When war was declared August 4, 1914, the communities of Dawson City and Whitehorse were quick to swing into gear in support of the patriotic cause.
Britain’s war with Germany was now Canada’s war too, and men started leaving town in twos and threes, going home to enlist, or crossing the Atlantic to join the British Expeditionary Force in England.
One of the most patriotic expressions came from Joe Boyle, the manager of the Canadian Klondyke Mining Company, which operated a fleet of dredges in the Klondike gold fields.
Shortly after war was declared, Joe Boyle sent a telegram to Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, offering to “…raise a force of fifty men with complete equipment, including rapid-fire guns, on condition that the men be given an opportunity of going to the front and not for service elsewhere. The plan is to make this a machine gun detachment.” Minister Hughes accepted the offer by telegram on September 2.
In addition to having the foresight to recognize that the machine gun was the new technology of war, Boyle insisted that the unit retain its discrete identity, and not be dispersed among the British forces.
Andy Hart, the fire chief in Dawson City, became the recruitment officer, and he too signed up. The mounted police allowed their officers to enlist and provided a drill sergeant to whip the volunteers into some kind of order.
Arrangements were made with Parliament for the standard requirements for maintaining mining claims in good standing to be put on hold for volunteers during the war.
The Dawson Daily News, often critical of Boyle’s corporate actions, was full of praise for his patriotic commitment. The editorial for September 26, 1914 stated: “If every wealthy Canadian did as much, Canada could place ten times as many men in the field as she has since the war has opened.”
The men of the Boyle Brigade were quick to choose a mascot – a Yukon husky named Jim, who would accompany them on the long journey that lay ahead. John Dines, a local musician and band leader, provided new lyrics, with a Yukon flavour, for the song “It’s a long Way to Tipperary.”
Fred Congdon, a former Yukon commissioner, and Yukon member of Parliament some years before, started a patriotic fund with a donation of a hundred dollars, which he left at the Dawson Daily News office.
Plans were made for the men to depart Dawson as soon as possible and their passage was secured on the steamer Lightning, to leave before the middle of October.
On the evening of October 6, The Arctic Brotherhood Hall was full to overflowing with the citizens of Dawson, to honour the volunteers who were preparing to leave. The newspaper noted that a fair representation of the fairer sex was in attendance.
In the hall, festooned with Union Jack flags as well as those of other allied nations, patriotic speeches were given by George Black, who stated that: “Wherever the Yukon boys go in their campaign for the Empire, they may rest assured that they carry with them the hearts and hopes of Yukon.”
Joe Boyle told the assembled body: “If I thought myself a better fighter than this bunch, I would leave them home and go myself, but I am sure they will be a credit to Yukon, and [that I will be] only too glad to do what I can to aid in the cause.”
Martha Black, the Commissioner’s wife, singled out Harry Lobley, the youngest member of the contingent, for special recognition, before handing out special gold buttons with the word “Yukon” across their face. Charles Jeanneret the jeweller had made them personally. Buck Taylor, one of the volunteers, called out the name of each volunteer, 35 names in total, as they stepped forward to receive their gift.
The crowd gave the men “Three cheers and a tiger,” and then did it again for good measure. Several stirring patriotic songs were sung, some of which, including “Rule Britannia,” were performed by the school children of Dawson, who had been rehearsing for this moment. After the formalities, everybody danced until 1 a.m.
The following day, the volunteers presented Const. Stangram, their drill instructor, with a gold nugget watch chain as a token of their appreciation.
A large throng was massed on the waterfront at 9 p.m. on Oct. 8 to wish the heroes the best as they prepared to leave. The men had assembled at the mounted police barracks at the south end of Front Street, and then marched as a unit toward the dock, dressed in khaki trousers and woolen shirts to match, yellow mackinaws and stiff-brimmed hats.
According to the Dawson Daily News, “When the last whistle blew the boys in khaki were lined up on the forward deck with Andy Hart, their recruiting officer and chief, in the centre. The band played ‘God Save the King’…” The crowd stood, en masse, and joined in.
The men gave three lusty cheers for the people of Dawson, followed by three cheers and a tiger for Joe Boyle. Then the Lightning was unfastened from the dock and the big sternwheel churned up the murky waters and pulled out into the mighty Yukon.
According to the News: “(With) the streaming of sparks and a column of smoke into the starry sky, the screaming of the steamer’s whistle and the jostling of the dancing waves against the shore, the scene was one of superb climax to the departure of the pride of the Yukon.”
While the crowd watched the departing steamer, one man stood aside from the rest. “Standing at the end of the coal barge, in the shadow of the bulkhead, with bared head during all the excitement, as the steamer plowed past the shouting, was a silent (Joe Boyle), who watched the ship and her brave boys until she was out of hailing distance. He stood transfixed, gazing until only the dancing lights were visible on the water. … Quietly he turned from the place on the barge, and marched up the street with the people, and was soon happily relating in his characteristic style one of his tales of good cheer from the inexhaustible fund which is his.”
The little steamer received a hearty reception at every stop on the trip to Whitehorse; the rendering of “Tipperary” given at Fort Selkirk was enough to drive the local huskies into the woods. Delayed by darkness, fog and loading wood, the Lightning laboured upstream, and received a rousing reception when it finally arrived in Whitehorse 7 a.m. on October 17.
The contingent set off from Skagway, bound for Victoria on the Princess May, October 22. After a delay of several months, the men departed for England. Several would return heroes, others are buried in France. Many never returned to the Yukon. For all, the events to come would forever alter their lives.
To be continued…
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at email@example.com