Uncle Rex and the Mountain

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Story by Peter von Buol

rex Haleakala
Ornellas stands at the edge of the crater in a recent photo.

Haleakalā National Park is one of Maui’s most popular attractions. It’s an easy drive to the visitor center, close to the top of the 10,023-foot mountain. But in 1916, the year Congress designated the summits of Haleakalā and Hawai‘i Island’s Mauna Loa and Kīlauea as Hawaii National Park, there wasn’t a road — not even a marked footpath.

That was also the year Alvin “Rex” Ornellas was born. (His classmates at St. Anthony Grade School saddled him with the nickname when he started wearing a picture of his favorite movie star, Rex the Wonder Horse, pinned to his school uniform.) Throughout 2016, Rex and Haleakalā have been celebrating their centennials — and a shared history almost as long.

In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a massive federal response to the devastating unemployment that followed the stock market crash of 1929. One of the New Deal’s most successful programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, which employed young men to work on forestry and conservation projects throughout the continental U.S. In 1934, the CCC expanded to the Territory of Hawai‘i, and an eighteen-year-old Alvin Ornellas was among its first recruits.

rex ornellas 1934 haleakala
How cold can it get at Haleakalā’s summit? In this 1934 photo, Alvin Ornellas displays a disk of ice two inches thick that formed on a barrel used to store water for the horses.

“I had graduated from the tenth grade in 1932,” Rex told me in the Wailuku home where he has lived for many years. “I worked with Wailuku Sewer, and then American Can. All of a sudden, that stopped. One day, my father said, ‘I have a job for you.’ My dad told me to go to Kahului. I signed up [with the CCC] and then went to the top of the mountain!”

He became part of a twenty-four-man crew assigned to build a trail from the Kalahaku Overlook to the top of White Hill. For Ornellas, born and raised in the coastal plantation community of Pā‘ia, working at the summit was an experience.

In those days, he recalls, the road up the mountain ended at about 7,500 feet, and so did the truck ride. “We had to walk up to the top. We were not acclimated to walking in that altitude. We had a hard time. We had a suitcase full of clothes, barrels of drinking water — maybe twenty-five-gallon wood barrels — and food. Rice came in 100-pound sacks. We would each only carry the rice about 100 yards. That’s how we took it to the top.”


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