to Dease Lake. Since my last column was about an antiheroic man, I thought I’d take the path less travelled and write about a heroic woman.
Nellie Cashman was a prospector, miner, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. Born in 1845 in Ireland, her family immigrated to the United States during the gold rush and settled in San Francisco. She remained unmarried throughout her whole life, annoyed whenever asked about her marital status.
“Men are a nuisance anyhow, now aren’t they? Men, why child, they’re just boys grown up. I’ve nursed them, embalmed them, fed and scolded them, acted as mother confessor and fought my own with them, and you have to treat them just like boys.”
At 29, Nellie grew bored of the Golden City and headed to Oregon with miners to go prospecting. However, Oregon wasn’t their calling, and there was a divide for where to go next. Some wanted to go to British Columbia; others to South Africa. When they couldn’t settle the argument, they resolved the dispute in a civilized manner.
“We tossed up a coin, heads for South Africa, tails for British Columbia.”
That’s how Nellie ended up in Canada. The mining scene at Cassiar County attracted Nellie to settle in Dease Lake. While her accompanying prospectors went off to mine for gold, she established a boarding house and saloon. She quickly grew bored of that, and learned a new skill: mining!
She prospected for the first time along the creeks while she continued to run her business—a strategic decision as she was able to eavesdrop on residents who talked about suitable places for mining. They probably thought she couldn’t understand them. Well, she bought those claims up instantly and began profiting. Soon, she’d be heading for Wall Street.
Just kidding. But she began to profit from others by helping people buy claims around the area. She didn’t strike gold, but her boarding house flourished. In fall 1874, she treated herself with a winter trip to Victoria and planned to return to the Cassiar in the spring. At Fort Wrangell, she boarded the SS Californian, which carried $300,000 in gold dust—part of that belonged to Nellie. Heavy fog at Nanaimo halted the steamer, so Nellie thought, ‘screw it,’ and canoed her way down to Victoria. What a badass.
She was enjoying her time in Victoria when news broke out from the Cassiar that miners were facing harsh winter conditions, preventing people from leaving and stopping goods from reaching them through the mountains. It was reported that about seventy-five men were trapped in a mining camp and were suffering from scurvy. Nellie didn’t hesitate and prepared to journey north to help them.
Nobody believed she would make it and the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP, currently known as the RCMP) refused to help her. It couldn’t have been easy to convince anyone to journey north—I can barely convince my family to go for walks when it’s overcast. She somehow convinced six men to hike with her. They were very loyal.
“The ‘boys’ would sure see to it that anyone who ever offered to insult me could never be able to repeat the offence.”
I wonder how they felt when they all got friend-zoned. Ready to go, Nellie was about to experience her first winter in the northern interior.
The group sailed to Fort Wrangell with 1500 pounds of food, plenty of potatoes and lime juice to cure the men’s scurvy. The weight was divided among the group—Nellie carried about 200 pounds of stuff, including two blankets for the winter nights. The Stikine Trail grounds were too soft and deep to use dog sleds, so the group went on foot. But they had snowshoes! Despite that, the team faced … challenges.
The trail got lost under banks of snow, forests were dense, and the winds were icy. They experienced snow blindness, frostbite and numbness. The crew frequently encountered packs of wolves and bears in hibernation. Some days, the conditions were so harsh that the group could only travel eight kilometres—what a pleasant vacation.
One morning, an avalanche swept Nellie away from her campsite, and she got buried in the snow. One of the men woke up to make coffee and noticed she wasn’t around. Panicked, the men searched for her and found her half a kilometre away. She had dug herself out, patted the snow off her shoulders, and continued her day.
By late-January, the commander of Fort Wrangell heard about the group and sent soldiers to find them. They were certain the prospectors were dead, so the soldiers searched for their bodies. Instead, they found Nellie by the frozen Stikine River, cooking supper over a fire and humming merrily. She was happy to have company. She gave them food and tea before politely telling them to piss off.
The team continued to endure the harsh winter conditions without shelter or blankets—I guess that avalanche was nothing to shrug off. However, the miners of Dease Lake received a pleasant surprise when Nellie and her men arrived in late February to save them. The Daily British Colonist lauded Nellie’s “extraordinary freak [sic] of attempting to reach the diggings in midwinter.”
Her achievement granted her the nickname “Angel of the Cassiar.” She was respected by the miners who stood up and acknowledged her whenever she entered a saloon. She continued running her boarding house until the mining stream died in the area, and freezing temperatures likely became unbearable. So, she tossed a coin and went to Arizona.