Buffalo Soldiers

Immediately after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many African Americans found themselves newly freed from bondage. In 1866, congress created four military regiments made up of Black troops, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry - they were known colloquially as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Between 1915 and 1917, six companies of the 25th Infantry were present in what is now Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. In that time, they assisted in investigations of a lava lake at Halemaʻumaʻu, were among the first soldiers to visit Kilauea Military Camp, and constructed the precursor to the modern day Mauna Loa Trail, which still exists today.
 
 
Black and white team photo of an African American baseball team in white uniforms
The 25th Infantry Regiment baseball team (Courtesy of U.S. Army Museum of Hawai‘i)

In Hawaiʻi

The 25th Infantry, comprised of about 850 enlisted men and officers, arrived in Honolulu on January 14, 1913. The morning after their arrival they began a two-day, twenty-three-mile march to Schofield Barracks where they were stationed until 1917.

Newspaper articles describe how the soldiers were viewed by Hawai‘i’s multicultural society - although they did not encounter the racial hatred that they had from communities on the mainland, they did not entirely escape prejudice here. The black troops remained segregated from their white counterparts.

Positive cross-cultural relationships began as the troops marched in local parades and competed with civilian sports leagues in track and field and baseball. They were perhaps best known for their baseball prowess. Stories about their winning baseball team, the “Wreckers,” were published in the Honolulu newspapers. Several team members later joined the Negro League and one player, Wilber “Bullet” Rogan, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Their training at Schofield was spent marching and drilling and was both arduous and tedious. When the chance for an assignment on Hawai‘i Island presented itself, the company commanders jumped at it.
 
Black and white photo of a company of Black soldiers marching down a city street
Company B of the 25th Infantry marching in Hilo on July 4th, 1917 (Photo courtesy of the Lyman Museum)

On Hawaiʻi Island

Some of what we know about the Buffalo Soldiers’ time in Hawaiʻi comes from the autobiography of one of these soldiers, George S. Schuyler of Syracuse, NY. He wrote, “We traveled by inter-island steamer to Hilo, then by wide-gauge railroad to the railhead at the foot of Mauna Loa mountain, the twin of Mauna Kea, and from thence we hiked up the 4,000 foot plateau to where the fiery crater of Halemaumau was inside the Kilauea volcano…. A half dozen of us dared the descent [into Halemaumau Crater] and stood a few feet from the boiling torrent oxidizing nickels in the cracks of the hardened lava. [Our guide], Alex, warned us when it was time to go because a section of the crater wall was about to crash. We climbed out, and sure enough the section fell with a resounding crash, causing immense thermal activity and pyrotechnic displays.”

 
Black and white photo looking down a mountain slope toward a steaming volcanic crater
The view from the main work camp for the Mauna Loa Trail, known as Camp Bates, January 1916. A steaming Halemaʻumaʻu is visible on the right-hand side. (Photo by H.O. Wood, courtesy of USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)

Two names familiar in the history of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park are businessman Lorrin Thurston and geologist Thomas Jaggar. They had three goals:

  1. To create a place to study live volcanoes (Hawaiian Volcano Observatory established in 1912)

  2. To build a place for soldiers stationed in Hawaiʻi for rest and recreation (Kīlauea Miltary Camp established in 1916)

  3. To develop a national park (Hawaii National Park established in 1916, formally opened in 1921)


Jaggar, new head of the observatory, described Mauna Loa, the large, rounded shield volcano that makes up more than half of Hawaiʻi Island as, “... a vast desert waste without water and rising to an immense height. Every expedition to the summit exhausts the energies of the men and animals employed and the animals are frequently crippled and have their legs cut through by the rough black lava. Consequently the ranchers will not rent good animals at any price and as there is no shelter on the summit, little water, no feed, violent winds and low temperatures, the men who can with difficulty be induced to go and act as guides or packers object to remaining overnight.”

He wanted an easier route than the traditional one through ʻĀinapō for geologists to access the 13,677-foot summit of Mauna Loa. Thurston was promoting the idea of a national park at Kīlauea and saw a trail to the Mauna Loa summit as an opportunity for expanded tourism. The idea for the Mauna Loa Trail was born.

Under the headline, “Soldiers Building Mountain Trail,” the Maui News reported, “Negro soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry to the number of 150 are at work constructing a trail from near the Volcano House to the summit of Mauna Loa. It is estimated that three or four weeks will be devoted to this work. The soldiers are doing the work as a part of their vacation exercises.” (Emphasis added.)

 

“The soldiers are constructing a trail three feet wide across the a-a, crushing it down with twelve-pound hammers, filling in hollows, cutting down ridges and putting on a finish of fine a-a and earth, quarried along the line or packed in gunny sacks, carried on the men's backs—in some places being carried as far as a quarter of a mile.”
– Hawaiian Gazette, November 12, 1915

 
Black and white photo of men standing on the edge of a lava lake with a large pole
Members of H Company assisting Dr. Thomas Jaggar with measuring the depth of the lava lake in Halemaʻumaʻu with a large iron pipe, 1917 (Photo: USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory)
They first built a base camp on a site near the summit of Kīlauea. Half the soldiers in groups of twenty to thirty worked on the trail while the other half were at base camp. At the end of each week they traded places.

Building the trail was incredibly hard work and conditions were primitive. Their only tools were 12-pound sledgehammers and gunny sacks. They worked in record-breaking rain, cold weather, very thin air and on difficult terrain over aʻā and pāhoehoe lava flows. They camped in canvas tents which did not offer much protection during the cold, rainy nights and they did not have mules or horses to help with carrying the heavy loads. The pāhoehoe flows were often thin and brittle and could break under the weight of men or animals making it necessary to break through this lava to a more solid surface. On the aʻā flows they broke up the clinkers into gravel-sized pieces, mixed this with soil and then packed this in gunnysacks carried on their backs to pave the trail.

They were not only trail builders: while at base camp they also helped the geologists with their experiments, including measuring the depth of molten lava with a long iron pipe. The Hawaiian Gazette quotes Schuyler who had been part of this measuring crew, “When that pipe came up, the lava on the end of it was thick like glue.”
 
The bad weather and adverse conditions also didn’t stop the soldiers from traveling down to Hilo for a game of baseball in October 1915, where they defeated the local team!

While on Hawaiʻi Island these soldiers built a 30-mile trail under gruelling conditions, won a baseball game, and suffered through record-breaking weather – surely a one-of-a-kind Hawaiian “vacation.” This early trail ultimately paved the way for the present Mauna Loa Trail. You can still hike sections of the original path built by these trailblazers (in many senses of the word) along the Northeast Rift Zone of Mauna Loa today. Over a century later their handiwork is still visible and guides park visitors through rugged, unforgiving terrain.
 

 
Black and white photograph of an African American soldier with a pistol in his holster
Linold Chappell (Courtesy of Brian K Chappell)
Linold Chappell was a private with Company E of the 25th Infantry Regiment. He joined the regiment at Schofield Barracks shortly after enlisting in the Army in 1913, one of 45 new recruits assigned to Company E.
 

Last updated: February 18, 2021

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