Highway Whodunit

The story behind the now ubiquitous center line

Cutline: A hand-painted center line helps prevent head-on collisions at Dead Man’s Curve in Marquette County in the early 1900s, the first preventative measure of its kind in the country.

By Larry Chabot

Here’s a history question: who painted the first center line on a U.S. highway? Around here, of course, the answer is Kenneth I. Sawyer, who laid one at Dead Man’s Curve on old M-15 between Marquette and Negaunee. But there are several contenders for the honor, and it’s possible that Mr. Sawyer isn’t one of them.

The earliest recorded event was near Mexico City around 1600 A.D. where a row of stones separated lanes of horses and walkers. One source mentions painted stop lines applied to roads in Portsmouth, Virginia, as early as 1907. Another source claims that a lane marking was seen on a narrow entrance road into a Cincinnati park in 1911 or 1912. New York City began marking pedestrian crosswalks in 1911.

Then there was June McCarroll, a California nurse and physician, who was credited by that state’s transportation department with pioneering the separation of traffic lines. According to a historic marker, she survived a near-collision in her Model T Ford, “and personally painted the first known stripe in California on Indio Boulevard, then part of U.S. Route 99, during 1917.”

Michigan has two candidates. The first was Edward Hines, director of the Wayne County Board of Roads, who painted a center line in the town of Trenton in 1911. The story goes that after seeing a milk truck spill some of its product on the road, Hines got the idea for a milk-white line. Skeptics say there was no milk wagon involved, but Hines does get credit for the first dividing line on a highway anywhere.

The other Michigan claimant—the local favorite—was Kenneth Sawyer, whose good name was adopted by the Air Force base, commercial airport, town and school. There are numerous citations backing the claim that Sawyer painted the first center line, as well as other key highway markings beginning in 1917. He described his role in articles written for trade publications like Literary Digest, Highway Transportation, and Municipal and County Engineering. But there is a little known secret behind his story. It does nothing to detract from his sterling reputation while shining the spotlight on another well-known Marquette County family.

This is where it happened: the route in question was originally a horse-and-wagon path from the Cleveland and Sharon iron mines in Ishpeming to the docks in Marquette in the 1850s. It was later upgraded and renamed the Marquette-Negaunee Road, then became part of the state trunkline system in 1913 as highway M-15. More recently, it was renamed US-41 and later became a county road.

There was no question about the dangers of M-15 brought on by the advent of new-fangled automobiles and trucks, which exposed the hazards of driving on an old horse-and-wagon path. The road dropped 900 feet in only seven miles, meandered over numerous hills, around curves, between rock bluffs, crossed railroad tracks, and bordered thick forests. Traffic was averaging 1,200 vehicles during a 10-hour day, or one every 30 seconds. A particular menace was Dead Man’s Curve, aptly named for the many accidents occurring there. Drivers approaching the left-hand curve would drift left for a quicker turn, but oncoming traffic wasn’t visible until it was too late. WHAM. The curve was well-named.

The roadway was modern for its time: a macadam road built of hard rock and well-covered with limestone chips and a good seal coating. Two coats had been applied in the previous four years, but by 1916 heavy motor traffic and increasing tourist use was causing problems.

In a 1920 article, Sawyer wrote, “To relieve this situation the writer [Sawyer] painted white 8-in. center lines upon the black surface…of the more dangerous curves, with an arrow pointing down the right hand side of the road at either end, this to counterbalance the tendency of auto drivers to hug the inside of a curve regardless of the danger of hitting the traffic approaching which might be invisible to them. The effect was immediately apparent as drivers responded and kept to right side of road [for an] immediate reduction in the number of accidents. The writer has had this center line system of control in use for three years. The patrolman touches up the center line every Saturday morning…unless the rains are especially severe.” They applied the same white paint used by the U.S. lighthouse service. Sawyer began recommending the system to his colleagues in other counties.

There is other support for Sawyer’s version of events. Wikipedia writes that, “In 1917, the centerline was painted by Kenneth Ingalls Sawyer. Sawyer added arrows to indicate travel direction and found that motorists used the appropriate travel lanes.” His Marquette Mining Journal obituary stated that he “placed the center line on Dead Man’s Curve on M-15, now US-41, and it is believed to be the first center line marking on any rural road in America.” In an internet blog, Eric Meier describes a marker at the historic spot which boldly states “Highway Center Line Invented Here”

When K. I. Sawyer died in January 1944, he was universally acclaimed for his many contributions to highway progress and safety, like promoting the first state gas tax, weight tax, planning and construction ideas, and placing picnic tables at roadside spots—initially for his workers’ lunch breaks. He founded the Michigan County Road Association and was for eight years president of the U.P. Road Builders’ Association. His funeral drew highway representatives from all over the state. The pallbearers were six of his county road foremen.

But that’s not the end of the story. At least two sources claim that someone else shares credit for that line. A site called geocaching.com writes that in 1917 “Acting upon a suggestion of his foreman, Willam S. Skewis, Mr. K.I. Sawyer, Marquette County Road Commission Superintendent, placed a painted stripe center line on the highway to make drivers stay in their own lane.”

Another source says the actual painting was done by Mr. Skewis himself. In a well-researched and highly entertaining article in the August 1995 issue of Marquette Monthly, a group of nine K. I. Sawyer Elementary School students and their teacher offered readers this description of events: “The crew foreman, William Skewis, decided to paint a white line down the middle of the road to keep people on their side. He got out the bucket of white paint and began going down the middle of the road, painting an eight-inch wide stripe. Just then, K. I. Sawyer, the boss, came along. When Sawyer saw this line being painted he didn’t yell. Instead he thought: Let’s not just do it here. Let’s paint lines and even arrows on all our county roads.” In 1918 the road commission adopted the practice of painting center lines elsewhere in the county.

William Skewis left the road commission in 1926 and went to work for the Ishpeming water works where he was employed when he died in July 1936 at the age of 52. In that year, the most intense heat wave in U.S. history claimed up to 5,000 victims, including Skewis. Karl Bohnak, in his So Cold A Sky weather history, reports U.P. temperatures as high as 107 degrees in Republic. The William Skewis obituary in the Mining Journal makes no mention of the white line.

The old highway is now County Road 492 and part of the more than 1,400 miles in the county road system. On its web site, the road commission proudly claims that “Marquette County is the birthplace of the first highway center line.”

MM

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