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Together At Last - 3

By 1930, with no rain, frequent strong winds, no crops and no pasture, some farmers either shot their horses or sold them to the horse-meat factory in Swift Current. Others sold their remaining cattle at fifteen to twenty dollars a head. Many others headed north with perhaps a cow and a few horses to new land in northern Saskatchewan. Their machinery was either repossessed by the implement companies, or just abandoned. Some locals were very critical of Tom spending so much money on a "crazy ship" when so many around the country were in need.

Markkula speculated that with the loss of his family, Tom must have decided to build the ship in order to return to his homeland with the ship, and with honour and distinction.

Sketches found years later by Moon Mullin, showed the design as an ocean-going vessel, some forty-three feet long and twenty eight feet high. Victor Markkula and Elmer Sukanen agreed that it was to be powered by steam but could also be powered by sail.

Tom's plan was to build the ship in three sections. The keel and hull would be water tight and could be floated on some very shallow water. The cabins could be loaded onto a large raft, along with other odds and ends. This raft would be powered with a motor and rudder, and by towing the keel and hull, he could catch the high water of the Saskatchewan River. Remember, Tom had scouted this route and studied the maps for high and low water periods. He planned to reach the deep water mouth of the Nelson River and then on to the Hudson Bay. There he would quickly have the various parts assembled and the steam engine and boiler installed. He had left an opening in the deck for this, to be covered later with hatches. The first part to take shape was the hull, forty-three feet long and thirteen feet at its widest part. It was gracefully tapered to fit the keel below which was also tapered, to a point fore, aft and underneath. It was built with a large opening into the hull, so that Tom could easily load or unload ballast. On the top of these two sections, he built cabins, fore and aft. The one towards the bow was the wheelhouse, with the steering mechanism, with clear viewing in all directions . The second cabin, in the stern, was to provide living quarters and storage. The upper deck quarters would hold navigational instruments, a unique water clock, and a chronometer, leaving ample living space. The heat from the smoke stack coming from below could be diverted to either cabin.

Tom also forged, by hand, from solid sheets of flat steel, the pulleys and gears. A propeller on a drive shaft was installed into the engine room below. In constructing the smoke stack, Tom heated and rolled the sheet metal himself, drilled the required holes, heated the steel rivets to fit each hole and pounded them into place. He also had some steel rods of various sizes which he heated and curved into the sizes to make the various chains he required. His heavy anchor chain was a sight to behold, it was such a smooth job. All this work was done when Tom was in his early fifties.

In the fall of 1940, when Tom had to give up moving the framework of the ship due to an early winter, he started working on the power plant. By the spring of 1941, the boiler was done and by the fall the engine was complete. A C. P. R. engineer told Mullin some years later that he had seen the engine and observed, "How in hell did Sukanen manage to roll that half inch steel into shape? You aren't supposed to be able to do that without a huge press!"

While Tom was constructing the keel and hull sections, he made the skeletons of strong oak. Then he labouriously bent thick planks to fit the frame for both the keel and hull, keeping in mind that they would have to sit one into the other with no opening between.

He then caulked them and sealed the whole outside with tar. For the outer skin on the keel, he used galvanized iron and for the hull, steel. He then painted the keel section with a sealer coat of horse blood. This was an age old Finnish custom to prevent the corroding effects of salt water. Because of the rough seas Finlanders learned to build their ships sturdy enough to survive collision with ice flows, without damage. As mentioned earlier, Tom did not mind children around. What an asset his young son, John, would have been, and what regrets Tom must have had. Three miles to go, half an hour of hiking and they would have been in Canada.

Tom had planned to sail by Greenland and Iceland and finally reach Finland. These seas would not have been unfamiliar to Tom, as he had spent ten or fifteen years of his life sailing these waters.

At the time of construction, Tom named the ship "Sontiainen", a Finish word meaning "Small Dung Bug", "Dontianen" is a nick-name.

After the keel had been double planked, then encased with galvanized iron, Tom then laced these sheets with unbroken steel wire. He had often observed the small water bugs with their hard shell case, that had great mobility on both land and water.

For six long years, all day and often at night, Tom worked endlessly, except on Sundays. He used to buy food and eggs from his neighbours, but he became flat broke. Mrs. West, a neighbour, knew he would accept nothing as a gift, so she offered him eggs at five cents a dozen. He did not have the money for that either, so flatly refused to accept them. He refused all food unless he could pay for it.

Eventually Tom moved his cabins the seventeen miles to the water's edge, and then lived in them. Elmer related that at this time Tom became careless of his personal appearance. His face and clothes were black from constantly working over his forge. He was not eating properly and lost so much weight that his relatives hardly knew him. The ring of his hammer dwindled to a sporadic tapping.

Since that time, Tom's mind was completely wrapped up in the business of designing, building and completing his ship. He seemed to resent any intrusion into his thoughts.

Tom had a large seaman's telescope. When he had first arrived on his homestead, and built his barn, Tom had a small tower built on the roof. He would climb the tower and scan the horizon, just like his habit at sea. He could forecast, with amazing accuracy, developing storms, or the sudden arrival of the terrific winds so prevalent in the 1930's. No one could find out if his range of vision was one mile or ten. This infuriated the women of the district, and they nicknamed him "Peeping Tom".

It appears that when Tom realized that he would have trouble getting the keel and hull to the water, he asked a neighbour, who had a steam engine, if he would tow the sections to the water's edge. The man refused, saying that the whole ship was a crazy idea, and Tom was a crazy Finn to think of it. The man boasted his refusal, but later regretted his action. The refusal depressed Tom tremendously. A few people demanded to have this "Crazy Finn" removed from the district.

To give the R.C.M.P. credit, they were reluctant to do so because Tom was a loner and was not bothering any of his neighbours. Tom had refused any of the relief handouts that were available, yet these handouts were used to the fullest extent by his scoffers.

The end came, to quote from Theodore Barres, in his "Fire Canoe" publication, when Tom discovered that all the fruits of his years of work, the superstructures of his work, on the Dontianen had been stripped by vandals, while he was at the other end, seventeen miles away. This final insult broke him down and left him a stunned and bewildered man.

Neighbours again notified the Mounties, who indicated that they would have to have a legal complaint, the man himself had done no harm. These people dug around and came up with the complaint that Tom Sukanen's "Junk" was obstructing His Majesty's Thoroughfare, and added as a footnote, that the vandalism was wrecking the ship. As the result, Tom Sukanen was taken to an institutional hospital in North Battleford. He offered no resistance. Tom's last words to his friend Victor Markkula, were "Don't ever let that ship go. Don't let them tear it down." When Tom first entered the hospital at North Battleford, their first job was to restore his health. Vic Markkula went to see him shortly after he was admitted, and immediately suggested that they try Tom on a diet of filleted fish, uncooked, as his had been the main diet of Finns for centuries, as frying and cooking destroys the vitamins. Apparently Tom's appetite improved and he began to recover in spirit and flesh. A few trips later and Vic reported that Tom was getting eager to get out to the hospital repair shop so that he could help out there.

Tom must have asked Vic about his ship, and was probably satisfied to be told it was at Vic's place. One day a visitor told Tom it was a lie as his ship was scattered all over the country. After this, the hospital attendants said that Tom lost the will to live and sat staring into space. He continued like this in spite of all Vic could tell him and he died shortly after this on April 23, 1943, penniless and almost forgotten. He was buried in the local cemetery.

Meanwhile, people were carrying away what they wanted of the ship and smashing the rest.

The municipality offered Vic Markkula money for Tom's burial, but knowing that his old friend would not want charity, Victor took, what people knew was his last forty dollars, to purchase the remains of Dontianen from the municipality; which paid for Tom's burial.

Markkula set to work immediately, and hauled the steamboat's keel, hull, and anything else that was left, belonging to Tom Sukanen, to his farm a mile or so away. He used the structures as granaries during World War II when the crops returned.

In the 1950's when the Gardiner Dam-Diefenbaker Lake project was started, the P.F.R.A(Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Association) hired Tom Whitely, a local contractor, to clear the banks of debris. When he came upon the boilers, he was only too pleased to dispose of "The work of madman Tom Sukanen". Victor Markkula died during this time.

Before Victor's passing, he implored his son, Wilf, "When I die, don't let the boat be ripped up. The right man will come along to put the boat together again."

The tragedy of the story is that the year Tom died, 1943, the drought ended and copious rains became the patter for several years. Crops returned and the Saskatchewan River was in flood. Tom must have chuckled when asked, "Why are you building a ship on the prairie?". With a serious face and a wave of his hand, he would reply, "There is a great flood coming and I want to be ready to sail out of it and return to my home in Finland."

Long before World War II, Laurence Moon Mullin acquired a farm in the Lake Valley area, northwest of Moose Jaw. He now had the facilities to begin a hobby he enjoyed all his life: that of collecting artifacts, old cars, early farm equipment and old guns. He also heard the story of the eccentric farmer who had built a steam boat. In his collecting, he obviously had to become interested in the history of his collections. Moon relates that this boat slipped his mind until, after the second World War when he started thinking about it and wondering how the boat builder had made out. The question kept nagging at him until he developed a burning desire to get some kind of answer. In this he was unsuccessful as no one knew of a shipbuilder in this predominantly ranching country; especially one from almost thirty years before.

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