HOONAH, Alaska

The two-way radio squawks repeatedly during the four-and-a-half hour run aboard the Princeton Hall from Juneau to Hoonah, a small village along the Inside Passage. The messages are admiring comments from passing boaters about the 49-ton, 65-foot cruiser built nearly 70 years ago to serve Presbyterian mission in Southeast Alaska.

For nearly 100 years, a series of mission boats — dubbed “The Presbyterian Navy” — plied the waters of “Southeast” visiting the Alaska Native village churches scattered among the islands here. The last of them, the Anna Jackman, ceased service in 1982 and was sold to private owners by Alaska Presbytery.

Presbyterian mission boats, funded by Alaska Presbyterians and the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Home Missions (later National Missions), began traveling around the region in the early 1900s, when the island villages were only accessible by boat.

A black and white photo of several boys

Sheldon Jackson School students built the Princeton Hall in 1940-1941. Photo courtesy of Sheldon Jackson College.

“Missionaries from the ‘lower 48’ and Alaska Native evangelists who became Christian because of their efforts used the boats to spread the gospel in towns, fishing villages and logging camps throughout Southeast Alaska,” says the Rev. David Dobler, pastor to the presbytery for Alaska Presbytery and moderator of the 1993 PC(USA) General Assembly. “Their names evoke the mission heritage of Southeast Alaska: the Ruby, the Lindsley, the Marietta, the Good Tidings, the Vermay, the Princeton, the Princeton Hall and the steel-hulled Anna Jackman, among others.”

One of the first — the Toronado — was won in a poker game by the Rev. Eugene Bromley, pastor of Haines Presbyterian Church from 1925-1935 and later a pastor here and in Juneau. By 1917 there were at least five Presbyterian mission boats itinerating among the islands and their churches and mission outposts, hence the moniker “Presbyterian Navy.”

“I don’t know why, but the Presbyterians were the only denomination that organized their evangelistic work in Alaska by a system of boats,” says Kathy Ruddy, an elder at Chapel by the Lake Presbyterian Church in Auke Bay, near Junea. “That’s one of the reasons the Presbyterian Church is so prominent in many Native communities.”

The wooden-hulled Princeton Hall — now owned by Ruddy and her husband, Bill — is the stuff of Presbyterian legend in these parts.

Photo of a man and woman in a galley.

Kathy and Bill Ruddy, the current owners of the Princeton Hall. Photo by Jerry Van Marter

Its immediate predecessor, the Princeton, was built in Seattle in 1923 and was in service until November 1939 when it sank after running into some rocks on a run from Haines to Sitka during a heavy snowstorm.

The Princeton was taking three Tlingit (pronounced "Klink-it") orphan girls to Sheldon Jackson School (now college) as well as two tons of potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner at the Presbyterian institution. All aboard survived, huddled under a canvas tarp on the island the boat struck. They were picked up the next day by a passing mail boat

The Princeton Hall was built by Sheldon Jackson School students under the supervision of legendary Alaska boatbuilder Andrew Hope “because the insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of a replacement boat in Seattle,” Ruddy says.

The Princeton Hall was formally launched on Dec. 4, 1941 — three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Appropriated by the U.S. Navy for the war effort, the boat — renamed P1 — patrolled Alaska’s waters until 1945, when it was sold back to the Presbyterian Church and ran for 20 more years.

“Leslie Yaw (Sheldon Jackson School’s president at the time) always said it was an honor for the Princeton Hall to be of service during the war effort,” Ruddy says, “but privately it really hurt to lose the boat for those three years.”

In the mid-1950s, the Presbyterian Church commissioned construction of the Anna Jackman, a steel-hulled boat deemed more modern and seaworthy than the Princeton Hall. The Anna Jackman was built in Louisiana and after its completion motored through the Panama Canal and on up to Sitka.

A black and white photo of three men standing under the bow of a boat

The christening of the Princeton Hall (left to right): Andrew Hope, the Sitka boat builder who supervised construction of the Princeton Hall, the Rev. Herbert Booth Smith, moderator of the 1941 Presbyterian Church General Assembly, and the Rev. Everett B. King, the Presbyterian Church’s Secretary for Alaska Work. Photo courtesy of Kathy Ruddy

The Rev. Henry Fawcett, a Sheldon Jackson graduate now on the faculty at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, served on the crew of both boats and still feels the Princeton Hall “was a better ride.”

In 1949 the two boats traveled together from Sitka to Seattle, carrying the 100-voice Sheldon Jackson School choir to a series of concerts. Fifty boys rode on one boat, 50 girls on the other. In the evenings the boats would tie up together and the choir members would serenade each other. “The story is told that fishing boats from all around would gather to listen to the impromptu shipboard concerts,” Ruddy says.

The Princeton Hall was “retired” in 1965 and sold to Juneau residents. After falling into disrepair, the boat was purchased by Bill Ruddy in 1978. Two years later he and Kathy married and began slowly restoring the Princeton Hall. It is still used to transport Presbyterians to Native Alaska island villages and churches as well as for charters — most interestingly, Kathy Ruddy says, for documentary film crews — and other excursions.

The Anna Jackman was retired in 1982, a victim of rising operating costs and the availability of other modes of transportation in Southeast Alaska. “Small planes were becoming increasingly available,” Kathy Ruddy says, “so some Presbyterians said, ‘Let’s use the money for other ministry.’ Others said, ‘This is the best way to transport groups of people around, so let’s keep it.’”

Everywhere one goes in Southeast Alaska, tales are told of the Presbyterian mission boats. “Many people’s first trip off their island was on the Princeton Hall or the Anna Jackman,” Ruddy says. “The best part about keeping the Princeton Hall on the water is to help people keep alive the history and their memory of ‘The Presbyterian Navy.’”

This story was written aboard the Princeton Hall.