11 Fun Facts about the Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, IL

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11 Fun Facts about the Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, IL

I recently passed through Southern Illinois on an epic trip from Michigan to Alabama’s Gulf Shores. I was charmed by the beautiful Bald Knob Cross of Peace, which is not only one of the largest crosses in the U.S. but, when fully lit at night, can be seen for over 7,500 square miles throughout the Shawnee National Forest area.

This iconic landmark stands tall in the Shawnee National Forest, reaching 111 feet above sea level and offering breathtaking views of the surrounding area. Located off Bald Knob Rd., this spot is not only a symbol of peace but also a beloved destination for both locals and visitors alike. Here are nine fun facts that make this cross a special place to visit:

Bald Knob Cross is a Symbol of Peace

When I visited, a thick fog blanketed the area, which meant I had no idea what I was about to experience. Although the cross is known for its size and the distance from which you can see it, I was in the parking lot right next to it and could not see it one bit.

After a quick tour through the gift shop and a brief history lesson from Executive Director Jena Guined, I made my way to the cross through a short and sightless walk through the fog. There was a paved path, but I marched directly across the grass because the fog was so thick I couldn’t see the path.

As I approached, the grandeur of the cross slowly overwhelmed me as it rose high above me, little by little, upon my approach. It was impossible not to feel a sense of tranquility once I was situated at the base with the enormous cross rising above me.

I’m sure the exterior white panels would glisten in the sunlight on a sunny day, but the panels were matte and not sparkly on this day. I was alone for my visit, and even the air had a quiet feeling with so much moisture. Either by sun or by fog, this heavy gauge steel structure on Bald Knob Mountain is a sight to behold. I don’t mind telling you I spent a few minutes in prayer while I stood there. The atmosphere was perfect for a moment with God.

The bald cross of peace stands tall and moody against a foggy backdrop.

Bald Knob Cross Provides a Place for Everyone to Worship

The idea for the cross was initially conceived in 1937 after local residents Wayman Presley and Reverend W.H. Lirely commiserated over the need for a common place of worship that would welcome people of all races and denominations. The idea was born, although the cross didn’t come to life until many years later, in 1963.

You Can Attend Easter Sunrise Service at Bald Knob Cross

Nearby Bald Knob, which stands tall as the highest point in Southernmost Illinois, was the perfect place to gather for worship, and the very first Easter Sunrise Service was held high on the hilltop in 1937 with 250 enthusiastic worshippers in attendance. 

That first outdoor service high on the hilltop was only the beginning. Each year, a pastor from a local church volunteers their time to lead a worship service at the base of the cross. Can you imagine witnessing the first rays of sunlight peeking over the horizon from this serene location? Sign me up!

An inscription on a granite marker In Memory of Wayman R Presley

Bald Knob Cross Hosted a GoFundMe for the Times

Once Mr. Presley and Rev. Lirely knew there was potential for their idea, they began an earnest effort to raise money. After all, someone would have to pay, and if it’s a place of worship for everyone, shouldn’t everyone be invested in bringing it to life?

Over several years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, 116 people each pledged $100 to purchase the land at Bald Knob. Note that $100 in 1950 would equal around $1,200 in 2024, so this was no small commitment. Those 116 people came from 5 states and 34 different communities. Together, they formed a non-profit organization and purchased the land.

multi-colored background with the words "let's be friends" printed on top with "click here to join the facebook group"

Bald Knob Cross was Built by Great Sacrifice

Wayman Presley not only helped conceive of the idea for the cross but also gave up his job with the U.S. Postal Service to dedicate himself fully to completing the task.  One man’s vision still stands 87 years after its initial conception.

Several of those initial pledgers stand out in the greater history of Bald Knob Cross. Consider James Deal, the Blacksmith from nearby Murphysboro, who collected the very first $100 donation from those in his black community. Mr. Deal also helped dig the foundation of the cross by hand several years later.

a black and white photo showing two black farmers standing side-by-side
Mr. James Deal and his son (Photo Credit – Jackson County Historical Society, Murphysboro IL)

A few years after the cross was erected, Italian immigrant Frank Del Conte, a hard-working coal miner, left his estate to the Cross, bequeathing his entire $22,000 estate. In 2024, that would be proportional to over $200,000.00 and was enough to pay off the remaining balance from the initial building loan.

The Bald Knob Cross Inspires a “Can Do” Mentality

One of the most compelling stories of dedication is that of Widower Myrta Clutts. Ms. Clutts was far from wealthy and had no money to give, yet she believed deeply in this project, so she pledged her $100 in good faith. Her children lamented that her gift would be impossible, yet Ms. Clutts was a woman of strong faith and knew God would provide.

And indeed, He did, in the form of piglets! After an old sow gave birth to 21 piglets (yikes!), Ms. Clutts knew that would be too many pigs for one mama, so she creatively paired her dog Flossie, who had just lost a litter of pups, with several piglets. Together, Mama Sow, Flossie, and Ms. Clutts managed to raise 18 piglets, 14 of which she sold to fund her $100 pledge.

But Myrta Clutts wasn’t finished! She donated the remaining four pigs to Wayman Presley, who began raising more pigs from the initial four. Working with farmers throughout 11 nearby counties, they reared and sold 1,600 pigs, which continued to bring funds in for the project. How many funds? Over $30,000 in just three years! Imagine what that would be in today’s dollars!

Mrs. Clutts proved that you should never underestimate a woman on a mission!

Hip Grandma poses in front of the Bald Knob Cross

Bald Knob Cross Was Erected in 1963

By 1953, with land purchased, there was enough money left to begin constructing the foundation of the Cross. A groundbreaking ceremony took place at the 1959 Easter Sunrise service, and work began in earnest.

Workers framed up the cross, and the skeletal structure stood atop Bald Knob for several years before the original steel panels covered in shiny white veneer (900 of them) were placed on the steel framework in 1963, forming the first version of what we see standing in place today.

The Bald Knob Cross from a distance

Bald Knob Cross Required a Rebuild

Sadly, what was once at the forefront of everyone’s minds lost public interest, and the cross began to fall into disrepair. After years of neglect and an eventual court battle between board members, a new board was formed in 2008 and met for the first time in January of 2009, wherein they began planning to restore the cross.

Construction crews removed all of the heavy original panels and repaired the core structure of the cross, making it ready for a new and improved outer cover.

In the spirit of the original concept, fundraising began, and a new unity emerged around the cross. The new panels were eventually added to the cross, and a 2012 lighting ceremony re-dedicated the cross to its original purpose of uniting people in worship.

You Can Enjoy More Views From the Modern Observation Deck

In 2017, construction crews added an observation deck to the back of the Welcome Center. Here is the perfect place to take in stunning views of the Mississippi River and miles of the Shawnee National Forest. Enjoy views as far as Jackson, Missouri, and Cape Girardeau, including the Cape Girardeau Bridge and the Mississippi River.

In 2020, a free-standing binocular was installed on the observation deck, offering even more amazing views!

The exterior of the Welcome Center at the Bald Knob Cross of Peace
Inside the gift shop at the Bald Knob Cross of Peace

Bald Knob Cross is in a Great Area for Wine Drinkers

The small town of Alto Pass is known for more than just the cross; it’s also home to award-winning wines. After your visit, you can visit one of the fantastic wineries along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail for a relaxing wine tasting. I highly recommend a stay at the nearby Blue Sky Vineyard as well!

You Can Visit During the 2024 Total Eclipse

Bald Knob Cross of Peace will be hosting an Eclipse event in April of 2024. I can’t think of a better place to observe the Eclipse than at the highest point in the region with an unobstructed view of the sky. The party begins before and after the 4 minutes of totality and will include on-site food options, live music, a family-friendly atmosphere, and multiple viewing options. You can find more information and purchase tickets here

Need a Place to Stay?

Bald Knob Cross Important Information

For those who would like an occasional update on the cross and some insider information, take a moment to follow the Bald Knob Cross of Peace Facebook page, where you can get a peek inside the cross and see how they keep the outside clean and smudge-free!

I would be remiss in my mission if I didn’t discuss something essential for any traveler – accessibility and restroom availability. The Welcome Center, located nearby, provides restroom facilities that are easily accessible for those with mobility challenges. Whether exploring the observation deck or enjoying live music during special events, rest assured that restroom facilities are available.

Also, a trip from the Welcome Center to the base of the cross is entirely accessible by way of a paved pathway with no stairs.

Wrapping It All Up

Next time you pass through Southernmost Illinois, make it a priority to stop by the Bald Knob Cross of Peace in Alto Pass, IL. It’s not just a cross; it’s a symbol of unity and a beautiful way to experience one of Illinois’ most charming towns.

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PIN image showing the article title and a photo of the Bald Knob Cross