ILLING, Thora Kerr

Author Tags: 1850-1900, Biography, Women

When the going gets tough, the tough get sledding. One of Nellie Cashman’s most famous feats was to hike into northern B.C.'s Dease Lake under frigid winter conditions to get to the Cassiar mining area where miners trapped without sufficient food were dying of scurvy. Nellie and six men she hired took 77 days to get to the mining site, each on snowshoes pulling a laden sled because the snow was too soft and deep for dogs. They arrived just in time to save most of the miners, earning her the nickname Angel of the Cassiar.

Thora Kerr Illing’s biography of Nellie Cashman (1845-1925), Gold Rush Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Nellie Cashman (TouchWood $18.95) recalls this unorthodox, rugged and beautiful woman who was also a miner, entrepreneur and philanthropist. She lived and prospered in some of the toughest boomtowns from California and Arizona to Cassiar and Alaska, setting up restaurants, boarding houses and general stores. She gave away much of her earnings to support the building of hospitals and churches, nursing the sick and feeding the hungry.

Born in 1845 in County Cork, Ireland, Cashman emigrated with her daughters and was reputedly advised to go west, to San Francisco, by General Ulysses S. Grant. Also known as Nellie Pioche and Irish Nellie, she opened a combination saloon and boarding house at Dease Lake in 1874. At 77, she earned the title of champion musher of the North. She died in the St. Joseph's Hospital in Victoria from double pneumonia in 1925. A 29-cent stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1994 and Tombstone, Arizona, annual celebrates Nellie Cashman Day on August 23. Her grave can be found in Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery.

The Victoria Daily Times wrote of Cashman, "Like many pioneer women who have known the meaning of hardship, she was of a most kindly disposition, nursing the sick and feeding the hungry and doing all she could to help the unfortunate and her death will be sincerely mourned by a wide circle."

Former journalist and librarian, Thora Kerr Illing immigrated to Canada as a young woman, fell in love with the space, fjords and forests of the West, and stayed. She has retired to Sidney.

[Photo by Michelle Alger]


Gold Rush Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Nellie Cashman (TouchWood 2016) $18.95 978-1-77151-159-9

[BCBW 2016]