The State of Aloha
Nearly 90 years ago, the bottom of our economy had fallen out. In the summer of 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Index slumped to its record nadir — a paltry 41 points. Banks across the country became insolvent; the savings of thousands fizzled. Some states like Michigan declared an indefinite bank holiday.
The rest of the economy was just as bleak. While the stock market tanked, the ranks of the unemployment reached astonishing heights. In the early 1930s, the national unemployment rate hovered at around 20 percent — and unheard-of figure (until very recently).
The islands weren’t immune to the Great Depression. The controlling industries back then — sugar and pineapple — felt the effects of the economic catastrophe rampaging the Mainland. Smaller outfits like a sugar company in Olowalu and a pineapple company on Lanai went belly up. Mills and factories laid off workers across the territory. Those who could keep their jobs had to work longer hours for less pay.
Sugar companies even paid one-way tickets to unofficially deport out-of-work Filipino laborers. They were laid off, declared “destitute,” and unceremoniously sent back to the Philippines, where the companies knew there was no work.
With the downturn came an uptick in crime. Reports of young, jobless men roaming the streets and plantation camps frightened residents. Stolen chickens and clothing were becoming a common occurrence. In 1933, the police arrested two desperate men for burglarizing a store in Makawao to steal canned goods and sweaters.
In this crisis, the United States elected a new president and his party took the Congress. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Democrats were finally inaugurated on a cold day in January of 1933, people were in dire need of relief.
The president needed to deliver too. Democracy around the world was in trouble. Fascism was on the rise and was becoming a deceptive yet attractive choice for governments in places like Spain, France, and, of course, Germany. Anti-democratic Communism was winning over the intelligentsia.
President Roosevelt acted with alacrity. During the first 100 days of his administration, he brought on legislative reforms and work relief programs. His answer to the moribund economy was work relief. In 1933, FDR addressed Congress and urged the creation of a work relief program for the unemployed youth. Congress passed the Emergency Conservation Work Act and established the Civilian Conservation Corps.
All across the country, the federal government funded projects and hired out-of-work young men from the ages of 18 to 25. By 1934, it reached the Territory of Hawaii.
Young men from Kaupo to Honolua assembled and were sent up to the summit of Haleakala. There, they built a camp by hauling in supplies on mules and hiking in. The mountain had become their home.
They were paid $30 a month, fed and sheltered by the government. Many remember simple lunches of sandwiches or poi. Lots of dinners were stew and rice with the occasional pig or goat supplemented by avid hunters.
The work itself was hard. The CCC built storage tanks around natural springs in the crater. They cleared trails and service roads for rangers and park workers. They dug out trails at Halemauu. And they hauled in the gravel, concrete and materials for carpenters to build the cabins — Holua, Kapalaoa and Paliku — that still house hikers and visitors to Haleakala. All the work was by hand with pickaxes, shovels and mules.
The CCC crews worked to conserve native flora and fauna. They helped collect and identify plants in the crater and protected the then already endangered silversword plants. As early as 1934, the CCC worked to eradicate goats and feral pigs from Haleakala — a feat that was not achieved for several decades.
Many remembered their time with the CCC fondly. They passed the time playing cards, hunting and sparring with each other. They hiked through the crater and found lava tubes, springs, streams and hidden mountain trails.
Congress continually funded the work relief program as the economy gradually moved out of the Great Depression. The CCC had its own base camps, mess hall uniforms and rules. The young enrollees learned vocational trades and helped make Haleakala National Park the destination we all recognize today. The CCC dwindled as the war effort escalated. The program officially ended in 1942 — not long after the United States entered World War II.
The story of the CCC on Maui is the silver lining of the Great Depression. Out of crushing economic despair, the government took quick action and put young men to work. They gave us magnificent trails to get in and out of Haleakala with relative ease. They hauled the materials for the cabins where hikers rest and enjoy cold nights in the crater. And they began the long process of eradicating invasive species to protect the native habitat.
It makes you wonder. These days tourism has replaced sugar as the industry controlling Hawaii’s economy and politics, and tourism isn’t doing well. The economy is in shambles and many fear unemployment will rise to a level akin to the Great Depression. And like the dark days of the 1930s, democratic institutions around the world are threatened by autocrats. These conditions resemble the state of affairs that gave us FDR, his New Deal, and work relief programs like the CCC. Perhaps these times will give us a program similar to the CCC and its hiking trails and cabins — or something like it.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”