Uncle Rex Ornellas+ Haleakalā National Park

Contributed by Anthony Myers

The sunrise— a natural wonder universally available, but often clouded over by the rhythm of life.  From mountains, plains, oceans and deserts, even city landscapes, the sunrise continually teases the earth with an unending peek-a-boo.  With the anticipation of dawn and its moments of peace, stillness, and beauty, the sunrise beckons one to embrace each day with all that life on Earth has to offer.  It’s an event that can and should be treasured.

One place that has captivated people with the sunrise for thousands of years is the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii.  Rooted in Hawaiian mythology, Haleakala is a place where the sun was tamed by the great demigod, Maui.  Located on the demigod’s namesake island in Hawaii, this remains a place of great significance.

Much like the hope of new beginnings associated with the sunrise, Haleakala National Park offered a few young men renewed inspiration during the Great Depression.

It took a while for the effects of the stock market crash of 1929 to finally reach the shores of the Hawaiian Islands.  At the time, the islands were only a territory of the United States, though they were not immune to the devastation felt on the mainland.  Sugar and pineapple plantations cut wages, extended working hours, or closed completely leaving many unemployed.  The island of Maui did its best with a small number of funded road and park projects, but ultimately nothing was left for the younger generation of the island.  It wasn’t until President Roosevelt initiated the Civil Conservation Corps that the island’s masses regained a working purpose.  Among the masses was Alvin “Rex” Ornellas, a member of the charter crew establishing the first CCC camp at Haleakala back in 1934. He describes his first day with vivid remembrance:

[Twenty-three] of us piled up on the truck, a brand-new, Ford, V-8, Stake body truck. And we went up to Haleakalā on that truck. The road was not complete. The road ended up at about – the pavement ended…about 7–8,000 feet elevation. And then it was a little dirt road up to about 8,000 feet. And then we had to walk from the end of the road where the truck couldn’t go any more. We walked to the…rim of the crater with our suitcases on our backs.

The CCC gave many men like Rex the opportunity to take educational courses and master skills through on-the-job training:

I was just an ordinary worker, ordinary seaman on land. And I learned to handle picks, and shovels, and a crowbar. We didn’t use dynamite. We did all the work by hand tools, all the breaking stones, making trails through lava formations, and all that…

See, when I became a mule packer helper in the crater under the Hawaiian guy from Kaupō [Andrew Paimauna], he was a good cowboy. I was his assistant…He taught me all about tying ropes,…about mule packing and how to shoe horses. So we had to shoe horses, two horses and eight mules, and I got to be good at it.

The CCC crew made shelters, bathroom facilities, fences, roads and trails throughout the park.  They made the park more accessible while resuscitating and maintaining native vegetation:

We made a trail about three feet wide, and smooth as a sidewalk. 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.

Today the sunrise at Haleakala is still an event cherished by many.  Thanks to the years of hard work accomplished by Alvin Ornellas and the other CCC members, Haleakala is one of the renowned attractions of Hawaii.  Alvin Ornellas, better known today as Uncle Rex still has a reputable relationship with the park.  Last year both the park and Uncle Rex celebrated their 100th birthday together.

Photo courtesy of Haleakalā National Park


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