[Joe Boyle] King of the gold diggers – by Pierre Berton (Globe and Mail – September 25, 2004)


“Placer gold is known as Poor Man’s Gold because a lone prospector can
wrest it from the ground with little more than a spade and a sluice box.”

Joseph Whiteside Boyle was a force of nature, albeit a flawed one. In the early days of the 20th century, he was famous, even notorious, on two continents. A man who craved action for its own sake, he had an uncanny instinct for finding where the action was. When the first news of the Klondike strike was making headlines in Seattle and San Francisco, Boyle was already in the vanguard of the ragtag army of gold seekers stampeding north.

Old-time mining methods were not for him. Though he began with virtually nothing, he went on to build, under almost impossible conditions, the largest gold dredges in the world — monstrous floating machines that churned up the storied creek beds and helped revolutionize the placer mining industry in the Yukon.

He came from a middle-class family of four siblings, and there is no suggestion that his upbringing in the quiet ambiance of Woodstock, Ont., was anything but happy. He feared no man but held no grudges. He got along with his opponents, both legal and financial, and they got along with him.

And yet there are cracks in the Boyle legend. He was certainly not a family man. In 1884, at the age of 17, just out of Woodstock College, he visited his two elder brothers in New York City. Their relationship cannot have been close. One day the brothers returned to their quarters on lower Broadway to find a scribbled note on the table: “I’ve gone to sea. Don’t worry about me. Joe.” He was gone for the best part of three years, and in all that time they had no word of him — not even a message for his mother.

Many years and a failed marriage later, Boyle was on an exhibition tour with Frank Slavin, the “Sydney Cornstalk,” who had ambitions to become a heavyweight boxing champion. When the pair reached Victoria and heard whispers of a great gold strike in the Yukon, they lost no time in heading north to Dawson, the city of gold.

The Yukon shaped Boyle. Big and barrel-chested, he always thought big. The scale of the land, with its mighty-mouthed valleys, its enormous rivers, and its endless, mist-shrouded vistas, fitted his style.

All around them that fall of 1897 the carnival roared on. Men who had been paupers were fabulously rich, flinging their profits on the gaming tables and becoming paupers again. Others were buying champagne at $30 a split for the dance-hall beauties who plied their trade in the upper boxes.

None of this had any effect on the teetotalling puritan whose only ambition was to build a mining empire. He wanted to control a great swath of the goldfields instead of a single claim.

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