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Public Memory of Mount Rubidoux Saved in Riverside

Courtesy of Totally Mt. RubidouxIt only took one minute to save a site with 106 years of local public memory.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State wanted to pluck a cross off of Mount Rubidoux, which was built to support early 20th Century civic identity.

A Riverside based collective of non-profits, Totally Mt. Rubidoux, made a winning bid for the right to purchase a 0.43-acre parcel for $10,500 on April 11, saving the city potential litigation, reported the Press-Enterprise.

Even with a token competitive bid, the auction took less than 60 seconds.

To understand the cultural spirituality of Riverside, it means understanding how the Santa Ana River gave the city an agricultural baptism with its waters, giving people a place to settle just as the romantic economy of citrus blossomed.

That town 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and other inland cities, grew alongside Los Angeles. They were never suburbs. Riverside, Redlands, Colton, Corona, and San Bernardino were sophisticated country cousins that stayed in touch with the earth, while El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles plowed over its fields and groves, trading the gifts of the Los Angeles River for industry and manufacturing.

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As for the cross on Mount Rubidoux, which is pronounced "ru-Bee-dough," residents made it an inter-faith based site, which saved the then-wooden cross from being a civic tchotchke.

KCET's Susan Straight wrote some history in "Notes of a Native Daughter". In 1906, Frank Miller, owner of the Mission Inn, bought a part of Rancho Jurupa, land owned by Louis Robidoux, with Henry Huntington. Brigadier General Hiram Chittenden, who built the Yellowstone Park Road for the U.S., was commissioned by Miller and Huntington to design the road up the hill.

A few months later came the first cross, a wooden one. From published accounts, it wasn't erected as a symbol of triumphal faith or conquest but as a tribute to Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions. Since this was Frank Miller, who built his hotel to resemble a mission and filled it with artifacts from all over the world, that makes sense. Miller loved art, history, and beauty. With this cross, which was consecrated in spring of 1907, there was a reason to ascend the mountain. By 1909 the nation's first sunrise Easter service was held. About 100 people came, and in 1926, twenty thousand gathered.

"This is bunk," wrote P.E columnist Dan Bernstein around the same time, who was ready for a fight.

Photo by Douglas Scot Douglas

Current and former Riversiders have been almost as elegant as Straight, or as blunt as Bernstein. Other natives filed city council chambers ready to back any effort by the city to save the cross. A few days before the auction, on a Facebook page dedicated to sharing experiences growing up in Riverside, the locals were not shy about intrusion.

"This cross is a landmark of Riverside for as long as I can remember. As a youngster, I remember hiking that mountain to reach my goal, the cross," said Vicki Spencer. "I hope it remains there eternally."

Marissa Albanese, who was raised in Riverside and now lives in Washington, said her memory of the cross was her days as a Girl Scout making the hike up with her troop. The road is now closed to vehicle traffic, and it has become a popular hiking trail.

Former John Shipley, now in Mississippi, said his recollections are "mainly that it has always been there. It is a landmark. The other memories are the whole mountain burning for the 4th of July." Fireworks are ignited from the top of Mount Rubidoux, the hillsides ignited with brush fires from sparks is an Independence Day ritual. "I wouldn't say it's a joke among firefighters -- we take it very seriously -- but it does seem to be a tradition among residents to come out and watch Mt. Rubidoux burn," once said Riverside Fire Battalion Chief William Stamper to I.E. Weekly. "If it doesn't light up, they're kind of disappointed. On the other hand, the fireworks display is very impressive. Sometimes, when the hill catches fire, it's an added show."

"I don't live in Riverside now, but that cross was there when I was young," said Erma Neilsen, who is now 76. "It has never hurt anyone and it does make one stand in awe to look at it. Do something worthwhile instead of griping about the cross."

Theresa Smith simply said: "You know you are in Riverside when you pass that hill with the big white cross on top."

It will stay on the stoic hill as an early form of public art that supports the idea that California culture was defined by Father Junipero Serra. As a civic signifier, it reflects the Mission Inn, a Southern California retreat stuffed with artifacts. For Riversiders, the cross sometimes marks the dusk, and always says they are home.

Photo by Tomis Bougher

Top photo courtesy of CaliforniaThroughMyLens.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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Thanks for using my photo in the header! Let me know if you ever need more photography for your stories I have a lot on California Through My Lens