Tom Sukanen – The Man Who Built a Ship in the Middle of the Canadian Prairie

Driving down the No. 2 highway south of Moose Jaw, bang in the middle of the Saskatchewan prairie, one can see a large ship flying Finnish and Canadian flags. Confused about a ship so far away from the sea? Well, we were too. But it turns out the ship was built there for good reason by a Finn named Tom Sukanen during the Great Depression. His plan was to use the vessel to sail back to his homeland of Finland.

Tom’s story is the stuff that several Finnish and Canadian documentaries and plays are made of. Born in 1878 in the Finnish archipelago, he learned to sail and navigate with a compass and sextant, and also became proficient in steel working and shipbuilding – the only trades available on the coast where he grew up. At the age of 20, he sailed to America and ended up in Minnesota, like many other Norwegians, Finns and Swedes. He married a young Finnish girl and managed to make a small living on the farm his father-in-law had left them, raising a family of three daughters and a son. It wasn’t the life he had dreamed of when he left Finland, so 1911, out of desperation, he abandoned his family and went across the Canadian border in search of his brother. He completed the 600-mile journey on foot, finally reuniting with his brother in the Macrorie-Birsay area in Saskatchewan.

Sukanen-Ship

Photo: Sukanen Museum

Tom filed for a homestead in Canada, and quickly became popular with the neighbors, helping new settlers build sod houses and making sewing machines for the women to use. It took Tom seven whole years to set up a fine homestead for his own family and save $9,000 as well, a very large sum in those days. Although he had had no contact with his family in 7 years, he trekked back to fetch them, only to find his old farm abandoned. Tom’s wife had died in a flu epidemic and his children placed in foster homes. He was finally able to locate only one of his children, his son. Together they tried to make the long trek back to Canada, but were stopped a few miles south of the border and the boy was sent back to his foster home. Tom tried once more to get his son back, but this time he was deported with a warning.

Sukanen-Ship2

Photo: joukork

Sukanen was heartbroken by now, and when he got back to Saskatchewan, he began working on the railway. He shocked everybody with his 250lb frame, single-handedly unloading a 600lb steel rail that otherwise took several men to handle. But when the Great Depression struck in 1929, Tom went back to the first trade he’d ever learned – shipmaking. He traveled the high spring water of the Saskatchewan River to Hudson Bay on a heavy rowboat he had built himself. From there, he took a job on a freight ship to Finland, returning to Saskatchewan shortly after. This journey encouraged Tom so much, that he began working on his dream project – making the next trip home on his own sea faring ship. Not even the throes of the Great Depression stopped him from spending huge sums of money on equipment for his ‘crazy ship’, much to the amusement and later anger, of his neighbors. While people were starving, Tom continued to work like a madman and pour money into his ship. Finally, after six long years he was left with no money for food or clothes, but he had almost completed work on his ship – the Sontiainen.

Sukanen-Ship3

Photo: joukork

The keel and hull of Tom’s superstructure were made from doubleplaned strong oak. The outer shell was made from galvanized iron for the keel and steel for the hull, so that the ship could survive collisions with ice flows. As a finishing touch, he painted the keel with a sealer coat of horse blood. This was an age-old Finnish method of preventing the corroding effects of salt water. The only uncompleted parts of Tom’s plan were the cabins, which were to be loaded on to a raft and towed until they reached Hudson Bay, where the parts would be assembled and the steam engine and boiler installed. This is when disaster struck. He was able to move the superstructure itself 17 miles to the Saskatchewan River, but needed help with the keel and hull. When he asked his neighbor who owned a steam engine for help, the man bluntly refused. This depressed Tom tremendously, but the final blow came when he heard that vandals had stripped the metal off the keel and hull, while he slept inside one of the ship’s cabins.

This incident left Tom completely and utterly bewildered; he did not protest when he was taken away to an institutionalized hospital. It was there that he died in 1943, broke, alone and forgotten. Ironically, the year he died was the year the drought ended, bringing rain that flooded the Saskatchewan River making it possible for the Sontiainen to be carried with ease all the way to the sea.

 

While Tom’s story is completely marvelous, the part that makes it truly special is the letter he wrote to his sister from the hospital. In the letter, he prophesied  “Four times there will be men who will try to raise and assemble this ship. Three times they will fail, but a fourth man will succeed. He will start the raising of my ship and it will sail across the prairies at speeds unheard of in this day and age, and will disappear in a mighty roar. My ship will go up and I shall rest in peace.” Sure enough, events unfolded exactly according to Tom’s prediction. Three times people tried to finish Sukanen’s work, but failed. The ‘fourth man’ turned out to be Laurence “Moon” Mullin, who arranged for the renovation of the ship 29 years later. It was moved by flatbed truck to what is now the Sukanen Ship and Pioneer Village Museum open between May and October each year. To fulfill the last words of his prophecy, Tom’s remains were moved to a small chapel next to the ship, so he could finally rest in peace.

The Sotiainen is now a symbol of the power of a dream and the strength and ambition of a Saskatchewan settler.


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