Jane: What was it like for you, Mum, and Fannie to flee Ireland in a coffin ship bound for Boston in 1850?
Nellie: And our Irish cottage in Midleton was full of love, the land every shade of green, even with the sick potatoes. But my Papa died. The English landlord tore our cottage apart, forced us out into the lane. Made up my mind that day never to owe a rich person, and if I ever got rich, to help others. Mum accepted the landlord’s tickets and we walked the miles to Cobh to sail for America.
Fleeing people packed the coffin ship, its wood old, its sails dirty, its hold stinking. The English only allowed us to climb out of the hold when we emptied slop buckets, so I volunteered, often, for a breath of fresh air. Even as a small girl, I knew when one-by-one the passengers got sick, that we might not live to see America. But we did, thank the good Lord, we did. Mum, Fannie, and me.
Jane: What drew you to mining?
Nellie: A man on my elevator in Boston, did I say I ran an elevator during the Civil War when all the men were gone? And this passenger, who some say looked a lot like General Grant, listened to my dreams and said, “Young lady, you should go west. The land is ripe for settling and you won’t find as many restrictions on your activities, as a woman, there.” So we went, Mum, Fannie and I.
Making boots in my brother-in-law’s boot factory in San Francisco, I heard a miner from Virginia City, Nevada talking about the wealth they dug out of the ground there. Fannie was married, Mum was living with her and her husband, Thomas Cunningham, so I was free to go. While I worked as a waitress, I learned everything I could about mining in Virginia City. First realized miners were just overgrown boys there, and developed a heart for them. Called them my “boys” for the rest of my life.
Jane: How did you get the title Queen of the Camps?
Nellie: About five hundred of the boys and I mined gold up at Dease Lake, in British Columbia. Ran a little boarding tent where they could get a hot meal. In the fall of 1875, we began to get low on supplies. I headed down to Vancouver Island to resupply us, my plan being to visit the Sisters of St. Ann and return with supplies in the spring.
In the midst of the worst winter in years, the man who carried the mail for the camps came to tell me the boys at Dease Lake had scurvy. ‘Tis a beast of a disease caused by Vitamin C deficiency that makes gums blister, teeth fall out, and eventually death. That news changed my plan. Hired six men to go with me. We loaded all the lime juice we could haul on six dog sleds and headed for Ft. Wrangell where we would head in from the coast. Commander there told us not to go, but we went. They would have come for us.
And the dang blizzards never ended. The dogs could not get through the snow, and we necked the sleds. That means we cut leather bands, tied them to the leads on the dog sleds and pulled them ourselves. Took us three months, including digging myself out of a wee avalanche. When we got to the lake, only seventy-five miners still lived. Drained that lime juice into their bleeding mouths and saved every one of them. Do not know that I was ever an angel, but the boys thought so. Had a rough time keeping them seated whenever I entered a mining camp building after that. But made it easy to collect funds to build hospitals and churches. They always opened their pockets to me.
Jane: Tell us about your time in Tombstone, Arizona.
Nellie: Came to Tombstone about the same time Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and their clan showed up. Knew the fellow who got the town named Tombstone, Ed Schieffelin; as well as John Clum, the mayor and publisher of the Tombstone Epitaph. Knew the other element of Tombstone, too. The girls who worked down at the other end of Allen Street and the cowboys donated to building the church and the hospital, same as everyone else.
Bought several mines and worked them, owned a general store, boarding house and a restaurant. Thomas got consumption and passed while I mined there. Mum stayed in San Francisco, but Fannie and their five children came to Tombstone and helped me run my businesses. Those kids kept us busier than a one-armed miner. We all saw the results of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Then Fannie got the consumption and died. And I raised all her children to become good citizens. Her son, Mike, lived around that area his whole life. Just before the silver played out, I moved on, as was my custom.
Jane: You mined at Dawson in the Klondike. Can you recreate that experience for us?
Nellie: A lot of ice and snow in the winter and mud the rest of the time. Two-stepped up and down that Golden Staircase cut from the ice on the Chilkoot Pass at fifty-three years old, if I do say so myself. Got a kick out of blarneying the Mounties into letting me come in with half the supplies they required of the boys, since I was half their size. Shot the Whitehorse rapids in a canoe me and a couple of the boys threw together and got to Dawson ahead of quite a few others. Never rode in an airplane, but that was close enough for me.
Met more mighty fine people in Dawson, Father Judge and Belinda Mulrooney, to name a couple. Lost Mum while the Yukon was froze up, and could not get to San Francisco for her funeral. She made it to a hundred years old, though.
Jane: You finished the last twenty-five years of your life above the Arctic Circle. Tell us about Wiseman, Alaska.
Nellie: Some would call it a desolate land up there. But my Alaska has wild beauty. You just gotta’ know when to look. The thunder of a caribou herd coming up a rise or the Northern Lights dancing in the dark kept me there. The boys and I mined for gold a little different where the ground was frozen most the time. They named me champion female musher of Alaska when I was seventy-seven. Mike and his kids would beg me to come back to Arizona and get warm, but Alaska was my home. Only left when I could not shake a dang cold I caught on a visit to Arizona. Went back to my Sisters of St. Ann in Seattle, to their hospital I helped build. Walked in on my own steam and walked out on Jesus’ arm.
“The joy of the Lord is my strength”