White Line Fever, Dividing a Highway

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Dr. June McCarroll

The chapters of Doctor June Hill Robertson McCarroll’s life that are most well known and documented include the years of her medical practice in the Coachella Valley and the developing and championing of the idea of center stripes for streets and highways. Very little is known or documented about her life in the Midwest prior to her arrival in Indio and not much is known or documented about her life after she retired from the practice of medicine.

We do know that June Hill was born on June 30, 1867, in the Adirondacks of Kentucky, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Preston Hill. She attended college in Chicago, a rarity for women at the time, and received her medical training at the Allopathic Medical College, an exceedingly rare accomplishment for women of that era. She served as the physician for the Nebraska State School for two years. Clearly, she was an extraordinary person based solely on her early life accomplishments.

John Robertson, her husband developed tuberculosis, which caused Dr. McCarroll to give up her career and practice to move to a warm dry climate, the treatment of choice at that time for tuberculosis. They traveled to Los Angeles expecting to settle eventually in the Imperial Valley. During the trip to the Imperial Valley they discovered a tuberculosis health camp in the tiny community of Indio and modified their plans. The camp had been established by Illinois manufacturer and philanthropist N. O. Nelson and was managed by Job Harriman, a vice presidential candidate during the 1900 election. Mr. Harriman was looking for someone to supervise the 60-acre farm associated with the health camp. Mr. Robertson accepted the position and soon regained his health. Dr. McCarroll retired from the practice of medicine, intending to become a frontier housewife.

Doctor June, as she was to become known, was thrust back into the practice of medicine when the attending physician at the camp quit and returned to the East. Doctor June was asked to care for the patients at the camp until a new physician could be found. The ranch and railroad families also implored her to become their doctor. The California Board of Medical Examiners granted her a special permit and she returned to the practice of medicine only a few weeks after her arrival. She soon earned an outstanding reputation for her skilled practice of medicine and her dedication to her immediate community.

The treatment for tuberculosis during the early 20th century consisted primarily of rest and sunshine. Keeping patients’ morale high was also important since most of them were not interested in working on the farm and were isolated and quarantined from the rest of the sparsely-populated Coachella Valley communities. Primarily to provide reading material for her patients, Doctor June applied for a branch of state library from Sacramento for her home. Thus Doctor June founded the first library in the Coachella Valley during September, 1905, consisting of 50 to 100 volumes that changed every three months. The library was open during three afternoons per week.

Doctor June’s medical practice ranged over a vast area from the newly formed Salton Sea to Palm Springs, with primitive or no transportation infrastructure. Often her practice required hours-long horseback, horse and buggy, railroad handcar, and eventually, automobile trips in order to practice medicine under very primitive conditions. She criticized modem physicians for being unable to adapt and only performing surgery in modem hospitals with every modem convenience at hand. She always carried her surgical instruments with her since transportation was problematic and telephones non existent. She often cleared the kitchen table, boiled water to sterilize the instruments, tied down the patient, administered the anesthetic, and operated by the light of a kerosene lamp. She did not perform major surgery but did remove a lot of tonsils.

indio3Doctor June was appointed the first Indian Doctor by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1907, causing friction with the tribal medicine men. Working patiently among the Indians, she and her white medicine soon gained the acceptance by most of the Indian families. Ambrosio Costillo, one of the medicine men, became so enamored of Dr. June’s medical skills that he abandoned his own shamanistic practice and thereafter carried out her medical orders. Ambrosio provided a valuable service during the measles epidemic of 1908 by administering the white doctor’s medicine and enforcing the quarantine.

The 1908 measles epidemic was the impetus for an Indian uprising. Doctor June was warned of the peril, but strapped on a six-shooter and continued her ministration to the sick Indians. No one, it seems, questioned Doctor June’s courage or her shooting ability.

John Robertson died in 1914. Doctor June married Frank McCarroll, the Southern Pacific Railroad Station Agent for Indio, during 1916. Also, other doctors opened practices in Indio and Coachella during 1916. Dr. June soon retired to the life of the frontier housewife and devoted her time to civic endeavors and club work.

The event that was to make her famous took place during the fall of 1917. While driving her Model T Ford between Indio and Palm Springs, she was forced off the very narrow concrete highway into the sand by a truck. The incident took place at dusk and the truck driver apparently had difficulty telling just where his half of the unmarked white concrete highway ended and the white sand shoulder began.

Rather than just getting angry over the incident, Doctor June started to think about how such accidents could be prevented. Additionally, her medical practice would have brought her into regular contact with people who had been injured in automobile crashes, which would have kept the matter fresh in her mind. While on a later trip over US Highway 99 to Kane Springs, Doctor June noticed that the road had a definite middle joint where it had been widened from 8 to 16 feet. The pronounced center joint ridge caused cars to stay on their own side of the road. Doctor June realized that a center line painted down the middle of our streets and highways would serve the same purpose as the center joint.

She took the idea to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors who listened politely and then politely tabled the matter. Undeterred, she hand painted a four-inch wide white stripe about one mile in length. The stripe ran from the junction of present Highways 111 and 86, on Highway 86, to near the Covaldo Date Company building in Coachella. The road was then known as Highway 99 and is now known as Indio Boulevard. This was the first center stripe in Riverside County and the State of California, if not the United States.

Her center stripe idea was a tough sell. Doctor June spent the next five years talking to Chambers of Commerce and highway departments without success until she turned to the Indio Women’ Club. After receiving the full support of the County, District, and State Federations of Women’s Clubs she took a resolution petitioning the California State Legislature to enact a law authorizing the State Highway Commission to paint a line in the middle of all state roads. The State Highway Commission, cognizant of the boost that the idea had received from the women of California, voted to give center stripes a trial. Doctor June realized that she had succeeded, declaring that all she had ever asked for was a trial of her idea, confident that the safety benefits would become readily apparent. She was right: her invention, and her persistence in pursuit of its implementation, have saved countless thousands of live on the streets, roads, and highways of California since 1924.

Eminent Riverside County historian Tom Patterson does not question Doctor June’s involvement with the centerline idea, but has some questions about the dates. He wrote in his Riverside Press Enterprise column that he remembered a trip to Kane Springs as a 13-year old during 1922 and recalled, as he put it “correctly or not,” that Highway 99 was all or mostly unpaved as of that date. Thus the Kane Springs road was unlikely to have had the center ridge due to pavement widening in 1917, if his memory is correct.

Tom Patterson also reported that the centerline idea had been proposed by Wayne County, Michigan, Highway Commissioner Edward Hines and utilized as early as 1911.- Mr. Patterson also mentioned another earlier road divider was a stripe of white stones on a Mexico City highway built by the Spanish conquistadors during the 1500s. Ideas and information moved much more slowly in those pre-internet days, allowing the reasonable conclusion that Doctor June invented the centerline idea independently in Indio without any knowledge of Commissioner Hines, Wayne County, Michigan, Highway Commission practices, or 16th-century Mexican history. From that one mile of 4-inch wide stripe on Indio Boulevard sprang the myriad of colors of stripes and other markings on our streets and highways to enhance our motoring safety.

Ultimately, Doctor June got her wish and retired to the life of housewife and civic- minded matron. There is little information about her after her retirement. She remained in the Coachella Valley but may have moved from the Indio area to another nearby but unidentified Coachella Valley community. Her records from her medical practice have not been found to this date, unlike other medical pioneers in the area. There are no indications of any offspring and little is known about her parents and her family of origin, including whether she had any siblings.

Doctor June Hill Robertson McCarroll died on March 30, 1954, at age 86. Again, the historical record is incomplete. Longtime residents, who knew Doctor June from the period of the centerline story and thereafter, do not recall attending, or even hearing of, a funeral service and they do not know where she is buried. Further historical research in the Coachella Valley, Kentucky, Illinois, and Nebraska could answer some of the questions.

State Senator David G. Kelley authored Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 58 during the year 2000 honoring Doctor June McCarroll by renaming a portion of the nearby freeway for her. Interstate Highway 10 between the Jefferson Street and Indio Boulevard interchange and the junction with State Highway Route 86 was dedicated as the Dr. June McCarroll Memorial Freeway on April 24, 2002.

The Coachella Valley Museum & Cultural Center, housed in the Dr. Harry Smiley Adobe, located at 82-616 Miles Avenue at Deglet Noor, in Indio. The museum has an excellent display on Doctor June McCarroll as well as other Coachella Valley displays. The museum also is home to a Billy Holcomb ECV plaque, near the entrance to the museum grounds, commemorating Dr. Harry Smiley, another Coachella Valley medical pioneer who began his practice during the year of 1921.

Courtesy of ECV, Billy Holcomb Chapter

 

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