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Unveiling the Untold Story of Canada’s Land-Locked Prairie Ship

Tom Sukanen, a Finnish-Canadian immigrant, built a ship in the middle of a Saskatchewan prairie with dreams of returning home. Despite hardships and ridicule, his legacy lives on in the Sontiainen Ship and Pioneer Village Museum.

By Beth Snider · February 11, 2024

The Sukanen Ship

In the heart of the Saskatchewan prairie near Moose Jaw, an unexpected sight catches the eye - a large ship flying Finnish and Canadian flags. A remarkable maritime relic, the Sontiainen, stands as the dreams and tribulations of Tom Sukanen, a Finnish-Canadian. His life unfolded like an epic novel that ultimately led to the creation of a ship defying logic and geography.

Born in 1878 in the Finnish archipelago, Tom Sukanen’s early life was shaped by the coastal trades of sailing, navigation, steel-working, and shipbuilding. At the age of 20, he ventured to America and settled in Minnesota, building a life and raising a family with his Finnish wife. In 1911 he left his wife and children, driven by a relentless yearning for new opportunities which lead him on a journey across the Canadian border in search of his brother, Svante Sukanen.

After a 600-mile journey on foot, Tom found himself in the Macrorie-Birsay area in Saskatchewan, where he filed for a homestead. He became an integral part of the community, assisting new settlers with building sod houses and crafting sewing machines for the women. After 11 years of establishing a new home, he returned to Minnesota to collect his family. Upon his arrival, he learned that his wife had succumbed to a flu epidemic, his children were separated and placed in foster homes, and his old farm lay in ruins. He returned to Canada heartbroken.

The SS Sontiainen is 43 Ft Length, 26 Ft High & 15 Tons  Exploring Canada/YouTube

In 1929 the Great Depression struck, prompting Tom to return to his first love - shipbuilding. His dream was to construct a ship, the Sontiainen, that would carry him back to his homeland. Undeterred by the economic hardships and the ridicule of his neighbors, Sukanen poured all his savings into constructing a ship in the middle of the prairie.

The ship’s keel and hull were made from double-planned strong oak, and reinforced with galvanized iron and steel to withstand collisions with ice flows. In a nod to Finnish tradition, he coated the keel with a sealer made from horse blood, to prevent corrosion in saltwater.

By 1938, the vessel neared completion, and Sukanen’s plea for assistance to move the 15-ton superstructure 17 miles to the South Saskatchewan River fell on deaf ears. Vandals struck, stripping the ship of its metal while he slept in one of the cabins. The incident led to a rapid decline in Sukanen’s health, and his eventual institutionalization in 1943, where he passed away the same year, broke, alone, and forgotten. Ironically, the year of his death marked the end of a drought, which would have allowed the Sontiainen to be effortlessly transported to the sea.

In 1972 Laurence “Moon” Mullin, an antique collector, renovated the ship and established the Sukanen Ship and Pioneer Village Museum. Sukanen’s body was exhumed and interred in a chapel allowing the Finnish pioneer to rest in peace next to his enduring dream.