Bygone Days: Charlie

Nu’uanu Valley was once the cornucopia that supplied the Honolulu area with most of its food. The taro lo’i (taro patches) were irrigated by auwai, a sluice-type irrigation system that carried water from the streams to flood the taro fields that terraced the mountains. In those olden days, passage from Honolulu into the lush valley in the Ko’olau Mountains was a trail. Hawaiians traveled it regularly by foot, but it was difficult for most others.

King Kamehameha III traveled over the Pali on horseback on June 27, 1845. The old footpath had been widened for travel by horseback. Accompanying Kamehameha III were Dr. Garrit P. Judd and the premier, John Young; their journey officially opened the Pali Road. Oahu residents could now travel between Honolulu and the Windward side without going around the island.

In the early 1900s, when Kauai-born Charles Kaulaloha began his maintenance career along the thoroughfare, the Pali Road was still traveled by horseback and horse-drawn carriages.

As a general laborer who maintained the road for the City and County of Honolulu, Charlie had plenty of work. Heavy rains caused minor landslides; stones disturbed by the high winds rolled down the hillsides onto the road. With his broom, pick and shovel, Charlie kept the road clear.

The city and county gave him the title “cantonnier,” which means “road mender” so that he would be paid a little higher than other general laborers. At the city offices, few people knew him by his real name, but knew him as “Charlie Cantonnier.”

Horseback riders and open carriage occupants had little protection against the wind. The wild and whistling gusts that ripped through Nu’uanu Valley knocking stones down the mountainsides into the road also carried off wayfarers’ hats.

Charlie retrieved the hats and collected them in his home at the bend where the road headed toward Kailua. People knew to come to see Charlie at what they called the Halfway House to retrieve their hats. To Charlie, the dwelling was Ku’u Home, Hawaiian for my home.

Visitors who came calling for their lost hats at Ku’u Home had time to stop and talk. Sometimes they’d bring gifts of food. Although Charlie lived alone, he had many friends in those days.

Times were slower then. Charlie patrolled the road on horseback; other riders had time to stop and visit. And while he was at work along the side the road with his boom, pick and shovel, he’d pause as each traveler passed and raise his hat with a courtly bow in greeting. Over the years, he became known as Hemo Papale, or Hemo ka Papale, the man who doffs his hat.

Closed-sedan cars changed the pace of life. It was faster. And there were no more stray hats, no more people coming to see Charlie to claim them and make friends. People were in a hurry; they no longer had time to notice Charlie.

But the lone figure by the side of the road still greeted each passing vehicle, raising his hat with a courtly bow.

On the morning of September 10, 1937, sometime between 5:30 and 6:00, Wong Pa, a friend and fellow workman, called for Charlie as he did every morning. On that morning Wong Pa found his friend hanging from a rafter in the tool shed behind his Pali home.  Charles Kaulaloha was 68 years old; he had been the Pali cantonnier for 28 years.

Charlie worked the day before as usual. He discarded his work clothes for his Sunday best. His bed had not been slept in and his home was spotless.

There was no suicide note, no explanation as to why he took his life. A widower, Charlie left behind six adult children, a nephew, nine grandchildren and three adopted children. He was buried at Kalaepohaku Cemetery in Honolulu.

Charlie’s Kuu Home was an isolated three-room shack beside a Nuuanu gorge near an auwai amid yellow ginger, kukui, banana other lush foliage. A family moved in briefly after Charlie’s death, then moved out. No one ever lived in Ku’u Home again. It became known as the Haunted House Along the Pali.

Lingering memories of suicide, the isolation, and the gusting, whistling winds sounding other-worldly in the dark could all have conspired the make the house seem haunted. It stood for 12 years after Charlie’s death and was torn down in September 1949.

These days, traffic speeds to and from Honolulu, Kailua Kaneohe over the Pali Highway through the Wilson Tunnel, bypassing the Old Pali Road. Pieces of the old road still exist although they are closed to vehicular traffic. The former road has reverted once again to a trail that is still used by hikers. The memory of Hemo Ka Papale is lost in times past, down that old road where the trees and lush foliage listen to the wind.

© 2020 Jeanne A. Moore


“Hemo Papale Is Cantonnier; Keeps the Pali Road Clear. ” By John Williams, Honolulu Star Bulletin, Saturday, March 16, 1935, page 1

“Death Takes Picturesque ‘Pali Hermit:’ Charlie Kaulaloha, Who Doffed His Hat to Everyone, Hangs Himself,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, September 10, 1937, Page 1

“Pali Highway, Once a Path, Was 104 Years Old Monday,” Honolulu Star Bulletin, June 28, 1949

“Haunted House Along Pali Will Soon Be Memory” by Mona F. Shephard, Honolulu Advertiser, September 12, 1949, page 1

“Nu’uanu, O’ahu,”

The Auwai of Nuuanu Valley,