Tourism Saskatchewan

Tom Sukanen

An incredible journey

If you have ever travelled on the No 2 highway south of Moose Jaw you can't have failed to notice a large ship flying the Finnish and Canadian flags smack in the middle of the Saskatchewan prairie.
The ship called Sontiainen or Dontianen was built with ingenuity during the Great Depression by a Finn called Tom Sukanen who wanted to return to his homeland on it.

Today we know that he could have fulfilled his long-held dream and the larger-thanlife story has resulted in Finnish and Canadian documentaries as well as a theatre play.

Tom Sukanen was born Tomi Jaanus Alankola in 1878 in the Finnish archipelago. Here he learned to sail and navigate with compass and sextant. He also learned the only trade available on the coast that of a shipbuilder. As this was the time when steamships were taking over from sailing ships, Tom also became a skilled steelworker.

Tom sailed for America at the age of 20. Like so many other Swedes, Norwegians and Finns, he ended up in Minnesota. He never got the job and riches he had hoped for. Instead he ended up marrying a young Finnish girl who was stranded alone on a farm after her father had died. Together they eked out a meager living on the farm while the family grew with three daughters and one son.

In 1911, perhaps in desperation, Tom quite suddenly left his family and went in search of his brother across the Canadian border. He set out on foot for the 600 mile trek to the Macrorie-Birsay area in Saskatchewan where he eventually located his brother Svante.

At this time there was still free land available in Canada and Tom filed for a homestead and built it up, endearing himself to his neighbours according to L.J. Mullin's Tom Sukanen and his Ship. Tom helped new homesteaders build sodhouses and he made a sewing machine and let the women of the area use it to sew clothes for their families.

In seven years Tom managed to set up a fine homestead for his family and save about nine thousand dollars, which was a large sum in those days. He had not had any contact with his family, but in 1918 he took the 600-mile trek to Minnesota to fetch them, only to find the farm abandoned. Tom's wife had died in a "flu" epidemic and their children had been placed in foster homes.

The only child Tom managed to locate was his son, whose name had been changed to John Forsythe. Together they started the long trek back to Canada but were stopped a few miles south of the border. The boy was sent back to his foster parents where he waited for his father to come and fetch him again. Tom made another attempt but both father and son were apprehended and John was placed in reform school and Tom was deported with a warning to not attempt to kidnap his son again.

Heartbroken, the gentle 2501b giant of a man returned to Saskatchewan where he started working on the railway. To this day there are numerous stories of his incredible strength. While it took several men to unload each 6001b steel rail, Tom amazed everybody by doing it single-handedly.

In 1929 when the Great Depression struck, Tom surprised everybody by going to Finland. After seeding his crop, he set out on the high spring water of the Saskatchewan River in a heavy rowboat that he had built himself. On arrival in Hudson Bay, he got a job on a freight ship that was going to Finland. There he entertained relatives with Canadian tunes on a home-made violin before returning to Saskatchewan the same way he had come.

The trip was a reconnaissance trip for his next trip aboard his own sea-faring ship. With a complete set of maps from the Regina Department of Archives with details about seasonal water levels and a design for a forty-three foot long steam-powered vessel that could also be handled by sail, Tom was set to start on his project.
By now Saskatchewan was in the throes of the Depression. There was no rain, frequent dust storms and widespread crop failure. In amazement, that later turned to anger, Tom's neighbours watched him spend huge amounts of money on sheet metal steel, cable and copper for his "crazy ship", while so many of them were starving. They even tried to get the RCMP to remove him.

For six long years Tom laboured on his ship day and night, forsaking his farm and health. With no money left, he ate little. He refused to accept any food if he could not pay for it. His face and clothes were black from all the work in the forge. Yet "the crazy Finlander" was a friendly giant who never minded his neighbour's curious children.

The keel and hull was made out of doubleplaned strong oak. Tom caulked them and sealed the whole outside with tar. For the outer skin he used galvanized iron for the keel and steel for the hull so the ship could survive collisions with ice flows. He then painted the keel with a sealer coat of horse blood, an age-old Finnish method to prevent the corroding effects of salt water.

Tom Sukanen's plan was to build "Sontiainen" (meaning "Small Dung Bug") in three sections. The super-structure cabins were to be loaded on to a raft with a motor that would tow the water-tight keel (without ballast) and hull over shallow water until they reached the high water of the Saskatchewan River and then onto Hudson Bay. Here the parts would be assembled and the steam engine and boiler installed.

Tom had no trouble moving the superstructure the 17 miles to the river, but with no rain during the construction years, he needed help with the keel and hull. He asked a neighbour who had a steam engine for help but the man refused. The neighbour's refusal and subsequent boasting about it depressed this kind loner tremendously. The last blow came when he heard that vandals had stripped the metal off the keel and hull at his homestead while he himself was 17 miles away staying in the cabin of his ship on the edge of the water.

Stunned and bewildered, Tom Sukanen let himself be taken away to an institutional hospital where he died penniless and almost forgotten in 1943. That year the drought ended and copious amounts of rain flooded the Saskatchewan River that could have carried Sontiainen with ease all the way to the sea.

In a letter to his sister, Tom had prophetically written "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."

The "fourth man" was "Moon" Mullin who eventually arranged for the renovation of the ship and its move, twenty-nine years after Tom's prediction, by flatbed truck to what has become the Sukanen Ship and Pioneer Village Museum (open May to October, phone 306-693-7315). The remains of Tom were moved from an unmarked grave to the small chapel next to the ship, to fulfill the last words in Tom's prophesy.

Scandinavian Press, Issue 4, 2001