How Klondike Joe saved the crown jewels of Romania

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 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 msgates@northwestel.net.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Members of the RCMP’s traffic services team examine police markers on Range Road after a six-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle near the Takhini Arena in Whitehorse on Oct. 25. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Six-year-old hit by vehicle near Takhini Arena

Police were called to the scene around 12:15 p.m. on Oct. 25

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks to media at a press conference about COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 30. Two new cases of COVID-19 were identified in Watson Lake over the weekend. The cases are connected to three others in the community previously announced by officials on Oct. 23. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Two additional COVID-19 cases in Watson Lake bring total up to five

Individuals with symptoms and connections to the three other cases were tested over the weekend

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks to media at a press conference about COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 30. The Yukon government announced three new cases of COVID-19 in Watson Lake on Oct. 23. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three new COVID-19 cases identified in Watson Lake

The Yukon government has identified three locations in town where public exposure may have occurred

Teagan Wiebe, left, and Amie Wiebe pose for a photo with props during The Guild’s haunted house dress rehearsal on Oct. 23. The Heart of Riverdale Community Centre will be hosting its second annual Halloween haunted house on Oct. 30 and 31, with this year’s theme being a plague. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Plague-themed haunted house to take over Heart of Riverdale for Halloween

A plague will be descending upon the Heart of Riverdale Community Centre… Continue reading

Indigenous lobster boats head from the harbour in Saulnierville, N.S. on Oct. 21. Elected officials in the Yukon, including all 19 members of the legislature, are backing the right of Mi’kmaq fishers on the East Coast to launch a moderate livelihood fishery. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)
Yukon legislature passes motion to support Mi’kmaw fishery

“It’s not easy, but it’s also necessary for us to have these very difficult conversations”

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over the Takhini elk herd be struck by the court. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Yukon government asks for Takhini elk lawsuit to be struck

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over… Continue reading

The Yukon government has filed a reply to an outfitter’s petition challenging the reduction of its caribou quota to zero. (Yukon News file)
YG replies to outfitter’s legal challenge over caribou quota

The Yukon government has filed a reply to an outfitter’s petition challenging… Continue reading

The Yukon government is encouraging people to get the flu vaccine this year, saying that with COVID-19, it’s “more important than ever.” (Black Press file)
Get flu vaccine, Yukon government urges

The Yukon government is encouraging people to get the flu vaccine this… Continue reading

Benjamin Munn, 12, watches the HPV vaccine in 2013. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available to all Yukoners up to, and including, age 26. Currently the program is only available to girls ages nine to 18 and boys ages nine to 14. (Dan Bates/Black Press file)
HPV vaccine will be available to Yukoners up to, including, age 26

Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

asdf
COMMENTARY: Me and systemic racism

The view from a place of privilege

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Electricity and air travel

Letters to the editor published Oct. 23, 2020

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Irony versus Climate

Lately it seems like Irony has taken over as Editor-in-Chief at media… Continue reading

Most Read