For a place with “peace” in its name, there has been a lot of hubbub at the Bald Knob Cross of Peace near Alto Pass this spring.
In addition to annual events — the annual Easter sunrise service and the Christian Motorcyclists Association’s Blessing of the Bikes, for example — the cross has been the site of upgrades, renovations and preparations for new activities.
“This spring has been very busy,” said Bald Knob Cross of Peace Executive Director Teresa Gilbert. “We’ve had a number of projects that have all culminated seemingly at once. They are projects we have been working on over the last couple of years and they’ve all come together at the same time.”
Improvements to the structure come on the heels of a complete renovation to the 111-foot tall cross itself, which was finished in 2012, as well as an expansion to the site’s welcome center.
“The welcome center is about triple the size of what it was a number of years ago,” she said, adding that other upgrades include a new observation deck on the center’s south side. “The deck really affords the best view of Bald Knob Cross from anywhere. The view is great toward the Mississippi River and you can even see the top of the bridge to Cape Girardeau.”
Gilbert said those are views which previously were only visible through the windows of the welcome center. Future plans call for seating and mounted binoculars on the observation deck. Other improvements include enhancements to lighting for the cross as well as on-going projects to modernize infrastructure.
“We’ve upgraded our water system and made improvements to our electrical system to make it more efficient,” she said, adding that these enhancements will soon lead to the removal of electrical poles around the site.
“That will really improve the landscape even more."
Another new addition is the creation of what Gilbert calls a “history corner,” a display inside the welcome center which depicts the story of the grounds including the 1959 groundbreaking for the cross.
“In a few minutes you can look at pictures and read storyboards to come away with a pretty good history of the cross,” she said. “While it looks like a small project, it’s actually amazing the number of hours that went into that project. We’re very proud of it.”
Gilbert explained that most of the improvements have been funded through donations from businesses and individuals. All of the efforts, she said, are to meet the needs of visitors to Bald Knob.
“It’s to enhance the experience and to create the perfect environment for visitors. We consider Bald Knob not just to be a tourist spot, but it’s more than that. Some people come just to see the cross, some come to celebrate, some come to get engaged, others come to get married, some come because they have a broken heart. It’s so interesting to visit with the people who come and just let them be. We want them to experience the view and the beauty of nature as well as all that the cross offers and represents.”
Bald Knob Cross of Peace Board of Directors member Michelle Sirles said the number of visitors has been on the upswing since the cross was reworked five years ago.
“The restoration has brought a lot more visitors and it’s been wonderful to see all of the volunteers who have worked with the executive director to make things happen,” she said. “The community has really had to step up to handle all the increase of visitors. It’s really, really neat to see how all of the little pieces have come together.”
Volunteers and staff members at Bald Knob are expecting a large influx of visitors for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse and are making plans for the event.
“Bald Knob Cross is the highest point in Southern Illinois and it is one of the most unobstructed views, so eclipse experts tell me that we need to plan well for this event,” Gilbert said.
The cross is offering two eclipse-viewing packages, one for what Gilbert calls “serious viewers” that will reserve space on the grounds for telescopes and other equipment and includes parking, and another for casual viewers which will be more of a general admission arrangement.
“We’re selling tickets for both levels, but they are just for crowd control,” she said. “We are limiting the number of tickets so there will be plenty of room.”
Gilbert said eclipse visitors will benefit from Bald Knob’s height of 1,034 feet above sea level.
“We expect to have a lot of people for the eclipse because we are up so high, the view is so unobstructed and they will be able to watch the entire eclipse,” she said.
She added that she hopes visitors for the eclipse will return to the cross after the eclipse and promises even more improvements to come. Bald Knob’s website lists future projects including improvements to the parking area, new landscaping and seating.