WHITE CROSS INFORMATION
They are numerous enough to notice, yet infrequent enough to startle at seeing. They stimulate reverence, sorrow, sympathy, curiosity, and caution. They effect us all, to one degree or another. They are the white crosses that mark the sites of fatal traffic accidents along the highways of Montana. For 50 years, these white crosses have reminded passing motorist of the dangers of the road, as well as the lives, which have been lost on the highways.
The Montana American Legion White Cross Highway Fatality Marker Program began in 1953. The unique idea of marking fatal traffic accident sites with a white cross was the brain child of Floyd Eaheart, a member of the American Legion Hellgate Post #27, Missoula, Montana; after six lives were lost in the Missoula area over the 1952 Labor Day Holiday. The safety program started out as a county and later district project for the Missoula American Legion Post. However, the idea was so good that it was soon adopted as a statewide program. The Montana Highway Commission (now Department of Transportation) approved the program in January 1953, with the blessing of the then 13th governor of Montana, J. Hugo Aronson (the Galloping Swede). E.A. “Gene” King from Livingston was the American Legion Department Commander at that time. Louis Babb was the Assistant Adjutant for the Department of Montana during this time, and was instrumental in getting it started. He appeared before the Montana Highway Commission and convinced them to adopt the American Legion White Cross Safety Program. With this authorization, most of the 132 Montana American Legion Posts participated in the White Cross Program. Floyd Eaheart, the man who conceived the program, served as the state White Cross Program chairman for the first several years.
The program is intended as a highway safety, not a memorial program. Still, many families place wreaths or other decorations on the white crosses, which may be considered a memorial to a loved one lost in an accident. Obstruction of the white cross with these decorations defeats the purpose of the safety program. Attaching them below the cross on the metal pole is acceptable. The white crosses serve as a public service message, reminding drivers to “Please Drive Carefully.” They are a sobering reminder of a fatal traffic accident, a place where a human being lost his/her life.
The American Legion’s White Crosses can be found within the borders of Montana, along state and federal highways, secondary and forest service roads and even city streets. One white cross is erected for each traffic fatality. The crosses are made of 4” metal and painted white. They are mounted on metal poles painted red. Each white cross is 12” wide and 16 “ long. The white cross is supposed to be 4 to 5 feet above the ground to improve visibility and aid in road maintenance.
Not all highway fatalities are marked. Due to a federal ruling, white crosses are not allowed along interstate highways. Only about half of the 132 American Legion Posts in Montana currently participate in the program. Because of these two reasons many stretches of Montana highways do not have white crosses where a fatal accident has occurred. Also, when a highway is reconstructed and corrects what may have been the cause of the fatality, only those white crosses specifically requested by a family member are replaced.
Since it is the responsibility of the local American Legion Post to see that the white crosses are erected at the site of fatal traffic accidents, each one at the Montana Legion Posts is allocated a certain area of responsibility for erecting and maintaining the white crosses. Each American Legion Post is annually furnished with an instruction sheet together with drawings and specifications for making the white crosses. Instructions are also provided for erecting the white crosses at fatality sites. Annual maintenance of the crosses is stressed in these instructions and at all Legion meetings. No tax money is used in the fabrication, erection, or maintenance of the white crosses. However, donations for the White Cross Program may be made to either the local American Legion Post or to the Montana Legion in Helena.
Since the White Cross Program’s inception, 50 years ago, it is estimated that over 2,000 white crosses have been erected along Montana’s highways. This represents a cemetery of over five acres. The Montana Highway Patrol and Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) have praised the program. Every governor has endorsed it since 1953. It has received much interest and many laudatory comments from tourists. It has achieved a certain degree of notoriety, having been broadcast on many TV stations throughout Montana and Spokane, Washington. There was a short article in the May 30, 1970 issue of Life magazine as part of a story on the highways that kill. Numerous articles have been published in Montana newspapers as well as the Spokesman Review and The Seattle Times. The Tombstone Traveler's Guide addresses the program as well as the Active Montanan magazine.
The Montana Governor’s Office, the Montana Department of Transportation, and the American Legion Headquarters in Helena all receive many inquires each year from out-of-state regarding the White Cross Program. These come from almost every state in the union, and even Canada and other foreign countries. To help provide information on the Montana American Legion White Cross Highway Fatality Marker Program, it will be included in the Montana American Legion web page at www.mtlegion.org , White Cross Program. Information will also be included in the Montana Travel Planner. A link and information will be available through the www.visitmt.com web site. Posters will also be placed in all rest stops in Montana. At some highway entrances to Montana, American Legion Posts have erected 4’x 8’ signs explaining the white cross program.
In many cases a cluster of these white crosses has been the impetus to get a section or curve on a highway re-engineered and/or re-constructed. The white crosses are a very worthwhile program and save lives.
White Cross Chairman
Montana American Legion