Tarwheels…The lowly centerline

Imagine driving on a dark and wet winter night with ice crystals lurking in the blacktop and being blinded by the piercing beams of oncoming bright headlights. WHERE is the middle of the road?  We take the centerline stripe for granted but they were not in the original design.

Michigan recognizes Edward N. Hines, a Michigan commissioner, as the originator of the divider. They claim he got the idea in 1911 while watching a milk wagon dribble a stream of white down the road. As a test, he authorized workers to paint a white stripe down the middle of a rural road. This proved so successful it became a standard addition to all major highways. Posthumously he received a coveted plaque for his work.

“Not so fast,” yells California! They credit a then practicing Indian Health Service physician, June Hill (Robertson) McCarroll, (1867—1954) as the centerline originator.  

Dr. June McCarroll is credit by California with originating the centerline. Photo courtesy Bob Blake.”

They claim that in 1917, in near twilight, Dr. June McCarroll was bouncing along in her Model T Ford on a narrow concrete roadway when a lumbering truck veered into her path and forced her car up a bank.  The truck continued and left the doctor, covered in dirt, teetering on an embankment.

A few weeks later, while driving on a different road, she observed a pronounced ridge in the middle that divided the opposing traffic. So…why not just paint a middle line on streets and highways?

Center lines were marked on roads long before automobiles in Mexico as seen by this white rock line from the 1600s still in use in Mexico City. Photo courtesy Bob Blake.

The feisty doctor took her idea to an all-male governing board that listened politely but tabled the matter. Undeterred and without permission, she purchased white paint and, with her hands, painted a four-inch-wide center stripe down a mile of California Highway 99! This became the first center marker in California, and probably the United States.

Selling the idea, however, was harder than applying the paint! “Doctor June” persisted for five years before playing “The Women’s Card!”

She addressed the State Federation of Women’s Clubs and, following her enthusiastic talk, these determined and resolute ladies petitioned the California legislature to paint a centerline on all state roads. Finally, the lawmakers bowed to the ladies’ idea, (maybe just to silence them), and gave center stripes a trial.

A patch commemorating Dr. McCarroll’s idea and determination. Photo courtesy Bob Blake.

By 1924, California had 3,500 miles of striped roadway and quickly the idea spread worldwide.  (Never underestimate the power of women!) She received a 2002 plaque at the site of her original line and that segment became the “Doctor June McCarroll Memorial Freeway.”

To solve the “Who Was First” dilemma, however, it may be wise to simply toss the award to Mexico, as in the 1600s Mexico City scattered lighter colored stones in the middle of the dusty roads…to mark the center between opposing traffic!

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