Dakota Datebook

William Cross


The city of Grand Forks had a certified hero just over a century ago, and his name was William Cross. It was on this date in 1909 when the readers of the Grand Forks Herald became aware that the Carnegie Hero Medal, given to William Cross, had been placed on display in Munro’s Jewelry Store.

Here is the story behind William Cross’s heroism. In the summer of 1906, sixteen-year-old William Cross was swimming and boating at Maple Lake, a beautiful, tree-lined lake near Mentor, Minnesota, 40 miles east of Grand Forks. It was July the 19th, and William Cross was going to teach Michael Colton, also from Grand Forks, how to swim.

The lesson started out well, as they set out on a sailboat for the far shore. To demonstrate how easy it was to swim, William Cross jumped off the boat and swam back. Then things went terribly wrong. When Cross clambered back onto the sailboat, Mr. Colton, in fun, pushed Cross back into the lake, but in doing so, Colton fell backward into the water.

Not knowing how to swim, Colton submerged, surfaced, and then went back under again. William Cross, hearing the floundering, climbed back onto the sailboat, and immediately dived into the water to rescue his friend.

The water was twenty feet deep and they were sixty feet from shore. Cross acted swiftly, grabbing the 225-pound Colton in order to wrestle him back onto the boat.

Unfortunately, the older and more powerful Colton panicked, and rather than permit himself to be saved, he struggled and fought against Cross, and both men went under. Thus began a “most desperate struggle” for both of their lives. Cross, showing “remarkable presence of mind,” clobbered the drowning man, knocking him unconscious.

By this time, Colton was “black in the face and nearly gone,” but Cross, with adrenaline-boosted strength, held Colton’s head above water, swimming toward the sailboat. In the nick of time, another boat came near, and the two rescuers got Michael Colton onto shore, where after “drastic efforts,” Colton came back to consciousness.

Word spread regionally about the heroism of William Cross, and he was nominated for a Carnegie Hero Medal. In 1904, Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie created a Hero Fund of $5 million dollars to benefit the dependents of those who died trying to save others and to award Hero Medals to commemorate acts of valor.

Investigators from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission traveled to Grand Forks and checked the facts of how William Cross’s daring deeds had saved Colton from a “watery grave,” and Cross got a Hero Medal in October, 1908.

Cross got no money, but his name was printed in the New York Times. The medal, inscribed for “William Cross,” read: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Cross was the first North Dakotan to become a Carnegie Hero.



Today’s Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.


Sources: “Medal Is On Exhibition,” Grand Forks Herald, January 10, 1909, p. 2.

“William A. Cross Is Awarded A Medal,” Grand Forks Herald, October 22, 1908, p. 1.

“Will Probably Secure A Medal,” Grand Forks Herald, July 14, 1908, p. 6.

“Will Soon Receive Medal For Bravery,” Grand Forks Herald, October 29, 1908, p. 2.

“Carnegie Heroes,” New York Times, October 22, 1908, p. 16.

“Carnegie $5,00,000 Fund For Heroes,” New York Times, April 16, 1904, p. 1.

“Why They Wear The Carnegie Medal,” New York Times, October 25, 1908, p. SM9.

Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, Carnegie Hero Fund Commission: 1913-1914, p. 48, online at Google Books.


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