Gold. Hard, smooth and glittering, the precious metal has driven men to fight and to kill and to die lonely deaths in the wilderness. In the 1800s, the aura of gold drew wave after wave of fortune seekers, chasing their dreams from California to Oregon and Washington, and on to British Columbia’s Cariboo Mountains. Finally, on Aug. 16, 1896, a prospector named George Carmack, panning on Rabbit Creek in the Yukon, unleashed one of the biggest rushes of all. Learning of his strike, nearly 100,000 people trekked through uncharted wilderness or navigated perilous rapids towards the mud flats at the junction of the Yukon and Klondike rivers. They built Dawson, a throbbing boomtown of tents and wood-frame houses, gambling halls and bordellos. Most soon left—broken men who returned south penniless or still-feverish prospectors lured west to Alaska by the first reports of yet another strike. Some stayed—and their sons and
grandsons still burrow in the gold-bearing gravel. But for all the Klondike’s allure, it made only a handful of people very rich. The most colorful among them was Joseph Whiteside Boyle.
A daring adventurer with broad shoulders and fiery blue eyes, Boyle amassed a gold-mining empire before raising a regiment to fight with the Allies during the First World War. In 1917, he went to Russia to help rebuild its railway system and died near London on April 14, 1923, much of his life still shrouded in myth. His wartime heroics won him Russia’s Order of St. Vladimir, Britain’s Distinguished Service Order and a host of Romanian awards. But he remains largely unknown in his homeland. In 1983, his daughter, Flora, and a group of local historians had his body returned to Woodstock, the Ontario town where he grew up. They brought along a sprig of the ivy that his rumored lover, Queen Marie of Romania, had planted at his grave, as well as the tombstone she had engraved with lines from a poem by Robert Service, the Yukon bank clerk whose work enshrined the spirit of the Gold Rush: “man with the heart of a Viking/and the simple faith of a child.”
Nearly a century after Carmack’s discovery, miners still migrate to the Klondike— about 500 of them each year. But in the spring, when the Yukon River ice breaks up, Dawson’s 1,800 residents begin preparing for another kind of stampede—the roughly 60,000 tourists who descend on them each summer. Pickup trucks rumble down muddy streets where North West Mounted Police Col. Sam Steele once kept a tight rein on the sort of ruffians who had turned neighboring Alaska’s boom towns into gang-run fiefdoms. Students ^ hired as waiters and cham5 bermaids hurry along the 'i boardwalks, past workmen I sprucing up buildings whose g false facades conjure up the ^ town’s turn-of-the-century I heyday. Peabody’s souvenir photo shop opens for business, as does the Trail of 98 Mini Golf and the Bonanza RV Park where visitors can pan for gold.
The opening of the Diamond Tooth Gerties casino draws travellers and adventurers, miners and artists, including Joseph Langevin, an 80-year-old onetime forester who makes gold jewelry. Also on hand is 27year-old Kim Tusón, a ballet student from Victoria who came to Dawson seven years ago to work as a cancan dancer. “They call me Klondike Kim,” she boasts. Norman Ross, 52, is there, too. In 1980, Ross left Toronto and his job as mining manager for the Bank of Montreal to mine for gold near Dawson. Men like Joe Boyle, he says, “must have had tremendous vision to develop the things they did—it’s tough enough today.”
Boyle was a 29-year-old boxing promoter when he heard of the Klondike gold strike. Abandoning the fight game, he arrived in Dawson in August, 1897, a time
when most other miners were content to labor on small claims with pick and shovel.
Boyle was different. After only a month, he left Dawson for Ottawa to lobby for a 45-square-mile concession along the Klondike River. It was the opening salvo in years of lobbying and legal battles to secure and maintain his landholdings. “He loved a fight,” his daughter, Flora, later wrote in Maclean’s. “He had lawyers in the Klondike, in Vancouver, London, New York, Detroit and Windsor.”
In 1904, four years after Ottawa granted his concession, Boyle sold a part interest to a group of Detroit financiers led by Sigmund Rothschild. They built the first 500-ton dredge on the Boyle concession—but lost a takeover battle that, in 1909, left Boyle in full control of the Canadian Klondyke Mining Co. When he returned to Dawson that year, Boyle began expanding his company. He acquired a utilities firm and had three new dredges built. In 1913, the year that the 2,200-ton Canadian No. 4 came into operation, Boyle’s dredges recovered almost 86,000 ounces of gold, then worth $1.3 million.
Large-scale operations like Boyle’s soon overwhelmed the individual gold miners. In all, 36 dredges were built in the Yukon before the last mammoth machine fell silent in 1966. Their stark legacy remains outside Dawson.
Along the Klondike River and the creeks that run off into the hills to the southeast, there are dredge tailings— huge piles of discarded gravel—as far as the eye can see.
The Gold Rush drove the Han Indians off their land. “And after the rush had dwindled,” says Angie Joseph-Rear, 46, a member of the local band council, “the gold seekers that stayed behind had Indian guides to help them. We shared our moose and caribou, showed them how to trap—and now we don’t have any [animals] left.” Many of the Hans’ descendants now live in Dawson, where the band owns a fishprocessing plant. It is also considering investments in the tourist trade, says Joseph-Rear. Already, the town’s population doubles every summer, to 3,600, with an influx of seasonal workers. Suzanne Walter, 23, of Nobleton, near Toronto, is waiting on tables at the Sourdough Saloon. “It’s primitive, there are bugs and the dust is on everything,” she says. “But Dawson’s amazing.” As she stops at the bar between rounds, Walter begins to recite “The Spell of the Yukon,” a poem by Robert Service. “I wanted the gold, and I sought it/I scrambled and mucked like a slave....” Tears well in her eyes. “Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it, and somehow the gold isn’t all.”
In his final years, Boyle cut a larger-than-life figure on battlefields thousands of miles from the
Klondike. At the outbreak of the First World War, he financed a 50-man machine-gun regiment. And when his mining fortunes soured, he followed the soldiers to Britain. There, he was named an honorary lieutenant-colonel and joined the civilian American Committee of Engineers, which sent him to Russia in 1917. He helped to reorganize that country’s decrepit rail system and unravelled the so-called Moscow Knot, a tangle of 10,000 cars bottled up in the city’s rail yards. In December, 1917, after the Russian Revolution, Boyle retrieved Romania’s paper currency from Moscow, where it had been sent for safekeeping. Three months later, he met Queen Marie. The extent of their relationship remains unclear. But in her journals, the monarch wrote often of their friendship. “I do not know all that I said to Col. Boyle during those hours he spent with me,” she wrote on one occasion. “When we parted, I said that all were forsaking me. He said very quietly, ‘But I won’t.’ And his handgrip was strong as iron.”
Still later, Boyle was credited with engineering the escape of more than 50 Romanian dignitaries from Odessa and, along with a British secret service agent, running a spy ring against German occupation units and Bolsheviks in Romania and southern Russia. After the war, he organized the distribution of $25 million in Canadian aid. Then, in June, 1918, he suffered a stroke. “His judgment is as clear,” Queen Marie wrote in her journals, “but some buoyancy has gone from him, some of that splendid belief in his strength.” Boyle returned to Britain, where he died in 1923.
The dreams that first drew Boyle to the Klondike live on. Robert Gould staked a claim in 1903, up on a hill above I Hunker Creek. He raised six 5 children there. Now, his eldest son, John, 73, and grandson, Peter, 31, own 35 claims between them. A stout five feet, eight inches and 200 lb., John Gould grinds his blue pickup truck up the bumpy dirt road to Australia Hill, where Peter is mining about six kilometres downstream from his grandfather’s claim. He uses tractors to push the top 60 feet of gravel aside, then washes the bottom six feet through sluice boxes. If all goes according to plan, he will extract 1,200 ounces of gold—worth more than $300,000—by the end of the summer.
Unlike Boyle, says John Gould, “I was never interested in getting to be a big company.” But he never got over the allure of gold, either. “When you do the final cleanup and you see the pile of gold, ...” says Gould, his voice trailing off. “I started working with Dad in 1936 and I still get the same feeling. It’s got a magic about it.”
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