Joe Boyle: King of the Klondike | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Joe Boyle: King of the Klondike

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

Born in Toronto in 1867 and raised in Woodstock, Ont., Joe Boyle was an extraordinarily restless young man. At age 17 he went to New York with his father and hopped an outbound ship, spending three years at sea. On his return he started a freighting business, got married and left it all to go on the road promoting an Australian boxer, Frank Slavin.

The two men made their way to Juneau, Alaska, and were among the first to travel the White Pass route to the Klondike. Boyle laid claim to a huge stretch of the Klondike River and made a fortune not only in gold but in sawing timber and generating electric power. He also found time to spend some of his boundless energy escorting a rag-tag crew of hockey players to Ottawa to challenge for the Stanley Cup.

When war broke out in 1914 Boyle predictably sprang into action. He raised and equipped a machine gun company at his own expense. Too old for active duty, he got himself appointed to conduct a private mission to Russia's provisional Kerensky government. By mid-1917 Russian transportation was in chaos and the whole country was spiraling into revolution. Boyle took command of the transportation system on the southwestern front, boldly taking control of troops in a desperate situation at Tarnapol, an action for which he was decorated in the field by the Russian commander.

One of Boyle's most astonishing feats occurred shortly after the Bolshevik takeover in November 1917. Some 10 000 railway cars, stocked with supplies for the front, were bottled up in the Moscow marshalling yards. In his usual direct manner, Boyle had whole trains pitched over embankments and had the trains moving in three days, enabling the Russians to keep some 300,000 troops in the field.

The Bolsheviks put Boyle in charge of delivering food and clothing to their shaky ally Romania but relations between the two countries soon deteriorated. The Romanians were anxious to get their archives, paper money, gold and (it was said) crown jewels out of Moscow, where they had been placed for safekeeping. Boyle used his influence with the Bolsheviks to commandeer two railway cars, load them with the treasure and set out on the 2500 kilometre journey to Romania. The route lay directly through battlegrounds of the civil war.

At Vapnyarka, the station master refused permission to proceed. Boyle organized a concert for the Bolsheviks to show that they were not concealing anything. He served them tea, spiked with run and brandy, cut the telegraph lines and forced the driver to pull out at gun point.

On March 2, 1918 Boyle met Queen Marie of Romania. The meeting was brief but it changed both their lives. Marie was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, beautiful and of a romantic disposition. She wrote in her diary of Boyle "A very curious, fascinating sort of man, who is frightened of nothing." From trust grew friendship, admiration and love. The Queen's diary is full of descriptions of Boyle's strength, rugged good looks, deep blue eyes and reassuring smile. For his part, Boyle was smitten. He would clasp her hand and promise that nothing would make him forsake her. Whether the accusations of their enemies that the affair was physical are true or not is irrelevant; it was a potent love story however it unfolded.

Joe Boyle with Queen Marie (left) of Romania at Bicaz, Romania in 1918.

From Romania Boyle maintained a wide-ranging network of 450 agents for British intelligence in Southern Russia. At great personal risk, he saved the lives of 50 Romanian aristocrats and government officials, held hostage by the Bolsheviks at Odessa. The prodigious feat made him a national hero and the Queen awarded him the Star of Romania. When in May 1918 Boyle suffered a stroke, Marie wrote "I felt my heart die within me." Boyle wrote of his feelings for Marie that they "possess me to the absolute exclusion of everybody and everything else."

As he recovered Boyle persuaded the Queen to launch a national aid program. He distributed $25 million in aid from Canada, which he had persuaded PM Robert Borden to provide. In 1922, on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell, he attempted to secure the return of Britain's Caucasus oil holdings from the Bolsheviks, for which he was awarded the D.S.O and French Croix de Guerre.

As his health deteriorated, Boyle grew lonely and longed to return to the rapids and clear air of the Klondike. He died in England April 14, 1923 and was buried at Hampton Hill. "You are still somewhere quite near," the brokenhearted Queen wrote, "and you know it - you know you cannot die in my heart."

In 1983, at the request of his daughter, Flora, a committee of Woodstock citizens arranged for the removal of Joe Boyle's body to Woodstock. In the sole recognition in Canada of this remarkable man, the Department of National Defense performed a full military funeral.