Dr. June Robertson McCarroll was not only the first woman doctor in the Coachella Valley; she was also the first medical doctor to serve the five American Indian reservations throughout the valley.
However, she’s not best known for all of her medical accomplishments. Instead, she’s recognized by many as the person who originated the idea of painting a line down the center of the road to help prevent automobile accidents.
Born in Kentucky on June 30, 1867, she attended medical school in Chicago, where she later became one of the few women to establish a practice. She also became a physician for the Nebraska State Industrial School.
She came to the Coachella Valley in 1904, hoping the desert air would cure her husband, James R. Robertson, of tuberculosis. They settled in a health camp near Indio, and his health indeed began to improve.
Meanwhile, Indio’s resident doctor decided he’d had his fill of the desert environment and headed back East. Robertson was prevailed upon to fill the void. She grasped the challenge and initially tried to serve the entire area, from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, by auto—but the primitive roads (as well as the lack of roads in general) often forced her to go by horse-drawn buggy or horseback.
Her industriousness went beyond providing medical care. To provide reading material for her patients, Dr. June, as she was known, applied for her home to be a branch of the state library. Thus, in September 1905, Robertson founded the first library in the Coachella Valley. Open three afternoons per week, the library consisted of 50 to 100 volumes that changed every three months.
The government also needed a doctor to serve the desert’s Native American population, and in 1907, Robertson was appointed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to oversee the health of the American Indians in the Coachella Valley. As an unneeded token of her authority, she admitted to always carrying her “six-shooter in plain sight whenever on the reservation.”
Dr. June often performed surgery on kitchen tables and with rudimentary lighting and conditions, laying out and sterilizing her instruments as necessity demanded.
Her husband eventually succumbed to his illness, dying in 1914. In 1916, she married Frank McCarroll, the Southern Pacific agent in the valley. As other doctors settled in the area, she retired from the medical profession, but became active in various women’s groups.
Her Department of Transportation legacy came about after her Ford Model T was forced into a ditch by an oncoming truck hogging more than its share of the road. After some thought, she determined a lot of accidents might be prevented if there was a line down the center of the road. McCarroll communicated her idea to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors and other jurisdictions, with no success. Finally, in the fall of 1917, she took it upon herself to personally hand-paint a white, 4-inch stripe for about a mile down the middle of Highway 99 (later renamed Highway 86).
Through the Indio Women’s Club and other organizations, McCarroll launched a vigorous statewide letter-writing campaign on behalf of a proposal to extend the striping statewide. In November 1924, the idea was finally adopted by the California Highway Commission, and 3,500 miles of lines were painted throughout California. The California Department of Transportation credits the frontier doctor with originating the center-stripe idea.
While McCarroll is officially recognized as the initiator of the stripe by the state of California, potential road hazards everywhere prompted others to come up with the same idea independent of one another. In Michigan, Edward N. Hines, a member of the Wayne County Road Commission, claimed he came up with the idea as early as 1911. In 1917, the idea of using painted center lines was also conceived in Oregon, when a yellow line was painted down the center of the Columbia River Highway, between Crown Point and Multnomah Falls, at the direction of Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Peter Rexford.
While both the Michigan and Oregon conceptions pre-dated McCarroll’s claim, McCarroll differed in her repeated attempts to get various government jurisdictions to adopt the idea—something neither of the other claimants tried to do.
In celebration of her initiative, innovation and persistence, on April 24, 2002, a portion of Interstate 10 was designated as “The Dr. June McCarroll Memorial Freeway” in her honor. In October 2003, the city of Indio and the local history fraternity dedicated a monument with a plaque honoring Dr. June Robertson McCarroll. The stone marker is at the corner of Indio Boulevard and Fargo Street, adjacent to the Indio Visitors Bureau.
The illustrious Coachella Valley pioneer Dr. June Robertson McCarroll died in March 1954. She definitely paved the way for many others.
Sources for this article include The Press-Enterprise, “Woman credited for highway center lines: Dr. June McCarroll of Indio will be honored with signs on Interstate 10,” Shannon Starr, April 6, 2002; The Desert Sun, “Caltrans will honor local motorist who drew the line,” Richard Guzman, April 24, 2002; Los Angeles Times archives, October 12, 2003; Coachella Valley’s Golden Years, Coachella Valley Water District, 1968; the Woman’s Club of Indio (www.wcindio.org); Palm Springs Legends by Greg Niemann (Sunbelt Publications, 2006); and the Coachella Valley Historical Society (www.cvhm.org).