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As a Canadian, I spent a lot of time learning about the Gold Rush in middle school history class; as a sports fan, I read about the early days of professional hockey as a young child. Little did I know that one of the men responsible for bringing one of the craziest sports teams in history, the Dawson City Nuggets, turned out to be one of the most incredible men to ever live. Seriously. Read on. I’ve been researching and writing for three days and I still honestly can’t believe this guy was a real person.
Joseph Whiteside “Klondike Joe” Boyle
Born: November 6, 1867, Toronto, Ontario
Died: April 14, 1923, Hampton Hill, England
Occupation: Sailor, boxing manager, gold prospector, adventurer, businessman, hockey coach and GM, military officer, diplomat, railway commissar, spy
So there’s a lot to unpack about Joe Boyle. Born in Toronto, he was raised in the small town of Woodstock, Ontario, where his father owned and operated a farm for breeding racehorses. In 1885, when Boyle was 17, he was on a trip to New York City with his father, where he just up and left to run off to sea for three years. In the years that followed, this is what happened in Joe Boyle’s life:
- He once jumped overboard in the middle of a thunderstorm to save a crew member who was being attacked by a shark, with nothing more than a hunting knife. He won the fight unscathed.
- He survived a massive shipwreck, and washed ashore in Cork County, Ireland, taking a job as a tour guide for a few months in order to make enough cash to catch a ship back to NYC.
- Returning to North America in 1888, he married a Belgian widow, whom he’d known for less than a week. They ended up having seven children together, of which four survived. He ran a successful animal feed business and managed a boxing club while living in New York.
- In 1896, he divorced his wife and returned home to Canada, taking his two oldest children with him – a son and a daughter. He would later leave his children with their grandparents when he got word that there was gold found in the Yukon.
- To finance his trip north, Boyle arranged boxing matches with an Australian prizefighter, Frank Slevin, who accompanied him north to stake their claims for land. This didn’t work well, though the pair still fortunately made it to Dawson City, despite having just $22 between the two of them.
- Boyle and Slevin made it to Dawson through the White Pass – a treacherous wagon trail originating in Skagway, Alaska, where many travellers died of starvation or went insane – and initially started staking land claims and panning for gold. When they found this, and later pick-and-shovel mining, to be inefficient, Boyle travelled back 4,000 miles to Ottawa to petition the federal government to allow him to dredge the land using massive dredges he had custom-built. Boyle got so rich from this new method of mining that he became known as the “King of the Klondike”, even building a hydroelectric dam with his riches to power the entire town of Dawson City.
- In 1905, Boyle organized a ragtag group of hockey players out of Dawson, known as the Nuggets, to challenge the Ottawa Silver Seven, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, for the trophy. Once again, the team made the incredibly difficult 4,000 mile trek – including stints by dogsled and steamship, as well as a transcontinental train – and got smoked in the series. Dawson City lost the first game 9-2, and then after saying that Ottawa star “One-Eyed” Frank McGee wasn’t actually that good, lost the second game 23-2, with McGee scoring fourteen goals in the game. The Ottawa team later hosted a banquet honoring the Nuggets – both teams got super wasted and ended up repeatedly drop-kicking the Stanley Cup into the frozen-over Rideau Canal, where they found it the next morning.
- When the First World War broke out in 1914, Boyle was too old to enlist, so instead, he financed his own 50-man machine gun company, which ended up highly decorated by war’s end. For his financial support, the Canadian Ministry of War named Boyle an honorary lieutenant-colonel, and gave him a uniform to wear – he would never been seen in public without the uniform on for the rest of his life.
- In 1916, with his mining business no longer doing well, Boyle left for England to meet with investors, leaving behind his second wife, who would never see him again. To cut a deal with his British backers, he agreed to aid the war effort by becoming an officer for the Royal Engineers, and was sent to Russia to aid the army against the dual onslaught of both the Germans and the Bolsheviks.
- His actions in the battle of Tarnapol saved the city from being taken by the Germans, and he was inducted into the Order of St. Stanislaus by Czar Nicholas II, making him an official Knight of the Russian Empire. Even after the Czar was overthrown in the Revolution in November 1917, Boyle remained a popular figure in Soviet eyes.
- Lenin then named Boyle Railway Commissar, and he was tasked with moving more than 10,000 railway cars full of troops, munitions and supplies to the front lines. These trains had been languishing for months, unable to move out of the logjam on the rails leading out of Moscow. To get them moving again, he ended up having some excess railway cars pushed off the side of mountains and a whole variety of other crazy engineering feats. Under his leadership, the Gordian knot of train cars that paralyzed Moscow for months was cleared in just three days.
- Despite Soviet honour bestowed upon him, Boyle hated the Communists, and ended up double-crossing them; while on a mission to deliver food and clothes to the war-torn population of Romania, he also managed to steal the Romanian paper currency treasury, gold reserves, archives, and crown jewels out of the Kremlin, stick them on two stolen rail cars, and send them directly through the front lines of the civil war still raging in the western Soviet Union, and safely back to Romania.
- At one point, the station manager at Vapnyarka refused to let the train through, despite Boyle’s high-ranking status, so in order to get around this, Boyle organized a huge party for all the employees of the Transportation Department that were in town. He threw them a huge concert, served them a bunch of tea spiked with rum and brandy until they passed out, cut the telegraph lines, and then pulled out of the station with the driver held at gunpoint.
- Boyle arrived after the national treasures returned, making it to Jassy, home of the royal palace of Romania, in 1918. Upon meeting Queen Marie of Romania, a granddaughter of longtime British monarch Victoria, he apparently said, “I have come to help you. And my God, woman, do you need help.”
- Boyle and Queen Marie fell in love, despite her still being married to her husband, King Ferdinand I… Her diary goes on at extreme length with just how much she admired Boyle. Nobody’s been able to confirm it 100%, but it’s almost certain that they banged. A lot.
- Meanwhile, Boyle was also running a spy network, in addition to all of his duties as Railway Commissar. With the help of Captain George Hill, a member of the British Secret Service who also spoke Russian, Boyle managed over 500 spies in the Baltic states and western Russia. While they first focused their activities on German activity in the war, they later turned their attention to the Bolsheviks, who were growing stronger. Boyle is particularly noted for his rescue of 70 Romanian nobles from Odessa, who were being held hostage by the Bolsheviks – despite his running a spy network, Boyle refused outright to blend in. He could only speak English, hated disguises, and still continued to wear his Canadian military uniform everywhere he went – which frustrated other commanding officers to no end. Between his return of Romanian treasure and the rescue of Romanian nobles, Boyle received the Star of Romania, the title of the Duke of Jassy, an estate in Bessarabia, and the moniker “the Savior of Romania” – all of this from King Ferdinand, despite the fact that Boyle was banging his wife.
- When the war ended and Romania was threatened with famine, Boyle personally organized three ships of food from England to be sent in relief. Later, at the Paris Peace Conference, he arranged for $25 million in bonds from Canada to go to Romanian relief from the war, by petitioning Prime Minister Robert Borden.
- Boyle suffered a stroke in 1918, which greatly slowed him down, but he still recovered some of his former strength; while slower than he was for much of his life, he still led an expedition in 1922 to recover British oil fields from Bolshevik control in the Caucasus – while it was ultimately unsuccessful, he still received the British Distinguished Service Order and the French Croix de Guerre for his tremendous efforts.
- In 1923, Boyle finally passed away at the age of just 55 in Hampton Hill, England. Queen Marie was heartbroken at the news of his passing, and had a special gravestone commissioned for him, using a thousand-year-old stone cross taken from a Romanian Orthodox church. Boyle’s body was eventually repatriated back to Canada in 1983 at the request of his daughter (from Boyle’s first marriage waaaaaay back in the 1890s. Remember her?), and he was given a full military funeral and laid to rest in his hometown of Woodstock, Ontario.
Holy shit. What a ride. All hail Joe Boyle. Seriously. I’m proud that I get to share a country with this man. Pretty safe to say there’ll never be another person quite like him.