“Klondike” Joe Boyle
by Michael Gates©
According to Pierre Berton, Joe Boyle started his career as a bouncer in the Monte Carlo Saloon (Dawson City) and ended it as the lover of the Queen of Romania. Sounds pretty catchy, doesn’t it? And if it is even half true, Joe Boyle was a true hero and the stuff that Hollywood epics are made of. He was a natural leader and promoter, tall with broad shoulders and a winning smile, almost bigger than life.
So it is fitting that the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada declared him a person of national historic significance, and that a brass plaque stating that fact is mounted on a steel dredge bucket next to Dredge Number 4 National Historic Site, on Bonanza Creek. This dredge was originally one of the giant machines he was responsible for building back in the early years after the gold rush.
Boyle grew up in Woodstock Ontario, but wanderlust took him many places before the Klondike. He was merchant seaman, businessman and fight promoter before the gold rush lured him north in 1897. Once there, he saw an opportunity, immediately turned around, and while everyone else was stampeding to Dawson City, he stampeded to Ottawa, intent on securing a concession to undertake large-scale mining. He almost didn’t make it that far though. If it hadn’t been for his grit and determination and leadership in the winter snows in the pass of the Dalton Trail, he and his travelling companions would most certainly perished. His story is like that throughout his life.
Boyle was successful in securing the rights to mining a large tract of land in the Klondike River valley. He eventually wrestled control of the Canadian Klondyke Mining Company from the powerful Rothschild family. By 1909, he was in charge of one of the two corporate mining giants in the Klondike and became known as “The King of the Klondike”. His dredges were the largest in the Yukon, and almost certainly, some of the largest in the world.
It was also during this time that he did something else that put Dawson City on the map, as well as the cup, the Stanley Cup. His Dawson Nuggets challenged the Ottawa Silver Seven for the title to the cup in 1905, but after an epic journey over snowy Yukon trails on foot, through the White Pass by rail, down the Pacific coast by boat, and across the continent by CPR, the Dawson Nuggets lost a record-breaking match with the Ottawa Team. They did earn the right to have Dawson City’s name engraved on the most famous hockey trophy in the world. It’s the smallest town that ever fought for the cup.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Joe left the Yukon for good. He stepped forward with the offer to finance and equip a machine gun unit of fifty men for the Canadian Army. Too old to see active combat, he was given the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel. When America joined the war in 1917, Boyle immediately signed up for the American Committee of Engineers. He embarked on a mission to get the Russian train system working. “Boyle’s physical presence and determination, his ability to see to the heart of a problem and his willingness to use or ignore official channels to his purpose not only impressed his hosts but made immediate improvements in the flow of food and ammunition to the Russian front.” At Tarnapol, he helped restore order while under German attack, for which the Russians presented him with a medal.
In the winter of 1917-18 he became involved in the supply of food to starving defeated Romanians after which he arranged for the national crown jewels and archives to be moved to Moscow to keep them out of German hands. He later arranged for their return.
Boyle moved from one exciting drama to another. He negotiated a treaty of peace between Russia and Romania; he rescued 60 Romanian dignitaries and escaped with them to Romania via the Black Sea; he operated an extensive spy network, and he negotiated at the Versailles Peace Conference on behalf of Romania after the end of the war. And yes, in all likelihood, he also became the lover of Queen Marie of Romania.
While never formally recognized by Canada at the time for his wartime accomplishments, Joe was decorated by several other countries: The Distinguished Service Order by Britain, the French Croix de Guerre, the Russian Order of St. Vladimir, and the Order of the Star of Romania, to name a few.
Joe Boyle died in 1923 after years of ill health in London England. His remains were later repatriated to his home in Woodstock, Ontario, where they were interred with full military honours and provincial recognition in 1983. While still a young man when he died, he had packed more than a lifetime of adventure into his years.
If you find this story as intriguing as I did, try reading these books: “The Sourdough and the Queen” by Len Taylor (Methuen Books, Toronto,1983) or “Dawson City Seven” by Don Reddock (Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, 1993), or visit Dredge Number 4 National Historic Site on Bonanza Creek.
(Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.)