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HVNP Honors Buffalo Soldiers and Their Work on Mauna Loa Trail

February 21, 2021, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated February 20, 4:19 PM
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In honor of Black History Month, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park honors the Black servicemen, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who built the Mauna Loa Trail.

Courtesy of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

The soldiers, in Hawaiʻi between 1913 and 1918, were stationed at Schofield Barracks on Oʻahu. The men were some of the first to stay at Kilauea Military Camp. During their time on the Big Island, they built a high-elevation, 30-mile trail through unforgiving lava rock that connects the summits of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes today.

“It’s a perfect time for us to tip our flat hats in honor of some amazing men, who literally helped shape the National Park Service, including Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park,” said Park Ranger Dean Gallagher. “Despite segregation and racial discrimination that continued after the Civil War, these men dedicated their lives to serving their country. What’s more, the Buffalo Soldiers who built the trail volunteered their time.”

Built more than 100 years ago, the Buffalo Soldiers constructed the trail with a 12-pound hammer and a gunny sack, in torrential rain. Building the Buffalo Soldiers Trail (now called Mauna Loa Trail) from the 4,000-foot summit of Kīlauea to the 13,677-foot summit of Mauna Loa, was no easy task.

“The soldiers had to break down rough sections of ‘aʻā and pāhoehoe lava flows with 12-pound hammers, pack the broken rock in gunny sacks, carry them up to a quarter-mile and line the trail,” park officials explained. “They did not use pack animals. Add in the high elevation, primitive camping conditions, and record rainfall and it doesn’t sound like much of a vacation. Yet morale was high.”

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Ranger Dean and Park Archeologist Summer Roper Todd collaborated on the new 18-minute podcast that recaps the incredible contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers and shares details from a new National Park Service archeological survey titled With 12-Pound Hammers and Gunny Sacks: Buffalo Soldiers and the 1915 Trail to the Mauna Loa Summit.

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The founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Dr. Thomas A. Jaggar, sought construction of the trail so geologists could more easily access eruptions at the summit of Mauna Loa. Honolulu businessman Lorrin Thurston, an advocate for creating the national park along with Jaggar, enthusiastically supported the trail as a way to boost tourism. By September 1915, the 25th Infantry’s Company E announced its men would take leave, travel by steamship to the island of Hawaiʻi, and build the trail.

The moniker “buffalo soldiers” was given to the men by Native Americans as a sign of respect. One account says it was because the men were strong and rugged like buffalos. Another account says it’s because the soldiers’ hair was similar to buffalo fur, and yet another references the hides they wore in winter. The Tenth Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers even adopted the bison symbol (buffalo) into their regimental crest.

To learn more about the history of the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Park Service, their contributions to the United States, and more click here.

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