Happy Birthday, Joe Boyle: Celebrating a 'larger-than-life' Klondike hero

Boyle's life was a string of improbable adventures that took him from the Klondike to Bolshevik Russia. 150 years after Boyle's birth, Yukon history buff Max Fraser is celebrating the legend with a party.

Boyle was born 150 years ago, just after Confederation. Good reason for a party, says Yukoner Max Fraser

Yukon filmmaker Max Fraser with a cardboard figure of 'Klondike' Joe Boyle. 'It's hard to fathom that there could be a character out of history that accomplished this many things,' Fraser said. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

"Klondike" Joe Boyle is not quite a household name in Canada, or even Yukon, and Max Fraser thinks that's a real shame.

"He was a man of incredible accomplishments on a number of fronts. And I'm quite passionate about trying to champion his legacy," said Fraser, a Whitehorse-based filmmaker and history buff.

"He was one of many larger-than-life characters out of the Klondike gold rush."

Boyle died nearly a century ago (in 1923), but Fraser's working hard to keep his memory alive with a birthday celebration this weekend in Whitehorse. Monday marks the 150th anniversary of Boyle's birth.

He was born just a few months after Confederation, making him "one of the first Canadian-born Canadians," Fraser says.

"So, now's the time to have a party."

'Indiana Jones-style heroics'

Boyle's life involved a string of improbable adventures that spanned the world — from small town Ontario, to the Klondike, to Bolshevik Russia, to the Romanian royal palace.

Along the way, he demonstrated a knack for "Indiana Jones-style heroics," Fraser says.  

Joe Boyle in 1918. By the end of the First World War, Boyle had been awarded medals by France, England, Russia and Romania. (Wikimedia commons)

Boyle was raised in Woodstock, Ont. and came to Yukon as a young man in search of gold. He found it.

He became a major player in the Klondike, making a fortune in gold and timber, and bringing the first large-scale dredges to the Klondike gold fields. He was soon a local legend, but didn't stick around long to enjoy the success.

"He vanquished his rivals — he was the king of the Klondike. Then war broke out," Fraser said.

Boyle was too old to enlist as a soldier in the First World War, but he left for Europe anyway. He ended up in Russia, helping re-organize the country's railway system as the war raged on, and the Bolsheviks took over the country.

Soon, Boyle made his way to Romania where he helped repatriate some of its treasures from Moscow. He was then also maintaining a ring of hundreds of British spies, in eastern Europe.

"It's hard to fathom that there could be a character out of history that accomplished this many things," Fraser said. 

"By the end of World War One, Joe Boyle had been awarded medals from France, England, Romania and Russia. He never got a medal from Canada because he never reported to the Canadian army — he acted on his own."

A Romanian royal romance?

In 1918, Boyle met Marie of Edinburgh — Queen of Romania — and "became smitten," Fraser says. 

The royal and the rogue quickly formed a bond, but it's not clear whether there was any romance. Fraser says it's one of the enduring mysteries of Boyle's life.

"They hit it off in a big way, and the historical record's a little vague on exactly the true nature of their relationship. But it's a lot of fun to talk about and to speculate!" Fraser said.

After the war, Boyle again helped the country, by securing an extraordinary $25 million in aid for Romania from the Canadian government.

Mover of mountains

To Fraser, Boyle is a truly heroic figure that deserves special recognition in Yukon, where he first made his name.

"He always thought big, and acted big, and he was a personality — even if he didn't have the dredges — who could literally move mountains and rivers."

The birthday party on Saturday afternoon is a free event open to everybody, with cake, dancing, and a life-size cardboard figure of Boyle, so people can take pictures with the legend. It's at the Mount McIntrye Recreation Centre in Whitehorse, from 12 until 4 p.m.

Fraser is also promising something special — a historic artifact that's being brought down from Dawson City. He won't say what it is, but says it hasn't left Dawson since 1922. 

"It's a surprise for Joe's birthday." 

With files from Sandi Coleman


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