When Flo Whyard, former mayor of Whitehorse, called me on the telephone during the summer of 1984, she made a request I couldn’t refuse. Would I like to meet Joe Boyle’s daughter?
Flora Boyle Frisch had last been in the Klondike in 1913, when she stayed with her father, Joseph Whiteside Boyle, at his Bear Creek mining camp, 10 kilometres outside of Dawson City. Boyle was one of the most dynamic figures ever to make an appearance in the Yukon. He arrived in Dawson in 1897 almost penniless, and departed the same town in 1916 undoubtedly the richest man in the Yukon. Boyle’s exploits before and after his departure from the Klondike are worthy of a blockbuster movie.
Boyle had won control of a dredging company situated in the Klondike valley from the Rothschilds, and made it into one of the biggest operations in the goldfields. Bear Creek was control central for the operation.
I arranged a day trip that included a visit to Bear Creek, now owned by Parks Canada, a trip through the goldfields, and finally a visit to Dredge Number Four, the descendant of one of Boyle’s massive mining machines.
Flora was 90 years old at the time, tiny and fragile in appearance. I was concerned that she might be too frail to endure such a long day, but she quickly proved me wrong.
When we arrived at Bear Creek, an industrial complex consisting of more than 60 buildings, I brought with me a collection of old photographs that showed what it looked like in the early days. The complex that survived in 1984 was far different from the much smaller cluster of buildings that stood at the site 70 years before.
Flora didn’t recognize most of the structures that stood there during our visit, but there were a few that she quickly spotted. Remnants of a giant pipeline crossed the Klondike Valley and passed through the Bear Creek complex. The Guggenheims (Boyle’s mining competition) used it to transport water from the Ogilvie mountains to supply their hydraulic operations on Bonanza Creek.
Flora remembered that her father negotiated the construction of a bridge atop the pipeline crossing the Klondike River, which at that time passed directly behind Boyle’s Bear Creek headquarters. This bridge also allowed access to undredged ground which was later used for housing staff of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation.
In the main compound stands a long, low single-storey structure that Flora instantly recognized as the bunkhouse for the company engineers. There had been four engineers living and working in this building, although they took their meals, like most of the staff at Bear Creek, in the company mess hall. That was one of the few buildings that Flora remembered
We walked to the east end of the cluster of Bear Creek buildings, and standing near the remnants of the pipeline/bridge, she pointed out where other buildings once stood: the Fournier Roadhouse at the extreme east end of the complex, then the bunkhouse and stables, and finally the big machine shop.
The big machine shop burned to the ground in the 1920s and was rebuilt, but the new shop served exactly the same function as the old one had. Flora recalled 10 blacksmiths working in this building, kept busy day and night.
Flora’s most vivid memories, however, were of her father, whom she obviously idolized. Boyle was a decisive and stern taskmaster and a tough negotiator, but he also had soft spots behind his tough exterior. He once employed a man named Smith to explore for potential quartz-bearing gold on the Boyle concession. Smith blasted away, but never found anything worth mining, but Boyle kept him on the payroll. Flora brought some of the broken rock back from Smith’s prospecting to the Bear Creek compound, where she stacked it behind her father’s quarters.
Returning from Outside a year later, Flora discovered that the rock had been incorporated into a large stone fireplace in her father’s house. The stone fireplace was gone from the building by the 1940s, long after Boyle’s departure.
Flora also remembered the soft spot her father had for children, for whom he arranged picnics and field trips. He also loved animals. According to his daughter, Boyle assembled quite a menagerie, and he would not abide their mistreatment. He once hauled a teamster off his rig and set him straight for abusing one of the horses in his team. Boyle then traded the sick horse for a healthy one from his own stable, and nursed the sick animal back to health. He did the same for an ailing mule, and cared for a pair of wolf pups. The menagerie included a couple of terriers that were given to Boyle by Herbert Hoover, who, in his pre-presidential years, was an engineer who had once visited Bear Creek.
If Boyle was indulgent with animals, he was equally so with family, many of whom he invited to the Yukon, with the guarantee of jobs. This resulted, upon occasion, in interfamily conflict (which Boyle never understood) and jealousy over jobs. The friction between Flora and her stepmother escalated until the young lady finally left in 1913, never to return for 71 years.
We left Bear Creek and proceeded into the goldfields, where Flora was shown evidence of both the old mining, and the modern mining that had surged back in the early 1980s due to rising gold prices. We had lunch atop King Solomon’s Dome on a calm, sunny afternoon, then continued back to Dawson, stopping at Dredge Number Four National Historic Site, on Bonanza Creek. Two years later, a plaque was unveiled at the dredge by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, commemorating her father’s achievements.
I was exhausted by the time we returned to Dawson, but had gained some unique and personal insights into life at Bear Creek. That evening, I attended the Gaslight Follies performance in the Palace Grand Theatre. There, I watched in amazement as this lively nonagenarian exchanged quips from the balcony with Craig Moddle, the master of ceremonies, on the stage below.
I hope that if I reach 90 years of age that I will still have as much energy as Flora Boyle Frisch!
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Mine,” is now available in Yukon Stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org