Between the Seas: Shipwrecks of Saskatchewan, Canada

camapgHaving grown up on the Canadian prairies, as far from the ocean as a person in that country can get, people often find it funny that I am now a maritime archaeologist.  There is a common misconception that people need to live near the sea the have it affect their lives, however even the most land locked of places depend on rivers, lakes and streams for food and transport.   It usually only takes me telling the following two stories for them to realise that shipwrecks and maritime heritage can be found anywhere.

Tom Sukanen and the Sontiainen

Still from “Shipbuilder” (1985) a short film by Stephen Surjik

Tom Sukanen was born in Finland, where he trained as a shipwright before immigrating to Canada in 1911 to work as a farmer.  In the 1929, during the height of the great depression he travelled back to Finland for a brief visit.  It was after his return that he hatched a plan to sail back to Finland on vessel he built himself.   His plan was to build a hull that was 13.1 metres long and three metres high with a 2.7-metre beam. The keel was 9.1 metres long at the waterline and 2.7 metres deep.  He built the ship in several parts and intended to drag it to the South Saskatchewan River, there he intended not to sail the ship down the river but rather to put the deck cabins on a raft, mount his old car engine on the raft with a propeller, and pull the watertight keel and hull on their sides behind him.  Once he had reached Hudson Bay, he would bolt his ship together and sail away.

He began moving sections of the boat towards the river in 1938, but by 1939 his health had failed.  Regarded by many local people as mad, he had completely dismantled his home and barns for material to build his ship of dreams.  Sadly, he was removed from his ship and lived out the rest of his days in a mental institution in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.  The ship itself was vandalised shortly after his departure from it, and his tool, equipment and bit of the vessel itself were strewn across local fields for decades.

The Sontiainen as it is currently displayed

The vessel was eventually salvaged and reassembled at the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village and Museum just south of Moose Jaw.  The story  continues to resonate with Western Canadians and Sukanen’s ship has become symbolic  of the strength, resilience, and, sometimes, madness it took to live in this landscape during the Great Depression.

The SS City of Medicine Hat

On June 7th, 1908, The SS City of Medicine Hat, a 130ft river steamer,  hit telegraph wires that had been submerged by spring runoff on the South Saskatchewan River.  The ship’s steering was disabled and it drifted into the column of the Victoria Bride in Saskatoon.   Thankfully, the passengers had already disembarked and the captain and crew climbed onto the bridge to escape.  The ship’s engineer jumped overboard and swam ashore.

The SS Medicine Hat, sinking.
The SS Medicine Hat, sinking.

At the time, it was considered the “greatest nautical disaster in Prairie history.”  The SS City of Medicine Hat was the last steamship ever to sail on the waters of the South Saskatchewan River.

Some of the artefacts found on the SS City of Medicine Hat
Some of the artefacts found on the SS City of Medicine Hat

In 2010, archaeologists re-discovered the remains of the SS City of Medicine Hat during construction work on the bridge.  1,000 artifacts including ceramics, metal parts, tableware and clothing were discovered.  There is some evidence that remains of the hull may have survived, submerged in the sandy bottom of the river…work for future maritime archaeologists of the prairies!


Further Reading/Watching:

Dreams in the Dust: The Story of Tom Sukanen

National Film Board of Canada: Shipbuilder

Mysteries of Canada

Globe and Mail: Shipwreck from 1908 found in South Saskatchewan

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