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After alighting in San Francisco for a year or two, the peripatetic Cashman decided to try the desert Southwest on for size, exchanging cold country for hot. In 1878, she rode the train south, switching to the Southern Pacific line at Los Angeles and riding as far as Yuma.
Travelers still had to take the stagecoach from Yuma to Tucson, but Cashman planned to make her next fortune on the tracks that would soon connect West to East—right through the Old Pueblo.
Tucson was still small enough that the Arizona Daily Star reported Nellie's arrival on Oct. 10, 1878. Tucson was a backwater, "an odd city, more like an ancient Bible town than anything else, with its narrow streets, and rows of low-walled, flat-roofed adobes," journalist Clara Spalding Brown reported after passing through in 1880.
But some things would have been familiar to Cashman. The Old Pueblo had long been Catholic, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet had arrived almost a decade earlier, in 1870, to open Catholic schools. By 1880, the nuns would have St. Mary's Hospital up and running. Tucson had a small but vibrant Irish community—142 Irish-born in a city of 7,000 people in 1880, as Tucson Weekly writer Dave Devine recounted in "Welcoming the Train" (March 14, 2002).
Cashman settled on a central location for Delmonico's, in the downtown church plaza—a tiny fragment of which still survives among the colorful buildings of La Placita. The eatery wasn't too far from where the new train depot would be, and the first San Agustín Church (since demolished) was a hop-skip away. So were the downtown hotels and saloons, businesses that would guarantee hungry customers.
Nellie was all set to profit from the coming railroad boom—but then her attention was diverted. Cashman's new friend at the Citizen, John Clum, a wanderer on a scale to match her own, had begun running excited articles about Ed Schieffelin's silver strike west of the Dragoon Mountains, 71 miles southeast of Tucson.
Despite being warned he would find only his "tombstone" in those bleak hills in Apache country, Schieffelin had struck ore so rich that he "could sink his pick-head up to its handle," Tom Sheridan recounts in Arizona: A History. A partner pronounced it the best silver he'd ever seen.
No sleepy Bible town could compete with the excitement of hardscrabble Tombstone, where unfathomable riches might be won. Cashman soon hightailed it out of Tucson, and by April 1, 1880, had opened a "gents furnishing store" on Allen Street, Tombstone's incipient main drag. (Clum also took his own advice: He sold the Citizen, decamped to Tombstone and founded the Tombstone Epitaph, publishing his first edition on May 1, 1880.)
Nellie wasn't quite done with Tucson. She went back and forth a couple of times by stagecoach while she got things organized, and she may well have joined her fellow Irishmen in celebrating St. Patrick's Day in Tucson in 1880, when the much-longed-for train chugged into Old Pueblo three days ahead of the planned celebration. Impromptu merrymakers waved flags and lit bonfires downtown, and the next day, the Arizona Daily Star dryly commented on the Hibernian festivities. "The entrance of the S.P. (Southern Pacific) Railroad and the 17th of Ireland both at once," the editorialist sniffed, "was too much for our friends on Main Street."
Tombstone and Beyond
Rapidly growing Tombstone, wild and violent though it could be, was just the sort of place that Cashman relished. The population had zoomed from zero in 1877 to 5,000 in 1880, and that meant easy profits. She started out selling miners the very boots that her brother-in-law was making back in San Francisco. With her usual marketing savvy, she called her business the Nevada Boot and Shoe Store, a name that not so subtly advertised her experience in Pioche, the "baddest town in the West."
In a boomtown where the men outnumbered women 4-to-1, she chose as her business partner a Miss Kate O'Hara. Their shared Irish heritage must have been a bond.
Otherwise, as historian Katherine Benton-Cohen has written, "rigid class divisions kept a chilly distance between the town's few women."
Benton-Cohen counts 30 women of the Episcopal "upper crust" in boom-time Tombstone; a number of "respectable" women working for a living, such as Cashman and the Earp wives, who were at times seamstresses; and "prostitutes of diverse nationalities ... in abundance."
Journalist Brown, who arrived a few months after Cashman, seemed to follow the class rules. In her dispatches to the San Diego Daily Union, later collected into the book Tombstone From a Woman's Point of View, she wrote about restaurants but never mentioned Nellie by name. And she wrote that the town had "frequent dances, which I have heard called 'respectable,' but as long as so many members of the demi-monde, who are very numerous and showy here, patronize them, many honest women will hesitate to attend."
Cashman, whose later Russ House hotel was right around the corner from the notorious Bird Cage brothel, was willing to cross those class lines—she happily accepted the prostitutes' money for her various causes.
Within months of her arrival, Nellie had a reason to beg for their money: She wanted the town to have a Catholic church, and not only for herself. An 1881 Cochise County census found that the Irish made up the highest number of foreign-born people in Tombstone. There were 559 Irish-born and 2,880 Americans, including Irish-Americans like Wyatt Earp's enemy, the deputy sheriff Johnny Behan.
The Catholic Irish needed spiritual sustenance, Nellie reasoned, and she led the charge to raise money. Within months, by Nov. 28, 1880, the town's Catholics heard Mass in their new Sacred Heart Church, an adobe fitted with churchlike Gothic windows. (The old building survives as a parish hall for a newer Sacred Heart Church.) Ironically, the church was just blocks from the notorious OK Corral.
Her charities could also be small and hidden. Nephew Mike Cunningham related that a miner by the name of Con DeLaney told how he'd arrived during the boom from Ireland with his wife and seven children: "We were destitute, and Nellie Cashman rustled up a place for us to live and provided food, etc., until I was able to obtain work."
During her six years in Tombstone—with outside forays here and there—the enterprising Nellie opened and closed businesses with dizzying speed, and changed partners with alacrity. She had a grocery called Tombstone Cash Store (slogan: "Fruits and Vegetables Received Daily from Los Angeles"), and the Arcade Restaurant and Chop House ("Better Meals than any House in Town").
At one point, she got rid of the Arcade and took off briefly for Bisbee, where copper was expected to boom any minute. She rented a hotel, but this time, her vaunted instincts were wrong: Bisbee's moment had not yet come, and when she left town months later, the hotel owner sued her for unpaid rent, Chaput reports.
In that same difficult year, 1881, Nellie inherited almost her entire extended family. Her brother-in-law Tom Cunningham, not yet 40, died of tuberculosis, the scourge of the age. The elderly Frances Cashman stayed in San Francisco, but Nellie's sister, Fanny, and her five young children came to Tombstone to live. (The kids arrived in time for the shootout at the OK Corral in October 1881, and young Mike Cunningham claimed all his life to have seen the bodies lying dead in the street.)
With all those mouths to feed, the two sisters went immediately into business, with Fanny running the Delmonico Lodging House, and Nellie opening Russ House. The business for which she is best known, Russ House was at the eastern edge of town, at Fifth and Toughnut, overlooking slopes filled with silver ore. The nearest mine was steps away, making it an ideal location for a miners' boardinghouse.
But Fanny grew ill with tuberculosis, and both businesses had to be sold so Nellie could care for her. Fanny recovered, and the two of them opened the American Hotel, which nearly burned in a raging fire in May 1882 that leveled central Tombstone. Fanny then died in 1884, leaving the five children in Nellie's sole care.
Even so, Cashman did not neglect her mining operations. She built up a significant pile buying and selling mining claims, including the Big Blue and the Last Chance, and one named for her hero Charles Stewart Parnell, president of the Irish National Land League.
Atypically, she did lead one disastrous expedition to Baja California in search of gold. Dressed in men's overalls—her usual costume when she worked the mines—she and her team took a train to Guaymas and a ship to Baja, where they were to hike to the supposed gold deposits. Arizonans though they were, they were not prepared for the extreme heat on the Mexican peninsula and nearly died of heat exhaustion and dehydration. And they learned there was very little gold to be had.
Though Cashman was hailed in the papers, this time as an "energetic and plucky woman" and even a "Joan of Arc," the fact that her expedition failed helped end the Mexican gold rush.
In the years after the Tombstone boom, after the mines flooded and failed, Cashman's famous instincts seem to have faltered. In 1887, she tried out Kingston, N.M., a heavily Irish silver-mining district where many of the workers were Irish coal-miners from Pennsylvania.
Nellie was soon back in Arizona, briefly enchanted with the gold at Harqua Hala west of Phoenix. Drawing on her knowledge of mining geology, she wrote a learned article for the Arizona Daily Star about the mine's possibilities. When Harqua didn't pan out, she circulated around the territory, hoping for a bonanza, starting up businesses in mining locales from Nogales to Yuma to Prescott to Globe to Jerome.
Then, in 1897, reports leaked out that gold had been discovered in Alaska. Nellie's last big rush was on. In an interview, she declared, "Going to Alaska! I should say I am."
Cashman stampeded to the North Country, where she prospered mightily, ran her own mining companies and lived long. On rare occasions, she returned to Arizona to visit family and once gave an interview explaining that "when things began to be civilized, I left for Alaska, where I could pioneer again." On her last visit, she gave the bishop of Tucson $1,000 to spend on renovations at Sacred Heart in Tombstone.
She was 79 or 80 when she fell ill for the last time. She insisted on going to her friends the Sisters of St. Ann in Victoria, British Columbia, whose hospital she had helped build more than 50 years before. When she died on Jan. 4, 1925, she was buried in the nuns' cemetery.
Extravagant obituaries were soon published around the country, many of them mentioning the legendary—not to say imaginary—exploits of the famous pioneer.
The obit in the Tombstone Epitaph claimed that in addition to all her other feats, "she is said to have been a Yankee spy in the Civil War." And in Alaska, the paper added, "at the age of 77, Miss Cashman set a record as champion woman musher of the world. ... She mushed her dog team and sled 750 miles in 17 days, breaking her own trail the entire distance from Koyukuk to Seward, Alaska."