The story of how 22-year-old Alice Ramsey became the first women to drive across the United States.
On June 9, 1909, Alice Ramsey set out on a 3,800-mile adventure that would cement her name in automotive history as the first woman to complete a transcontinental drive. The 22-year-old Vassar graduate made the trip along with three other women. Her sisters-in-laws – Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood – and her friend Hermine Jahns joined Ramsey on this road trip. Ramsey’s sisters-in-laws were described as “conservatives” (both in their forties) while 16-year-old Jahns was said to be “enthusiastic.” The four women started their trip in New York’s Upper West Side. Their destination was San Francisco; it would take the adventurers 59 days and 14 states to get to California. Of the four women, only Ramsey would drive.
Before leaving, the women gathered outside the Maxwell auto company’s New York showroom. When asked about the feat she was about to undertake and whether a woman could accomplish it, Ramsey responded, “I see no reason why any woman who can drive a car cannot take one across the continent. All that is needed is a good car such as I have, and careful driving in the bad spots, and the trip can be, I think, consummated without trouble.” The car the women chose for the drive was a dark green, four-cylinder, 30-horsepower 1909 Maxwell. It was a touring car with two bench seats and a removable roof. It required the women to hand-crank it to start the car.
Ramsey only began driving a year prior, after her husband bought her a car. Within the first summer, she put on around 6,000 miles from driving on the dirt highways around her home near Hackensack, NJ. She first gained the attention of the Maxwell-Briscoe Company when she entered a 200-mile endurance drive. Maxwell-Briscoe came up with an idea that would both promote their car as well as give Ramsey countrywide recognition. Through her all-expense paid drive, Ramsey would show the reliability of Maxwell cars, even with a female driver.
She was not the first to attempt the transcontinental drive. Six years prior to Ramsey’s historic trip, Dr. H. Nelson Jackson of Burlington Vermont and his chauffeur, Sewall K. Crocker, completed the first transcontinental drive. Their trip, however, took 22 days longer (with 63 total days) to travel from San Francisco to New York.
On some tedious days, they would only travel a few miles. Daily mileage ranged from 4 to 198. They relied on Blue Book guidebooks for directions. The downfall to this series was that it used such things as “yellow house and barn,” as directional landmarks. The books also stopped at the Mississippi River. Past the Mississippi River, they directed their route based on tracks and towns. Of the 3,800 miles of road, only 152 miles were paved. In Nebraska alone, Ramsey and her travel companions bottomed out in two separate holes within one mile of each other. They had to be pulled out, she later recalled, “The farmer’s son caught one of their horses in pasture and pulled us out – for a fee – then walked on to the next hole, repeated his towing, but doubled his fee!” The rear axle broke twice and they encountered their first flat tire near Chicago. Throughout the trip, the women changed over 11 tires. In Dean Blaine’s article on the historic road trip, he also described the interesting things the women encountered.
Outside of Ogallala, Nebraska, the ladies were delayed for two hours by an armed sheriff’s posse trailing a murderer. In Opal, Wyoming, Alice and crew suffered a serious case of bedbugs from a roadside motel. In rural Nevada, the women found themselves surrounded by a Native American hunting party on horseback, bows and arrows at the ready. [The hunting party was hunting jackrabbits and largely ignored women.]
On August 7, 1909, the women reached San Francisco and were welcomed with great fanfare. They returned home by train. Though the women received support and encouragement, they also encountered a fair share of criticism. At the time, some newspapers called their journey “ridiculous” and that it was “beyond the capabilities of women drivers.” Ramsey addressed these statements in her 1961 memoir, Veil, Dusters and Tire Iron.
[The] criticism, of course, merely whetted the appetites of those of us who were convinced that we could drive as well as most men. . . . It’s been done by men and as long as they have been able to accomplish it, why shouldn’t I?
For much of the rest of her life, Ramsey continued to make a cross-country drive once a year. There were small changes in the later trips however. The biggest difference was that the once 41-day trip would later take only one week. Nights sleeping in the car gave way to better hotel offerings and luxuries such as those. Cars that are more reliable were manufactured and readily available and roads became paved and marked.
On September 10, 1983, Alice Ramsey passed away at the age of 96.
She was named the “First Lady of Automotive Travel” by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in 1960. On October 17, 2000, Ramsey was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, becoming the first woman to receive the honor.
Throughout her driving career, Ramsey received only one ticket, for making an illegal U-turn.
The Maxwell-Briscoe Company did not receive the lasting success as Ramsey did; Chrysler absorbed it in 1926.
[This post on Alice Ramsey was selected as part of the October History Carnival (2011).]
Jensen, Cheryl, “By Blazing a Coast-to-Coast Trail, She Helped Put a Nation on the Road,” New York Times, June 6, 1999.
Blaine, Dean, “Alice Ramsey’s Historic Road Trip,” EnCompass.com.
Ruben, Marina Koestler, “Alice Ramsey’s Historic Cross-Country Drive,” June 5, 2009, Smithsonian.com