Rising 1,337 feet above sea level, Mt. Rubidoux in the city of Riverside may very well be the world’s tallest Roman candle.
For at least 50 years every Fourth of July, Riverside City Hall has staged spectacular displays of fireworks above Mt. Rubidoux, an outcropping of weathered granite and brush near downtown. The event is advertised in the local press as a safe and fun alternative to private fireworks displays, which are illegal anyway. And just about every year from the time the tradition began, an errant spark or early detonation of one of those skyrockets sets Mt. Rubidoux on fire.
This past Independence Day, the first skyrocket went up at 9PM and the hill caught fire at about 9:01PM. After dousing what proved to be two separate spot blazes ignited by that single rocket, city fire officials gave the green light for the show to resume. It did, and the hill promptly caught fire a third time.
“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,” says Riverside Fire Battalion Chief William Stamper. “If 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.”
Stamper and others point out that City Hall has gone to great lengths to keep the mountain from catching fire. The skyrockets were adjusted to detonate higher in the air than previously, and city crews regularly clear dry brush and erect fire lines. But what the city hasn’t done is discontinue the annual practice of detonating hundreds of pounds of sparkly explosives above the tinder-dry mountain. And so, every year like clockwork, the big rock goes up in flames.
Like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, the burning of Mt. Rubidoux has become an event around which many Riversiders plan their July 4 activities. They barbecue or picnic during the day, make that last booze run around 6PM, and sometime after 8:30PM set up lawn chairs in their front- or backyards (the hill can be seen from most areas of the city) and wait for the mountain to ignite.
“July 4: Well, here at the ol’ Risinger casa, we have prepared a simple meal for the Fourth of July,” penned a blogger on the website www.risingerphotography.com. “We will be having shredded bbq pork or bbq chicken sandwiches, a nice tossed green salad, and roasted sweet corn on the cob . . . after dinner, we plan to go see Mt. Rubidoux catch on fire. Awesome!”
The spectators are rarely disappointed.
“July 5: Mt. Rubidoux never lets you down . . . I mean really, we were watching for a total of 30 seconds tops, and the damn mountain catches on fire . . . I only got a snippet of a video . . . not worth posting.”
Mt. Rubidoux is one of the most storied landmarks in Riverside, second only to the Mission Inn in the sheer volume of legends that have sprung up around it.
One popular tale holds that during Prohibition, Mission Inn founder Frank Miller had a tunnel dug from the basement of the Inn to one of the hill’s many caves to both store bootleg whisky and as an escape route in case of a raid. The story is almost certainly untrue—the tunnel part, at least.
Mount Rubidoux is famously rumored haunted—by whom or what depends on who’s telling the story. One story speaks of a band of mischievous elf-like creatures that throw rocks at passersby. The hill is also supposedly a prime venue for spectacular suicides, and those are the stories Riversiders love to tell most. They recount breathlessly of the unbalanced mother who drove herself and her infant onto a mountain road and over a cliff. Or of the distraught father who marched his entire family up the hill and then shot everyone and himself in the head. But according to city officials, very few people have died on the hill, and those who did were usually accidental OD cases.
“I ran into some people up on the hill a while ago who were looking for ghosts, and I told them that I hadn’t seen any, though I did see former city councilman Chuck Beaty there once,” says George Flower, president of the 400-member-strong Friends of Mt. Rubidoux.
For the record, former Riverside city councilman Chuck Beaty is not dead.
“You hear all kinds of things, but I’ve never seen anything like that,” Flower says. “There is a group I’ve seen on Mt. Rubidoux singing strange songs in a foreign language. But I think they’re Samoans.”
Editor’s Note: Mt. Rubidoux was again on fire this past Monday, burning 15-20 acres. Arson is a possibility, according to the Press-Enterprise.