Nellie Cashman to be memoralized with stone at Victoria’s Ross Bay Cemetery

Irish refugee made great strides for women in B.C. and Alaska during the gold rush

Through the main entrance of Ross Bay Cemetery, if you keep to the left, just past the Pooley statue, below a stately elm tree, you’ll find red plastic flowers that don the grave site of Nellie Cashman.

But if you didn’t know what or who you were looking for, you might miss it. So, in memory of one of Canada’s unsung female heroes, a memorial stone will be unveiled Oct. 18 honouring Cashman’s contributions to Canadian history.

Dr. Patrick Perry Lydon, the chair of the Nellie Cashman Committee, will join Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon and other distinguished guests to honour the “Angel in Victoria” who died in 1925 after a remarkable life lived the world over.

“I was just flabbergasted by the story of Nellie,” Lydon says of uncovering her history. “I couldn’t believe that a little refugee from Ireland could come here and become such an important figure.”

Cashman was born in Ireland shortly before the great potato famine that would claim the life of her father. Her mother brought Nellie and her sister Fanny to Montreal, before they settled in Boston when Nellie was a toddler. Cashman would later travel throughout North America living in Arizona, California, B.C., the Yukon and Alaska.

“Wherever she went, she had this compassion for the underdog,” Lydon explains, pointing to her Christian faith as the driving force behind both her entrepreneurial spirit and dogged efforts to build hospitals and schools in mining communities. An owner of restaurants, bars, hotels and retail shops, Cashman would eventually get into the gold rush game herself, a feat for a woman of the late-1800’s.

Lydon thinks it was her great competence, tremendous courage, and a fearlessness many admired, combined with her compassion and God-fearing nature that made her so special. “She was a pious individual,” he says. “There are no stains on her character, even though she lived in towns full of bars and brothels, she was above that.”

During the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, Cashman was in Bonanza Creek where she started the Miners Haven, encouraging the men to spend less time drinking and carousing, providing books and material to write home to their families. Ever aware of her gender in a time when women weren’t at work, Cashman maintained that as long as she treated the men properly, they’d do the same in return. She was once whisked down the side of a mountain after an avalanche took her tent even further than she had set it up from a mining camp, out of respect for the men there.

“She was very honest, forthright and principled,” Lydon says. And few men could argue with that.

After spending 20 years in northern Alaska, Cashman returned to Victoria upon falling ill and died on a chilly January day at St. Joseph’s Hospital. For almost 100 years, a single stone has marked the place where Cashman was laid to rest. But two years ago, plans started forming to honour the woman who staunchly stood in a man’s world, both to honour her and spread the word about her life. Cashman is well known in the U.S. – a restaurant in Arizona bares her name – but not as much in Canada.

“As the Nellie Cashman Committee, it’s our job to draw attention to her great name and her legend,” Lydon says.

The ceremony for the unveiling of the memorial stone will begin at 1 p.m. Oct. 18 at Ross Bay Villa, 1490 Fairfield Rd.

kristyn.anthony@vicnews.com

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