American Legion members refurbish white crosses along 191, urge motorists to drive safely
Story and photos by Joseph T. O’Connor Editor in Chief
BIG SKY – Kenny Alley stands along Highway 191 just north of Moose Flats wearing a neon green construction vest. He leans forward and carefully places a small American flag into a red fence post supporting a white cross 15 feet from the shoulder of the increasingly busy thoroughfare between Bozeman and Big Sky.
“This is one of the most dangerous highways in Montana,” says Alley, known to his many Big Sky friends as “Cuz.”
On this cool Saturday morning in late May, two days before Memorial Day, Alley is with a small group of Big Sky’s chapter of the American Legion honoring an annual tradition: refurbishing or replacing more than 100 white crosses along 191 between Indian Creek and the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon including Highway 64 to Big Sky Resort.
The crosses represent highway fatalities. The goal is to educate drivers and to memorialize the fallen along this stretch.
“A family from South Korea orphaned their kids here because the parents got killed,” says Alley, who serves as commander with the Big Sky American Legion Chapter known as Post 99. The incident occurred about a decade ago.
“They were watching the rafts [float the Gallatin River] and got distracted,” he says. “They crossed the yellow lines and a dump truck hit them. The kids lived.”
It’s a tragic story but one of many. And it’s one that members of Post 99 know is important to tell. In 2020, according to the Montana Department of Transportation website, Montana saw 212 highway fatalities statewide. So far, 2021 has seen 81 fatalities on Montana’s roads. At this time last year, the number was 41.
For nearly 70 years, the American Legion has placed white crosses along Montana’s highways marking the motorists who have perished on these roads. Known as the Montana American Legion White Cross Highway Fatality Marker Program, the effort began in 1953 when Legionnaire Floyd Eaheart of Missoula’s Hellgate Post No. 27 wanted to memorialize six fatalities that occurred in the vicinity over the Labor Day weekend of 1952.
Big Sky’s Post No. 99 members have been involved in the program since the post was chartered in 1991, says Capt. Jack Hudspeth, adjutant for the chapter. Hudspeth is wearing an orange construction vest as he stands near the highway close to the mouth of Gallatin Canyon. It’s a particularly dangerous sweeping turn along the river that can regularly send southbound drivers into the field west of the highway.
“The department of transportation thought that by putting these crosses up, people would see the crosses along the highway and slow down and become safety conscious,” Hudspeth says.
Nearby, the small group of Post 99 members is constructing a frame of red fence posts that will hold four white crosses. It was here, Alley says, just beyond the Gallatin National Forest sign on 191, that four Hispanic workers slid off the road and perished half a dozen years ago. This will be the fourth time they’ve had to replace this particular memorial; vehicles continue sliding off the road here.
Alley holds a fence post as Post 99 member Seth Griggs-Ryan pounds it into the Montana soil. Members Sam Wilson and Doug Suppes work to line up bolts to mount the crosses. It’s a team effort, much like Highway 191 itself requires.
To keep it safe, it’s the responsibility of every motorist to drive carefully and avoid passing other vehicles on blind corners, Alley says. Distractions abound and wildlife frequently cross the road. The 100-plus white crosses mark the alternative.
“There are some sad cases on this road,” Alley says. “It’s people pretty much not paying attention. They don’t realize how dangerous this road is.”