by Arnold Woods
100 years old today, on April 1, 1923, the first Easter services atop Mount Davidson were held by a 40-foot temporary cross that had been erected there for the occasion. It was the beginning of a now century-long tradition of Easter Services there.
The following year, a new 87-foot cross was built for the 1924 Easter services, but it burned down in 1925. This led to the construction of a 100-foot cross in 1926.
Like the first cross, the second one burned down in 1928. A new 80-foot wood and stucco cross was the erected later in 1928. San Francisco also purchased 20 acres at the top of Mount Davidson for use as a park. This cross had lights built into it, but arsonists burned it down in 1931.
Several years later, politicians and civic groups pledged to build a new cross, one that would be more, shall we say, durable. Construction started in 1933. This cross was 103-feet high and was built out of concrete and steel.
The new cross was dedicated on March 3, 1934.1 Part of the ceremony was the laying of a cornerstone in the platform for the cross. The granite cornerstone covered a “record box,’ i.e., a time capsule.2
Two of the items placed in the time capsule were two items from the Holy Land–rocks from the Garden of Gethsemane and water from the River Jordan. Both items had been brought to San Francisco under the command of Captain Robert Dollar in December 1932 and had been kept in the vault of the American Trust Company. Also placed in the time capsule were the original 1845 deed for Mount Davidson, an 1847 Bible, copies of newspapers and telephone directories, and a 20-page sermon written for the occasion by Roger Babson.
The March 4, 1934 dedication ceremony started at 3:00 p.m. The festivities included a number of speeches, music by the Salvation Army Band, and the singing of “The Rugged Old Cross” by Mrs. Celese Sheldon Olsen and Miss Muriel Bates. During the ceremony, Mayor Angelo Rossi appointed the Boy Scouts of San Francisco as the guardians of the cornerstone and record box. Eagle Scout William H. Worden, Jr. of Troop 88 accepted this duty on behalf of the Boy Scouts.
Park Superintendent John McLaren and a representative of the Dollar Steamship Line placed the Holy Land items in the time capsule. Walter P. Laufenberg of the real estate firm Baldwin & Howell, placed the capsule within the vault. The Salvation Army’s territorial commander, Benjamin Orames, then lowered the cornerstone atop the vault and it was cemented in.
Like the prior cross, this one was outfitted with lights. At a night-time ceremony on March 24, 1934, the lights were turned on for the first time.3 President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a golden key at the White House at 7:30 p.m., which lit up the floodlights at the cross. At this ceremony, the Girl Scouts sang their hymn.
On April 1, 1934, the first Easter Service by the new cross was held. Both Muni and the Market Street Railway ran special schedules beginning at 6:00 a.m. to get people there.4 Reverend Jason Noble Pierce of the First Congregational Church presided over the service.5
100 years after the first Easter Service, the time capsule was opened at a ceremony at the cross on April 1, 2023, featuring speeches by the Mount Davidson Cross Armenian Council (the caretakers of the cross), and city political and religious leaders. Then the time capsule was removed from its vault under the cornerstone and its contents displayed to a large crowd.
After the old time capsule was fully revealed, the gathered political and religious luminaries announced the items that they were giving to be placed into a new time capsule that would go back in the vault. Numerous other items, such as newspapers, bibles, the letter inviting President Roosevelt to light the cross in 1934, flags, a scout patches, a pendant featuring the Grace Cathedral Labyrinth, a 2023 Easter Sunrise Service program, a traditional Armenian Cross Stone, a Life in 2023 summary of events and news, COVID face masks, and the icon of Annunciation horning the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The new time capsule is to be opened in 2123.
1. “Thousands Will Participate In New Cross Rite,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 1934, p. C5.
2. “Easter Cross Ceremonies To Be Held Today,” San Francisco Examiner, March 4, 1934, p. 18.
3. “New S.F. Easter Cross Lighted By Roosevelt” San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 1934, p. 18.
4. “Mt. Davidson Car Service Is Announced,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 1934, p. 21.
5. “Catholics Observe Church Feast Day,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 29, 1934, p. 13.