Moose Jaw is small city in the province of Saskatchewan. It has an odd name and likewise some interesting history. I’ve been to Moose Jaw a couple of times to visit my family, and to see some of this quirky city. Since I had read the hilarious book Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw by Canadian author Will Ferguson I’d wanted to visit one particular place just outside Moose Jaw; the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village & Museum.
The Pioneer Village & Museum
You may recall when my friend and I did our winter road trip in Saskatoon we visited the Western Development Museum. The museum actually has several different branches across the province of Saskatchewan, including this one just outside of Moose Jaw. The museum is an outdoor museum that shows what life was on the prairies a hundred years ago. The museum contains several buildings, displays and artifacts showcasing what the prairies looked like in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It even has the homestead of former (and Saskatchewan-born) Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
The real reason I wanted to visit this museum was because of the large ocean-ready ship (the Sontiainen) that sits outside the museum. The ship was built by a man named Thomas Sukanen, born in Finland (as Tomi Jaanus Alankola) in 1878. Tom originally immigrated to the United States as a young man, settling in Minnesota. He got married and had some kids, but at one point he decided to walk across the border to Canada to find his brother, who was living in Saskatchewan. He started a homestead by Macrorie, Saskatchewan. After seven years of homesteading the land he went back to the Minnesota bring his wife and children with him to Saskatchewan. Unfortunately by that time his wife had died, and his children had been placed in foster care. At one point he tried to bring one of his son’s back with him to Canada, but his son was turned away.
In 1929 Tom Sukanen went back to Finland for a visit, and then returned back to Canada. At some point he decided he would build a giant ship to sail from landlocked southern Saskatchewan to Finland. This might sound crazy (and it probably was), considering the nearest ocean is some 1100km away, rivers do lead to oceans. I suppose Tom Sukanen could have looked at a map and thought it would be possible to sail on the South Saskatchewan River up to the Hudson Bay, and then out into the Atlantic Ocean and leading to the North Sea and Baltic Sea by Finland.
I love road trips and those “world’s largest” roadside attractions, but this ship isn’t a huge oversized mammoth. It is, however; rather large when you learn that Tom Sukanen built the entire ship on his own. There were no prefabrication ship parts or tools, actually a lot of the tools for him to build the ship he ended up building himself. Tom Sukanen spent 6 years building this ship, but unfortunately it never sailed. Part of the plan was to move the ship 17 miles to the river, but he was never able to get help from his neighbours to move it, and then thieves stole the metal from the keel and hull as Tom Sukanen was sleeping in one of the cabins.
The story doesn’t end well for Tom Sukanen. He was broke and eventually taken away to an institutionalized hospital where he died in 1943. Ironically the year he died the rivers flooded and it would have been possible for the Sontiainen to sail up to the Hudson Bay. The ship itself had a happier ending when several people tried to restore the ship to its former glory. Eventually Laurence Mullins did just that, some 29 years later. The Sontiainen was moved outside of Moose Jaw where it sits at the Pioneer Village today. The remains of Tom Sukanen were also moved, to be buried beside the ship he built.
There’s something intriguing about the hardwork and the tenacity of doing something so crazy and out there as building a ship to sail from the Canadian prairies to another country. Was he insane? A misunderstood dreamer? Something else completely? The story of Tom Sukanen is strange and sad, but it’s one I really loved learning about while I was in Moose Jaw. If you’re ever in south-central Saskatchewan take a trip out to Moose Jaw to see this ship and learn about Tom Sukanen for yourself.
The Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village & Museum is open seasonally from May to October. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m on Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults. $7 for seniors and students and $5 for kids 6 to 15. The Museum is located 13km south of Moose Jaw on Highway 2. A general map of the area is below.
Have you been to Moose Jaw?