On Nov. 4, we celebrated the 150th birthday of one of Yukon’s most remarkable heroes, albeit a couple of days early. His name is Joe Boyle.
Who was Joe Boyle, and what was he doing 100 years ago? Yukon-born author Pierre Berton once remarked, that Joe Boyle started out as a bouncer in the Monte Carlo Saloon in Dawson, and ended up as the lover of the Queen of Romania.
While both facts are still being debated, it’s a remarkable way to frame the story of Boyle — a story that is worthy of a blockbuster movie.
Joseph Whiteside Boyle was born in Woodstock, Ontario, Nov. 6, 1867. While still in his teens, he took to the sea. Martha Black, Yukon’s “First Lady,” wrote that he saved a man from a shark attack in tropical waters by diving into the water, and plunging a knife deep into the shark’s body. He then carried the wounded sailor back to the ship.
A decade later, Boyle was drawn into his first Yukon adventure. He and Australian boxer Frank Slavin made their way to the Klondike in early 1897, before the big stampede, where he worked in the Monte Carlo saloon in Dawson City for a short while.
He left the Klondike over the Dalton Trail in the fall of 1897 through deep snow and raging blizzards. So grateful were his traveling companions of his leadership on this six week journey, that they gave him a gold watch when they reached Seattle.
Boyle returned to the Klondike, having obtained a mining concession for a large chunk of the Klondike valley. He eventually gained control of one of the largest gold dredging companies in the Yukon and became known as the “King of the Klondike.”
In 1905, Boyle assembled a hockey team consisting of the best players in the Yukon. He named them the Nuggets and challenged the Ottawa Silver Seven for possession of the Stanley Cup. After an epic journey to Ottawa, the Nuggets lost the challenge, going down in the annals of hockey history as the most lopsided defeat in the history of the legendary cup.
When war was declared against Germany in 1914, he was one of the first to step forward by offering to finance an entire machine gun battery of 50 Yukon volunteers.
Boyle seemed to crave adventure. He travelled to England in 1916, and when the military rejected him because of his age, he volunteered to go to Russia the following year for the American Committee of Engineers. What ensued is better than any adventure story that could have been dreamed up.
He reorganized the Russian rail system to advance the war effort against the Germans. In the process, he led a successful effort to save a Russian army from being overrun by advancing enemy forces.
The Russians gave him a medal for that, and asked him to sort out the supply problems on the Romanian front, where he so impressed the Romanians that they asked him for a favour: to repatriate the national treasury, which was being stored in Moscow, before the Bolsheviks, who had just taken power in October 1917, could confiscate the hoard.
After a harrowing train ride through Russia, he arrived in Romania on Christmas Day to a hero’s welcome with his valuable cargo. Within months, he had saved the lives of a group of up to 70 Romanian officials who were being held hostage amidst the turmoil in Odessa and brought them back to Romania. He successfully negotiated an international peace treaty between Russia and Romania while at the same time operating a large spy network.
Boyle met Queen Marie of Romania, and they became fast friends — some even suggest they were lovers. After suffering a stroke in June of 1918, Boyle was nursed back to health by the queen. After the war, Boyle arranged for the loan of $25 million from Canada to help the war-ravaged Romanians recover.
He died in England April 14, 1923, without ever having returned to his beloved Klondike, but he was not forgotten. Numerous countries awarded him military honours for what he did during the war. After the Armistice, King Ferdinand of Romania granted Boyle the title of Duke of Jassy, along with a sizeable estate in Bessarabia.
In August of 1984 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorated his accomplishments by recognizing him as a person of national significance. Pierre Berton and Dawsonite George Shaw, on behalf of the Board, unveiled a plaque on Bonanza Creek listing his accomplishments.
Today, the plaque is on display beside Dredge Number 4, one of Boyle’s gold dredges, which is now a national historic site.
According to Martha Black, Boyle was “intolerant, overbearing, determined to obstinacy in business dealings, but gentle and affectionate … with women and children and, at times, generous to a fault.”
“Those of us who knew him intimately,” she added, “will not forget the annual picnic that Joe Boyle gave for Dawson children nor his love for animals and flowers. Joe Boyle was friend of Prince and Pauper alike … the lure of the unknown beckoned him ever onward and it was in answer to that demand that … the soldier of fortune journeyed to far away Roumania and there met his Fairy Queen.”
So what was Joe Boyle doing to celebrate his 50th birthday in 1917? We may never know, but given the circumstances, he may not have had the time or opportunity for any kind of formal celebration. Boyle was immersed in events that would shape the course of the twentieth century, as the Bolsheviks overthrew centuries of Romanov rule in Russia.
At the time, he was en route to Petrograd by train. Sitting on top, or clinging to the sides of the rail cars was an unruly mob of soldiers abandoning their posts.
The 150th birthday party for Joe Boyle will be a more light-hearted and organized affair. Sponsored jointly by the Yukon Historical and Museums Association and the Whitehorse Legion, the family-oriented event included music, dancing, singing, games for the kids and sharing a large birthday cake. A variety of historical displays included a collection of World War I weapons, an exhibit about the role of the Yukon in World War I, a book table, and a “Quilts of Valour” display.
Joe Boyle was there too — in the form of a life-size effigy that was available for selfies with one of the Yukon’s most remarkable action figures.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org