By Ron VandenBoom
They stand like sentinels guarding an unseen gate to the wide open landscape, but the small white crosses that dot Montanas highways are only sentinels to memory the memory of a tragic loss of life and the trauma it represents.
Its a memory that members of the Montana American Legion thought could serve a useful purpose when, in 1953, they started the White Cross Program.
The White Cross Program is a highway safety program, said John Gallagher, commander of the American Legion Post No. 11 in Havre. It can be a memorial to some people, but its original intent is safety.
The crosses are erected on or near the site of traffic fatalities that occur on any state or federal highway, and on many secondary roads, throughout Montana.
The crosses will sometimes be placed on or near the exact location of the fatality, but, according to Gallagher, the crosses also will be placed in a location where they will have the greatest impact on safety.
Like at the beginning of a dangerous curve, he said, explaining that the actual fatality might have occurred somewhere on the curve or just past the curve. Its at the beginning of the curve where people need that little reminder to drive safely.
The program is conducted with the endorsement of the Montana Highway Patrol and the Montana Department of Transportation and, according to Gallagher, it is the only program that is allowed to place a marker or monument on a highway right-of-way.
The program also includes billboards located near every major artery into Montana explaining what the crosses are for and asking that people please drive safely.
The legion will contact the highway patrol to learn the location of accidents, Gallagher said, and the highway patrol will even mark the location so the legion can find the place to erect the cross.
Gallagher said American Legion District 2 currently has approximately 400 of the crosses lining the roadside, but the exact number in Hill County is unknown.
Five new crosses have been added to the list within the last six months, Gallagher said.
Recent construction work on Highway 2 west of Havre has caused as many as eight of the crosses to be temporarily removed and many others around the county need to be updated, replaced and refurbished. Forty newly refurbished or newly constructed crosses are currently stored at the Havre VFW Club waiting to be erected.
Work building and refurbishing the crosses is done free of charge for the legion by Petes Auto Body Shop in Havre and proprietor Eldor Peterson.
We are having many inquiries about the program right now, Gallagher said, while explaining he doesnt know why there seems to be such interest now.
A $150 check sent to the legion recently by an out-of-state relative of a traffic victim is also a sign of the recent interest.
Each countys American Legion post is responsible for erecting, maintaining and replacing the crosses in their county. In Hill County, that responsibility currently falls on the shoulders of Jose Guevara, Melvin Melby, Charlie Kuntz and former commander of Post 11, Stan Knudson.