By 1914, Joe Boyle had made a fortune running a gold dredging company in the Klondike. During World War I, he went to in search of adventure; he found it. In the summer of 1917, he was thrust into the chaos of revolutionary Russia. By December of 1917, he had established his reputation having organized the chaotic Russian railway system. Now he was being asked a big favour by the Romanian government.
With the Bolsheviks gaining power in war-torn Russia, the Romanians feared that their national treasury, which was being housed in Moscow to keep it out of German hands, might never be returned to them. Could Boyle bring it home for them? The treasures in question consisted of the crown jewels, currency, the national archives, and £25,000,000 in gold. The route to Romania was a formidable journey — 1,300 kilometres through a Russia in turmoil. With civil war breaking out, it would be hard to tell through whose territory the train was passing.
The treasure was quickly removed from the Kremlin. The archives filled two boxcars and Red Cross supplies filled two more. The crown jewels were placed in covered wicker baskets to make them less conspicuous and placed aboard a special luxury car that the Russians had assigned to Boyle weeks before. Only the gold was left behind, and presumably rests in Russian vaults to this very day. The cars were attached to an outbound train, and steamed out of Moscow.
Boyle had been warned at the last minute that an attempt would be made to ambush them 80 kilometres from Moscow, and sure enough, when the train was halted at a small station, shadowy figures attempted to disconnect his cars from the train. Boyle, lying in wait, knocked out one of the conspirators, and reconnected the cars, after which there were no further attempts to hijack the treasure.
Fearing that more attempts would be made to take the treasury, Boyle assigned the six able bodied men among his party to stand watch around the clock. When they reached Briansk, they found themselves caught in a firefight between two opposing factions. The bullet-proof frame of Boyle’s special train car proved its value, and the train sped through the station — and the gunfire — without stopping. The second night, the train stopped near a burning distillery while passengers and crew pilfered liquor from the conflagration before continuing.
The following afternoon they were stopped by a detachment of Bolshevik cavalry. As the Bolsheviks began searching the train from the front to the rear, Boyle locked up the cabins containing the treasure. When the search party reached Boyle’s special car, he explained through interpreters that it had the extraterritorial rights of a diplomatic party, but invited the Commissar in for food and drinks.
After this distraction, they continued their harrowing journey. At a mere 15 kilometres an hour, the train clicked and clacked, swayed and lurched its way across the dark, stormy, snow-blanketed Russian landscape. Headed for Kiev, the train stopped again, this time for minor repairs. It was also desperately short of fuel.
While the repairs were being made, Boyle’s party mustered the other passengers on the train into a human chain to move firewood, which they found nearby neatly cut in appropriate lengths, through nearly two metres of snow. The train rumbled on and came under fire in one station from a unit of Ukrainian nationalists. When the Ukranians learned that the train was not loaded with Bolsheviks, they stopped their assault and the train was allowed to continue.
When they reached Kiev, arrangements were made to transfer the special cars to the next train to leave. This afforded Boyle the time go to a nearby hotel for a bath. He was delayed during his return to the station when a bomb exploded near him, blowing him through a shop window and knocking him out. When he came to, he purchased from the shopkeeper a fine turkey, dressed and ready to eat, and took it with him, to the delight of the others in his party when he arrived back at the train.
The procession slowly made its way toward Bessarabia, territory which was at that time in Romanian hands. Sixty-five kilometres short of the border, the train came to a halt in Zhmerinka station in the dark, in a raging snow storm, but ominously, no one was there to meet them. The locomotive got under way again, but soon stopped at another small station, where Boyle’s cars were shunted into a siding and unhooked from the train. Bolshevik soldiers placed the entire Boyle party under arrest.
But Boyle devised a plan to escape their custody. He brewed up a large samovar of tea and spiked it with vodka from the looted distillery. He offered the brew to the soldiers and they sang and drank together (Boyle was a teetotaller) until all were snoring a drunken sleep. Meanwhile, the wind roared outside and whipped the snow crystals into a frenzy.
According to a long-standing Imperial order, a locomotive was kept fired up and manned around the clock at this station. It was fortunate for them; with revolver in hand, Boyle convinced the engineer to back the locomotive into position and hook it up to the special cargo after which they quickly puffed out of the siding, expecting at any time to be fired upon by the Bolshevik artillery. But the Bolshevik soldiers slept through their escape.
They should have cut the telegraph lines sooner than they did because a few miles farther down the track, they saw a barricade across the rails. Fearing that the train might derail, the trainmen refused to speed up. At gunpoint, they were ordered to stoke the boiler while Boyle took over the controls and pushed up the speed of the tiny convoy careening wildly down the track. They hit the barricade at full speed, shattering it into splinters and steamed on toward Romania.
So it was, that on Christmas Day, 1917, Boyle reached his destination and signed over possession of the priceless shipment to Romanian authorities. In a few short days, Boyle, and the small party who accompanied them, had lived through an adventure worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Boyle had become an instant Romanian hero. A few days later, Boyle, the Klondike king, was awarded the Grand Cross of the Crown of Romania.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book about the Yukon during World War I, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, is due out in April. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.