In 1800s mining camps, petite, persuasive Nellie Cashman, with a lyrical Irish brogue, opened boarding houses and restaurants within a matter of days upon entering town. Her ability to serve appetizing and affordable meals lasted over 50 years.
Born in Midleton, County Cork, Ireland, around 1845, Nellie was 5 years old when she immigrated to Boston with her widowed mother and younger sister Fanny. By the time she was 20, the family was living in San Francisco.
After her sister married, Nellie set off for the brawling mining district of Pioche, Nevada, to run the Miner’s Boarding House. But it was prospecting that lured Nellie to the Silver State — she would go wherever a strike looked promising. And as soon as she arrived in town, she set about opening a restaurant and boarding house, providing food and shelter to miners.
Nellie traveled from Nevada to the lucrative gold fields of Cassiar in the northwest section of British Columbia.
Shortly after she left Cassiar, a winter storm stranded the remaining miners, cutting off their supplies. Nellie hired a handful of men, bought over 1,500 pounds of provisions, and headed north again, this time to rescue the miners. Her heroics made front-page headlines and Nellie’s reputation as the miners’ angel was born.
When Nellie decided on a project, it was as good as done. The Sisters of St. Ann in Victoria, British Columbia, decided to build a hospital, so Nellie persuaded her fellow prospectors to open their bags of gold dust and donate to the cause. St. Joseph’s Hospital became her haven through the years. Nellie often visited the sisters when she needed a respite from the stark living conditions of mining camps.
Leaving the frozen frontier, Nellie settled in Tucson in June 1879, running the Delmonico Restaurant, which advertised “the best meals in the city.”
The following April, the lure of silver in Tombstone sent her down the road to try her luck searching for lucrative silvery veins. She operated The Nevada Boot & Shoe Store in Tombstone as well as the Tombstone Cash Store, which provided fresh fruits and vegetables. That October she opened the Arcade Restaurant & Chop House.
Before long she was soliciting donations to build a Catholic church and county hospital for the town. The Tombstone Epitaph proclaimed in September 1880, “We ... will bet that there is a Catholic church in Tombstone before many days if Nellie has to build it herself.”
On Nov. 28, 1880, Sacred Heart Church of Tombstone held its first services. The county hospital saw its first patients the following year.
Selling the Nevada Boot & Shoe Store along with the Arcade Restaurant, Nellie next headed to the copper mines of Bisbee, opening the Bisbee Hotel in July 1881. But the town did not flourish as anticipated and she was back in Tombstone by September running The Russ House Hotel and Restaurant.
That same year, Nellie’s widowed sister Fanny and her five young children moved to Tombstone. By fall, she and Fanny were operating the Delmonico Lodging House.
But Fanny was not well, so Nellie sold her businesses to concentrate on Fanny’s welfare. After Fanny recovered, the sisters opened the American Hotel and Restaurant, where “elegant meals can be had at all hours.”
In the spring of 1882, fire raged through Tombstone. The Epitaph reported, “The American Hotel, kept by Miss Cashman and Mrs. [Fanny] Cunningham was in imminent danger. But the plucky ladies stationed several of their friends with buckets and kept the building thoroughly saturated with water, thereby preventing the flames from communicating.”
Not all of Nellie’s ventures were successful. An 1883 gold strike in Baja California prompted her to lead 21 men into this barren country with the prospect of digging up payloads of bullion. The road was long and the desert merciless, and the discouraged gang returned to Tombstone empty-handed.
Fanny died of tuberculosis in 1884, leaving Nellie to rear her children. She sometimes took the youngsters with her as she made her way from one mining town to another, but Michael, the second oldest of Fanny’s children, admitted that when he was old enough he left his nomadic aunt “because I just couldn’t keep up with her.”
Back in Tombstone, Nellie was once again running The Russ House until January 1886, when she left to open the Delmonico Hotel and Restaurant in Nogales, Arizona. Gold and silver had been found in the area but not enough to warrant a steady stream of customers. Nellie was gone by April.
That summer she was in Tucson running the dining room of The Palace Hotel. Tucson, however, had become too cosmopolitan for Nellie, and she headed back to Tombstone.
Before long, she was off to the silver mines in Kingston, New Mexico, where she opened the Cashman House.
When gold was discovered west of Phoenix in the Harquahala district, Nellie showed up with groceries to sell while working her claims. She considered these mines some of the most lucrative she had found.
In January 1890 she was in Prescott. By the summer of 1894, she was running a hotel and restaurant for copper miners in Jerome. Returning to Prescott, she started the Elite Restaurant.
In February 1896, Nellie opened the Buffalo Hotel and Restaurant in Globe, advertising a “table of excellent quality.” When one of the more profitable smelters closed down, she was off to Yuma, opening the Hotel Cashman in July 1897. This was Nellie’s last venture in Arizona.
“Going to Alaska! I should say I am,” she announced in an 1897 interview. Her years in the frozen tundra continued as they had in Arizona — prospecting, running hotels and restaurants while soliciting funds to build hospitals and churches.
She visited Arizona occasionally but never again set up shop in the territory. In a 1924 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said she left Arizona “when things began to be civilized.”
Nellie Cashman died Jan. 4, 1925, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria, British Columbia, the institution she had solicited funds from prospectors to build.
“The ‘old sourdough’ has passed on,” reported the Arizona Daily Star, “leaving many records behind, ... but better by far than all of these is the fact that she lived — lived and enjoyed adventures that is not given most the courage to taste.”