Mt. Helix Park unviels first major repairs since 1924 with restored seating

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The year 1917 seems like an entirely different age in East County from today’s hundred-year-mark later. The small community of La Mesa Springs had incorporated as the City of La Mesa in 1912, with about 700 residents. The newly formed city had four churches serving the faith needs of a populace that was highly engaged in civic-minded activities.

The year 1917 seems like an entirely different age in East County from today’s hundred-year-mark later. The small community of La Mesa Springs had incorporated as the City of La Mesa in 1912, with about 700 residents. The newly formed city had four churches serving the faith needs of a populace that was highly engaged in civic-minded activities.

As Easter season approached, La Mesa church leaders were struck with inspiration to host a joint sunrise service on the lovely hills surrounding their city. The earliest such observance commemorating Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ was held sometime during the years 1910-1912. The site of those services was at Lookout Park, also referred to as Mt. Nebo.

But 1917 was very different. Three days before Easter that year, the U.S. had entered “The Great War” now known as World War I. And simple La Mesa Easter sunrise services were conducted for the first time ever on Mt. Helix. A bonfire atop Mt. Helix lit the way, and red flags along the route offered further guidance for those journeying up the hillsides before daybreak. An estimated 150 to 300 attendees were there for the informal services, watching the sunrise together and singing impromptu Easter hymns.

The Mt. Helix Park Foundation honored the 2017 centennial of continuous yearly Easter Sunrise Service at the site on Saturday, April 15, with a ribbon cutting ceremony acknowledging the first major repairs to the Mt. Helix amphitheater seating steps. The amphitheater was built in 1924, and dedicated for the 1925 Easter service. 

The just-completed steps repair project cost $76,000. This was the second costliest park project after the main gate installation.

The steps were power washed first to better match the existing concrete, crumbling sections were replaced, and many old unsightly patches were fixed. The steps are used frequently for visitors to exercise and, of course, for seating for the annual Easter Sunrise Service.

Nicole Roberts, executive director of the Mt. Helix Park Foundation, welcomed those who attended the “very special occasion” during a beautiful morning on Mt. Helix. She noted the major donors there, members of the Fletcher family, members of the foundation’s board of directors, and the concrete installers who took exceptional care in preserving historical accuracy of the original steps with a perfect match in the repairs, right down to using the correct aggregate. Roberts explained that although some of the repairs were discernible as “white patches,” with normal weathering those would soon blend in.

Roberts singled out Jeff Swiney for praise. As vice president of facilities, Swiney was project manager for the amphitheater repairs, and according to Roberts, Swiney was a hands-on manager, mapping seat numbers for repainting and working alongside SPRITES volunteers. (The SPRITES of East County are girls in grades 7 through 12 who volunteer in service to community charities.)

“Your involvement will never be forgotten,” Roberts stated directly to Swiney.

Later at the podium was Eric Fletcher, vice president of the Mt. Helix Park Foundation and great-grandson to Col. Ed Fletcher, donor of the land in 1924. Eric Fletcher unveiled another donation to the foundation at the ceremony, a set of historical photographs taken by Mary White of the Easter 1925 Sunrise Service. The gift will be on display in the foundation offices at the park.

Another speaker at the morning event was Jim Newland, Board Member of the Mt. Helix Park Foundation and President of the La Mesa Historical Society, who provided information about the history of Easter sunrise services in La Mesa and the role of Mt. Helix. Newland noted that around 8,000 people attended the services during the 1920’s. Newland recounted that he was initially troubled over confirming 1917 as the first-ever Easter observance, because the onset of World War I dominated the newspapers, driving out coverage of other contemporaneous events. He was later able to locate stories from the 1930’s, in which interviewees reminisced about the first informal Easter on Mt. Helix in 1917.

Newland offered an interesting historical tidbit. La Mesa city leaders agreed readily to unite for Mt. Helix Easter service in 1918, recognizing the location as bigger, better and more open than the Mt. Nebo site. A local advertisers club put out ads, and the 1918 observance was first to set the pattern for formal Easter Sunrise worship, which continues through today.

“This is an amazing cultural and historical landmark,” Newland said. Looking out at the gathering, Newland continued, “You are the cement that holds this together. You set the foundation.”

Money for the step repair project came from the reserve savings account funded over the years by membership dues, proceeds from the heART of Mt. Helix Fundraisers, major donations, and other park revenue sources, including park rentals and rent paid for cell towers on foundation-owned property.

The Mt. Helix Park Foundation’s major donors in the top two membership levels are those in the 1925 Society (donors of $1925 or more) and the Preservation Society (who have given $5,000 and up).

Pastor Jim Garlow led the centennial Easter Sunrise Service at Mt. Helix on Sunday, April 16. The park is located at 4901 Mt. Helix Dr. More information on the park, park rentals and other upcoming events is available by phone at (619) 741-4363 and online at www.mthelixpark.org.

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