Uncle Rex and the Mountain

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camp wingate kapalaoa
“Camp Wingate,” at Kapalaoa, was named after Edward G. Wingate, superintendent of Hawaii National Park from 1933 to 1946.

Initially, the crew stayed in a stone rest house at the edge of the crater. “We had a picture view of the crater,” Rex recalls. “The dining room was right on the rim.”

The work was hard, but the men enjoyed it. “We worked from sunrise to sunset, every day, in all sorts of weather. But then Solomon Ho‘opi‘i, who was from a well-known family of musicians, became sick in camp. He had pneumonia. He went to the Kula sanitarium and he died there. We all went to his funeral.” After Ho‘opi‘i’s death, during bouts of cold and wet weather, the foreman insisted the men stay inside and huddle around the stove to keep warm.

From the minimal traces of old hunting paths, they created safe, well-marked trails. “We made a trail about three feet wide, and smooth as a sidewalk,” Ornellas says proudly. “It was all pick and shovel and a rake and yard broom. We did stonework with a sledgehammer. We would go through [an old] lava flow and we had to cut stone. We made a beautiful trail.”

Rex and his fellow corpsmen helped build the park’s redwood water tanks, public shelters, employee housing, bathroom facilities, water lines, fences and roads. They also helped with silversword conservation, feral animal control, and fire suppression inside the park.

The Civilian Conservation Corps operated for more than eight years in the Islands, employing nearly 7,200 men throughout Hawaii National Park. A 2011 Park Service report estimates that as many as fifty men may have worked on Haleakalā as part of the CCC. After the Corps closed its camp there in May 1941, Ornellas and several other Mauians went to work on Kīlauea. “I worked one year there,” says Rex. “I learned how to be an electrician. I learned to climb the [electrical] poles. We wired all the rangers’ quarters.”

In 1961, Haleakalā became a separate national park, extending from the summit to the sea along Maui’s southeastern coast. During the National Park Service’s centennial, Ornellas, now better known as “Uncle Rex,” has been a guest speaker at celebrations. The sprightly centenarian remembers the hard work, but also the camaraderie.

“We didn’t want to go home on weekends. We enjoyed the mountain.”

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