Klondike Joe and the Queen of Romania

“A very curious, fascinating sort of man, who is frightened of nothing.”

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. It was the beginning of a long adventure that led him to the Yukon gold fields, revolutionary Russia and into the affections of a beautiful Queen.

On his return from sea Boyle 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.

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

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 a private mission to Russia’s provisional Kerensky government. By mid-1917 Russian transportation was in chaos and the whole country was spiraling towards revolution. Boyle got the trains running again 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 unorthodox manner, Boyle had whole trains pitched over embankments and had the trains moving supplies to the troops in three days.

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 stopped the train. Boyle organized a concert for the officials to deceive them about his intentions. He served them tea, spiked with run and brandy, cut the telegraph lines and forced the engineer to pull out at gun point.

On March 2, 1918 Boyle met Queen Marie of Romania. The meeting was brief but left a profound imprint on both of them. Marie, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, was a romantic. She described Boyle in her diary as “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 praise for Boyle’s strength, deep blue eyes and reassuring smile. Boyle was smitten too. He would clasp her hand and promise that he would never forsake her. Speculation about whether the affair was physical seems pointless; it was a potent love story however it unfolded. Boyle wrote that his feelings for Marie “possess me to the absolute exclusion of everybody and everything else.”

From Romania Boyle maintained a network of 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.”

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 secured 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, his daughter Flora and a committee of Woodstock citizens arranged for the transfer 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.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 



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