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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Thank Doc June for road markings

International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women, began on March 8, 1911. Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in March in the United States since 1987.

To help celebrate Women’s History Month, FreightWaves Classics will continue to profile a number of women who made contributions to transportation during the month of March.

Overview 

Road surface/pavement markings are used on paved roadways to provide or convey official road information to drivers and pedestrians. Pavement markings are part of the “guidance system,” that provide regulatory and vehicle path information in ways that do not require users to take their attention from the road. 

The Monterey Highway in 1910 – with no striping/markings. (Photo: Calisphere.org)

Markings are also a psychological barrier as well as important components of a road or highway that are used to aid safe, orderly traffic flow and optimize roadway capacity. To be effective, pavement markings must be easily perceived and understood. A system of marking color, shape and utilization has been developed to pass the same message each time a pavement marking is encountered. Across the United States (and most parts of the world), these markings are uniform and are used to avoid uncertainty that can cause hazardous accidents. 

For example, whenever a driver sees white and yellow color lines divide travel lanes or mark the center of the road, they indicate if the traffic is traveling in one or two directions. A yellow line separates traffic moving in opposite directions and a white line separates traffic lanes moving in the same direction.

The beginning

How did road surface marking and striping begin? The answer is semi-controversial… and depends on who you believe.

In 1911 the first documented use of a painted centerline was recorded on Trenton’s River Road in Wayne County, Michigan. Edward N. Hines, chairman of the Wayne County Board of Roads, first insisted that there should be a solid line separating lanes of traffic on the county’s roads. Apparently he developed his idea after seeing a leaky milk wagon leave a white trail along a road.

Edward N. Hines. (Photo: bikedearborn.com)
Edward N. Hines. (Photo: bikedearborn.com)

Hines was posthumously inducted into the Michigan Transportation Hall of Honor for his innovation.

In April 1917 a yellow centerline was painted along the Columbia River Highway. Peter Rexford, the sheriff of Multnomah County, Oregon, spearheaded this effort. Yellow paint was used when it was determined that white paint was not as visible on extremely dark and/or stormy nights.

Who was June McCarroll?

Born in Lewis County, New York (or Kentucky, depending on the source!), she was born June Hill two years after the Civil War and she graduated from the Allopathic Medical College of Chicago around 1888, at age 21.

Dr. June McCarroll. (Photo: CSUSB)
Dr. June McCarroll. (Photo: CSUSB)

After working two years with the Nebraska state schools, she married John Robertson and doctored patients on the side. Around the turn of the 20th century, Robertson was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The couple headed for the warmer, drier climate in Los Angeles. She was determined to cure her husband’s “consumption,” which at that time was one of the deadliest infectious diseases in the world.

Indio, tuberculosis and the Cahuilla 

On the way to Los Angeles in 1904, they stopped at a tuberculosis health camp near Indio, California. Instead of moving on, they stayed there and “Doc June” Robertson began caring for other patients. In 1907, she founded the Coachella Valley’s first library; it provided her tuberculosis patients with reading material because they were quarantined in the middle of the desert.

Robertson was one of the first female doctors in the Imperial and Coachella valleys. “Doc June” cared for residents of the camp and for neighbors, making house calls in a horse-drawn buggy. Sometimes she even pumped her way along the Southern Pacific Railroad’s rails on a handcar. When the railroad’s doctor quit, Robertson took over his job as well.

A road with no markings, circa 1910. (Photo: alpinehistory.org)
A road with no markings, circa 1910. (Photo: alpinehistory.org)

Her load intensified when the Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed her to care for the Cahuilla Indians in 1907. For several years she was the only physician officially designated to care for “tens of thousands of Cahuilla Indians.” This meant that Doc June became the first white “medicine woman” to serve one of the largest Native American tribes, which was spread out on five reservations. When she first visited the reservations, there were no hospitals, no nurses, no electricity and virtually no medical equipment. And she was the only physician.

A measles epidemic in 1908 caused trouble between Robertson and some of the tribe’s most powerful medicine men (who resented her intrusion and “white men’s ways”). In the early 1900s Cahuilla children were sent away from the reservations to schools, but many were returned to their families – dying of tuberculosis or measles.

Robertson’s medical skills, energy, compassion and no-nonsense manner won many of the Cahuilla over, including tribal shaman Ambrosio Costillo. He worked closely with Doc June, administering medicine as well as demonstrating the importance of sanitation and quarantine. He even warned her of a possible uprising by some members of the tribe who were angry about the measles epidemic.

Cars are about to pass each other on an unmarked roads. 
(Photo: reinassobreruedas.com)
Cars are about to pass each other on an unmarked roads.
(Photo: reinassobreruedas.com)

She was described as a “tiny, tough-talking lady who often strapped on a six-shooter to make house calls.” Apparently no one questioned her courage – nor her shooting ability. Robertson finally “graduated” to driving a Ford Model T in order to visit her patients more quickly.  

Primitive conditions did not discourage her. “I would clear off the kitchen table, tie the patient down and administer anesthetic” and proceed with the operation, she once explained. Surgery was what Doc June did best. Her most common operation was tonsillectomy.

John Robertson died in 1914. Two years after her husband’s death, she married Frank McCarroll, a Southern Pacific Railroad station agent. As more doctors opened practices in Indio and the Coachella Valley, she semi-retired.

A near-collision leads to progress 

Despite the information above (and to help mark Women’s History Month), FreightWaves Classics will concentrate on Dr. June McCarroll of Indio. According to numerous sources, Dr. McCarroll influenced vehicles and the roads they travel on in a very significant manner. She “is credited by the California Department of Transportation with the idea of delineating highways with a painted line to separate lanes of highway traffic.” However, this claim is disputed by both the Federal Highway Administration and the Michigan Department of Transportation. 

Dr. McCaroll advocated for centerlines on roads beginning in the fall of 1917 after she was involved in a traffic incident with a truck. McCarroll was driving home at dusk after visiting a patient when a large truck approached her on the narrow roadway. McCarroll was forced to skid off the roadway to avoid a head-on collision with the truck. 

A 1917 Model M dump truck. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)
A 1917 Model M dump truck. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

It wasn’t the first time an incident like this had happened to McCarroll. Apparently the truck driver couldn’t tell where his half of the unmarked highway ended. As McCarroll recalled years later: “My Model T Ford and I found ourselves face to face with a truck on the paved highway. It did not take me long to choose between a sandy berth to the right and a 10-ton truck to the left!” 

Later, while driving on another, newer road, McCarroll noticed that the road had a pronounced center ridge that caused cars to stay on their own side. She thought a center line painted down the middle would serve the same purpose. She recalled, “Then I had my idea of a white line painted down the center of the highways of the country as a safety measure.”

Even simple things such as lines down the middle of a roadway once needed to be invented. McCarroll took her idea to the local chamber of commerce and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. 

However, the supervisors didn’t seem to think her idea had much merit. Whether that was because she was a woman, the quality of her oratory or that the supervisors had never almost had a wreck with a truck is lost to history. According to one source, the Board “gave the idea careful and studious ignoring.” 

A patch commemorates Dr. June McCarroll painting a center line on the road in front of her house. (Image: historypresswest.wordpress.com)
A patch commemorates Dr. June McCarroll painting a center line on the road in front of her house. (Image: historypresswest.wordpress.com)

Despite the setback, Dr. McCarroll simply decided to take matters into her own hands. She got down on her hands and knees and painted a 2-mile-long, 4-inch-wide white stripe down the center of the road that passed in front of her house. This road was later incorporated into U.S. Route 99. (The highway remains today as part of Indio Boulevard.) Through her action, she established the width of the lanes to prevent accidents similar to the one she avoided.

She was sure that her example would illustrate the idea’s safety benefits, but change was slow to come. For seven years, she wrote letters and petitioned the county and state to adopt the white lines.

Members of the Indio Woman's Club in 1925. (Photo: Indio Woman's Club)
Members of the Indio Woman’s Club in 1925. (Photo: Indio Woman’s Club)

Finally, with the support of the Indio Women’s Club, the California Federation of Women’s Clubs and similar women’s organizations, McCarroll launched a statewide letter-writing campaign to back her proposal. After seven years, the California legislature authorized the State Highway Commission to paint center lines.

In November 1924, the California Highway Commission authorized painting 3,500 miles of lines at a cost of $163,000 (approximately $2 million today). California was the first state that mandated painted center lines on roadways, establishing the state as the pioneering leader in automotive regulations. It is a status that California still boasts today (although many would argue that the state has kept that reputation far too long and for too many poor decisions). 

The plaque dedicated to Dr. June McCarroll in Indio, California. (Photo: waymarking.com)
The plaque dedicated to Dr. June McCarroll in Indio, California.
(Photo: waymarking.com)

Legacy

A memorial plaque to McCarroll is located at the intersection of Indio Boulevard and Fargo Street in Indio. According to the historic marker, after a near-collision in her Model T in 1917, “She personally painted the first known stripe in California on Indio Boulevard, then part of U.S. Route 99, during 1917.”

Regardless of exactly who was first, both Hines and McCarroll developed their ideas independently. There is no doubt however that Doc June worked incredibly hard to make centerline striping mandatory in California (and indirectly, the rest of the world). 

Dr. McCarroll died in 1954 at the age of 86. By that time striping roads and highways was commonplace across the country.

Over the decades, Dr. McCarroll’s (or Hines’) relatively simple idea has been adopted worldwide. “When I gave this idea to an accident-ridden world,” McCarroll said years later, “it was with no thought of honors – only safety for drivers of automobiles.”

On April 24, 2002, to honor her contribution to road safety, California officially designated the stretch of Interstate 10 near Indio east of the Indio Boulevard/Jefferson Street exit as “The Doctor June McCarroll Memorial Freeway.” 

Road markings are vastly more complex now, with solid lines, broken lines, crosswalks, cat’s-eyes, and much more. Whether it was McCarroll or Hines (or both), from their ideas came colors, stripes and other markings on streets and highways that have improved motoring safety.

A marked road. (Photo: riaa.com.au)
A marked road. (Photo: riaa.com.au)