Famed Buffalo Soldiers built the Mauna Loa Trail with only hammers and their hands

Jim Mendoza (Hawaii News Now) - 3/3/2021

In 1915, Black Americans from the special Army unit famously known as the "Buffalo Soldiers” literally carved their way into Hawaii’s history.

"Not a lot of people know that the Buffalo Soldiers were some of the first individuals to lay some of the first infrastructure for what was to become the national park,” said Summer Roper Todd, an archaeologist with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Todd researched the role the soldiers played in the park’s history.

The Buffalo Soldiers was a segregated Army unit. From 1913 to 1918, the men were stationed at Schofield Barracks.

Army Sgt. Linold Chappell was one of them. Brian Chappell is impressed by what his great-grandfather and his fellow soldiers did in Hawaii.

"It’s a wonderful thing to have this story be told and to have them get the recognition, even though it’s 110 years later,” he said.

The men were put to work when volcanologist Dr. Thomas Jaggar, founder of Hawaii Volcano Observatory, wanted a trail built for geologists to access eruptions at Mauna Loa from Kilauea summit.

"Their job was to put a trail in to connect the two summits,” Roper Todd said.

About 150 Buffalo Soldiers labored on the rugged terrain at high elevations and in extreme cold, using hammers and their hands to break lava rock.

"They would chisel out the lava, pack the rocks in the gunny sacks on their backs and then sometimes have to walk it up to a quarter-mile to lay the base down for the trail tread, and to make trail markers and line the trail,” Todd said.

Despite the back-breaking effort, it took them only one month to build a 30-mile long path that became known as Mauna Loa Trail.

"Even being a descendant of a Buffalo Soldier, I was unaware of what they had done,” Chappell said.

The trail helped boost tourism when the park was established a year later. It still stands as a testament to their hard work.

"That original 1915 trail does exist,” Roper Todd said. "Some sections are still being used as the current Mauna Loa Trail.”

The Buffalo Soldiers served during a time of prejudice and racism.

"But they excelled. They were amazing!” Todd said.

During Black History Month, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is honoring the Buffalo Soldiers by telling the story of how they built the trail.

You can read about it and listen to a podcast by clicking here.