The land around Moose Jaw has been the home of the Cree and the Assiniboine people for centuries. It was here that they would often make their winter encampments because the valley allowed them take advantage of warm breezes. It was also where the river was narrow, and water was abundant, making for a great place to settle for a time.
Of course, the name of the community is unique in Canada and it likely comes from the Indigenous as well. The name Moose Jaw Bone Creek was written on an 1857 survey map by John Palliser during his expedition out to the west. The first theory for the name comes from the Plains Cree name of Moscastanisipiy (MOS CAS TAN EE SI PEE, which means a warm place by the river. This has credibility given why the Indigenous would camp in the area during the winter. There is also the Plains Cree word of Moose Gaw, which means warm breezes. The other, and frankly less interested origin for the name, comes from the fact that the Moose Jaw River looks like a moose’s jaw as it runs through the area.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built through the Canadian Prairies in the 1880s, various places along the route were selected to be important stops for the trains. Moose Jaw was one such place. In 1882, the community was founded, and a year later it was selected as a divisional point. With that came freight yards and repair facilities. As soon as those were built, and the railroad was completed in 1885, Moose Jaw quickly saw its population explode in size.
On Dec. 12, 1891, Moose Jaw was hit by a terrible fire that tore through the Lorne Hotel and quickly passed to the Ontario House. The fire moved too fast for the Jackman family, who owned the hotel. Henry Jackman, his young girl and a friend were killed in the blaze. Jackman’s wife and a local brakeman were also fatally injured trying to escape from the burning building.
By the time the fire was out, 20 buildings had been razed to the ground.
In 1893, the Soo Line from Chicago was built, giving Moose Jaw a link to the United States.
The area around Moose Jaw also began to build up quickly, with settlers coming in to farm, while inside the community the retail, wholesale and industrial businesses started to become integral parts of the economy. Before long, Moose Jaw was one of the most important places in the North West Territories. In 1901, it had a population of 1,558 people, only a few hundred less than nearby Regina.
In 1905, Saskatchewan was formed as a province and Moose Jaw was soon eclipsed by Regina, the capital of the province, which drew resources to the city and away from Moose Jaw. By 1911, Regina had a population of 30,000 people, while Moose jaw had 13,000.
Today, Moose Jaw remains the fourth largest city in the province with 33,000 people.
As the city grew, so too did the need for fire protection. In order to meet the needs when it came to fire protection, Moose Jaw built a new fire hall in 1909. Designed by W.A. Eliot, who also designed the local Alexandra School, construction cost $35,000, or $1 million today. The building would continue to be used as a fire hall until 1979. The building, thankfully, still stands and in 1982, it was made a Municipal Heritage Resource.
In 1908, work began on the Moose Jaw Court House, which would cover two lots and take a year to build. It was built to replace the wooden-framed court house that had been built early in the history of Moose Jaw. The courthouse is a wonderful place to visit as it is the oldest-continuously functioning provincial courthouse in Saskatchewan. Still standing to this day, it was designed by the Toronto-based architects Darling and Pearson. The building was built in the style of a bank, in a Neo-Classical form. Due to its importance to the history of Moose Jaw, it was made a Provincial Heritage Property in 1988.
As the city continued its boom, many buildings were constructed that still stand to this day. One building that might be one of the most impressive post offices in the country, is the Moose Jaw Post Office. Build from 1911 to 1914, this three-and-a-half storey building would house the post office and North West Mounted Police and then Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In 1963, the City of Moose Jaw purchased the building and turned it into city hall. In 1982, it was made a Municipal Heritage Resource.
In 1912, the Moose Jaw Public Library was built in what is now Crescent Park. This two-storey brick and limestone building took one year to build, and was part of the pre-First World War boom that saw the population of Moose Jaw increase quickly. Originally, the Carnegie Foundation rejected the claim that Moose Jaw was growing quickly and they denied a 1911 request for $50,000 to build a library. The local leaders were not going to be let that stand and they invested $100,000 of their own money to build a magnificent library to meet the needs of a city five times the population of Moose Jaw at the time. From this, the library and Crescent Park were built. The building includes cream-coloured brick, limestone and marble for the library’s rotunda. The amount of marble used was only second to the Legislative Building in Regina. The building continues to be a library and centrepiece of the community. In 1982, it was made a Municipal Heritage Property.
If it seems like Moose Jaw was doing a lot of building in the years just prior to the war, they very much were. From 1911 to 1913, the community spent $281,000 to build these buildings, which was no small amount. Today, that would amount to $7.5 million.
Born in Finland in 1870, Tom Sukanen would begin working as a sailor. At just under six feet, with a barrel chest, broad shoulders and immense strength, he was able to find plenty of work on ships. It is believed that he served as a shipwright apprentice in his youth, giving him the skills he would use later in life. In 1906, he married Sanna Rintala and then sailed to the United States, leaving his pregnant wife in Finland. It was believed he did this to avoid being drafted into the Russian army. One year later, his wife joined him, settling in Minnesota.
Tom was able to get work in the iron ore mines, owing to his strength and strong work ethic. Tom was believed to have tried to unionize the mine, possibly to help support his family that now numbered a boy and three girls. One night, their house burned down. While the family escaped, one daughter had scars for the rest of her life. Many speculate that this was arson due to the union activities of Tom.
Sadly, this was only the tip of the issues to hit Tom that year. In the local newspaper on March 31, 1911, it was reported that his wife was sent by court order to Duluth to assess her mental condition.
Soon after, he got word that his brother had begun homesteading in Saskatchewan. He made the decision to go there, leaving his wife and family behind. The distance was 1,400 kilometres. He arrived with only 28 cents in his pocket.
He then began to homestead in southern Saskatchewan near Moose Jaw, farming for seven years, working to establish a home for his family.
Upon his return to Minnesota, he found that his wife had died in an asylum, his children were in foster homes and his Minnesota farm was abandoned.
He would attempt to bring his son back to Saskatchewan but the son was turned back at the Canada-US border. Falling into a deep depression, he would work for a rail gang on the CPR for a time, handling the manual work of three men due to his strength.
Upon arriving back at his farm, he built a rowboat and headed for the Hudson Bay, where he found work on a freighter that took him to Finland, and then back. That trip would focus in him the desire to return home for good.
Upon his return, he began to build a sea vessel to allow for his permanent repatriation to his homeland of Finland and the legend of the Crazy Finn, as locals called him, began.
At the time, Tom lived 26 kilometres from the South Saskatchewan River, and the nearest ocean was over 1,000 kilometres away. Despite this, he held onto his dream.
Tom’s plan was to take his ship to the South Saskatchewan in two parts. They would then be put on a raft and his old car engine would be outfitted with a propeller to propel him up the river. Once he reached Hudson Bay, he would bolt the keel, hull and cabins together, stuff the keel with rocks for ballast and right the ship in salty water.
While Tom had been respected as a farmer and mechanic, he would soon be shunned and even despised by the people in the area for his boat building.
Locals would see pieces of his farm disappear as the boat took shape. His barn, granaries and eventually his house were taken apart for lumber to use in the ship. Eventually, he lived in the hull of the ship, installing a coalwood stove for cooking and heating. Where once he had been an outgoing man involved in community matters, he had become a recluse. He began only eating handfuls of wheat and, it was rumoured, horse meat, as he continued his quest.
Building his boat, he had only rudimentary tools, some sawed-off sledgehammers, an anvil, a hand drill, forge, a wood saw and a hacksaw. With these items, he put a ship together that measured 13.1 metres long, three metres high, with a 2.7 metre beam. The keel was 9.1 metres long at the water line and 2.7 metres deep.
Through sheer brute force, Tom made the steam cylinders, pistons and boilers for the ship. Upon seeing the engine years later, a CPR engineer said that it was normally accomplished using a huge press, not the strength of one’s arms with a hammer.
When the ship was nearly done, Tom build two small cabins that were mounted on the deck, fore and aft. One was his sleeping quarters, one was the wheelhouse.
Finally, the ship was done and Tom would name it the Sontianen, Finnish for Little Dung Beetle. He then asked a neighbour to help him move the pieces of the ship with his tractor. Perhaps out of fear for being seen helping the Crazy Finn, the neighbour refused.
Tom then took matters into his own hands. Using a set of iron wheels under the end of one hull and a dozen fence posts, and only one horse, he only made a few metres of progress per day. Eventually, he was dragging the ship himself using a winch tied to a post in the ground.
By this point, he was close to starving, his strength was gone and he was sullen and miserable. Through all of it, he never asked for help and insisted on moving the ship himself.
By 1939, after complaints, the RCMP stepped in and went out to find Tom. By this point, Tom had moved the ship 4.8 kilometres. When he was found, he was so weak he had to be helped to his feet. The RCMP officer, Constable Bert Fisk, put him in the front seat of his car and drove him to the mental hospital in North Battleford.
While Tom was gone, his ship was looted and vandalized, his tools stolen and his gear thrown around the prairie. Those who visited Tom made sure not to tell him this. One day, a visitor accidently let it slip and Tom knew his dream had come to an end.
On April 23, 1943, he died in the North Battleford Asylum, as his wife had so many years previous.
According to legend, in a letter he stated a prophesy of his ship, saying quote:
“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 might roar. My mighty ship will go up and I shall rest in peace.”
Apparently, three men tried to finish the work of Tom but failed, while the fourth man, Laurence Mullin, would arrange for the restoration of the ship and in it was moved in 1977 on the back of a truck to what is now the Sukanen Ship and Pioneer Museum near Moose Jaw. Tom’s body was also moved from North Battleford, to rest by the boat that he spent the last year’s of his life building.
In 1920, the City Square Public Comfort Station was built to serve as a community restroom. The station was modelled on the stations seen in European cities that were built to be restrooms. Many such stations were built around Saskatchewan but today the only one that remains is the one in Moose Jaw. It was originally located at Fairford Street West before it was moved to Crescent Park to save it from demolition. In 1985, it was made a Municipal Heritage Property.
Eaton’s was once the most important department store in Canada, From the 1870s to the 1990s, it was found all over Canada. It would be part of our national framework, inspiring books such as The Hockey Sweater, and its catalogue was something every family used. Many NHL greats got their first skates from that catalogue. Like many other communities in the west, Moose Jaw had an Eaton’s store. In fact, Moose Jaw was one of the first places in Saskatchewan to receive an Eaton’s store in 1928, only 23 years after Winnipeg built the first Eaton’s store in Western Canada. Made of brick, it served as the main place Moose Jaw residents went shopping until the company shut down its stores in the 1990s. The building continues to stand, unlike the Winnipeg store, and in 1991 it was made a Municipal Heritage Property.
In 1939, the Royal Couple, the King and Queen, visited Moose Jaw on their month long tour of Canada. At the Moose Jaw station, they found a young boy who was laying on a cot. He had accidently ingested poison and was not expected to live beyond a few days. He had hoped to see the King and Queen before he died.
King wrote quote:
“We all went to the cot together. The little lad first smiled very pleasantly at me and then later at the King and Queen. Waved his little flag. It was quite a touching affair.”
Moose Jaw would be visited by royalty several times through its history. The first, was of course, the 1939 Royal Tour but Queen Elizabeth II would come through in 1978, followed by Prince Charles in 2001. He was followed by Princess Anne in 2003 and 2014.
In 1940, the Royal Canadian Air Force, as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, established RCAF Station Moose Jaw. During the war years, 1,200 pilots from the United Kingdom, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, France, Belgium and the United States trained there. Unlike other air bases around the country that were opened as part of the program, RCAF Moose Jaw stayed open and continued training pilots throughout the Cold War.
It is at CFB Moose Jaw that the Snowbirds are based. The Snowbirds are a Canadian icon at this point, having been formed in 1971. The official purpose of the Snowbirds is to demonstrate the skill, professionalism and teamwork of Canadian Forces personnel. They are also the first Canadian air demonstration team to be designated as a squadron. The Squadron itself dates back to the Second World War, when it was formed on Nov. 11, 1942. The squadron has several battle honours, having participated in various campaigns including Normandy. The Snowbirds have been honoured in Canada with a stamp and a commemorative coin. They have also performed in the United States, across Canada at the Calgary Olympics and even in Mexico.
The proximity of the base has also led to tragedy, as was the case with Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 9 on April 8, 1954.
It was on that day when a Canadair C-4 North Star commercial plane collided in the air with an RCAF Harvard mark II that was involved in a navigation exercise. The planes collided at 6,000 feet in clear weather, resulting in the North Star falling, in the words of witnesses, like a leaf. Some passengers were ejected from the aircraft and fell with the debris. Eight seconds after the collision, the fuselage of the plane fell on a home, destroying it and killing one person inside. An engine from the plane fell in the backyard of a home, while the other engine landed on main street. Most of the Harvard plane crashed onto the golf course.
Investigators stated that the most likely cause of the crash was the failure of either pilot to see the other plane before it was too late.
In all, all 35 people on the commercial North Star died, while the lone occupant in the RCAF Harvard Mark II died, along with the one person on the ground.
A report was completed by the Canadian Board of Transport that cited the failure of the pilots to see each other, the Harvard passing through an airway used by commercial aircraft while ascending, and the fact that the bright yellow Harvard could not be seen due to a window post in the line of sight.
The accident would result in major changes to aviation practices in the Moose Jaw airspace. The Green One airway was diverted to the north of town so commercial planes were at a safe distance from the base. Planes in opposite directions also had to maintain separate altitudes. Since then, there have been no major aircraft incidents at Moose Jaw.
Lastly, no visit to Moose Jaw is complete without a stop to see Mac the Moose. Built in 1984 by a Saskatoon artist with the goal of bringing visitors the city, Mac the Moose is a structure built around a steel frame using four coats of cement. The giant moose would become one of the first tourist attractions of Moose Jaw. Mac stands at 34 feet high and weighs in at a hefty 22,000 pounds.
In 2004, Mac was moved to a new location along the Trans Canada.
In 2009, a fence was put around the structure to prevent vandalism. In 2013, Mac was named Moose Jaw’s Best Celebrity.
From 1984 to 2015, Mac held the title as the world’s largest moose. Then, The Big Elk in Norway took the title by being 30 centimetres taller than Mac. Mayor Deb Higgins would say quote:
“I think we’ve won the battle, first and foremost that Mac’s reputation has spread to Norway and beyond.”
What followed was a playful exchange between the two communities over plans to increase the size of Mac, while the Norwegians said they would increase the size of their moose. In October 2019, Mac was once again the world’s tallest moose when a new set of antlers was installed.
If you would like to learn more about the history of the area, the Moose Jaw branch of the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum is a great place to check out. Within the museum there is the aircraft gallery that showcases the aviation history of Saskatchewan including its role in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. The watercraft gallery includes the S.S. City of Medicine Hat, which hit a bridge in Saskatoon and sank in 1908. The car exhibit and 100 years of Saskatchewan history exhibit both look at various aspects of the province’s history. The Snowbirds gallery includes the planes that served as part of the Snowbirds aerial acrobatic displays for years before being enshrined at the museum. The observatory built by a group of Regina amateur astronomers in 1910 to see Haley’s Comet is also on display, as are various antique snowmobiles that proved to be a vital link for transportation early in the history of Saskatchewan and Moose Jaw. There is also the land gallery that includes a 1902 Holsman rope drive car, and a Ford Model T, and the rail gallery that has looks at the history of rail in early Saskatchewan.
A great way to explore the history of Moose Jaw is to take a trolley tour. The trolly tour comes in many varieties with the most popular being the daytime trolley tour that takes you through the stories of the people and places that have made Moose Jaw the community it is today. The tour lasts for an hour in the open air trolly, as you learn about the infamous characters, founding citizens and others who have contributed to the history.
There is also the trolley ghost tour, which is held at night and is also an hour long as you learn the stories of spirits, the supernatural and other unexplained instances in Moose Jaw. Lastly, there is the trolley true crime tour, which shares the dark history of Moose Jaw, from the notorious residents, settlers, nefarious individuals and much more. This tour requires participants to be over the age of 16 due to some gruesome details of the stories.
Of course, no mention of Moose Jaw is complete without talking about the Moose Jaw Tunnels. During the Prohibition era in the United States, Moose Jaw’s size and proximity to the United States border meant that it was a popular place for warehousing illegal alcohol that had been shipped up on the Soo Line Railroad. The Tunnels became a common spot for gambling and prostitution and the police did little to stop it at the time. It is claimed by some that Al Capone spent time in the tunnels but there no photographs or written evidence to support this. That being said, several residents of the time stated that they met him in Moose Jaw and his own grand-niece said that he had been in Moose Jaw before he went to jail for tax evasion. Today, the Tunnels of Moose Jaw present two tours, Passage to Fortune and The Chicago Connection. The first tour looks at the history of Chinese Canadians in the area, with such things as the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act taught to attendees. The other tour is related to the popular tales of the prohibition era of Moose Jaw. I have done the Tunnels of Moose Jaw tour and I can say it is a really fun experience and I cannot recommend it enough.