Alice Ramsey's historic road trip

By Dean Blaine

> It began as a publicity stunt
> Rugged adventure
> Perseverance and success
> Retracing the route
The Ramsey party navigates the main road across Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library.


Thanks in part to the 2003 Ken Burns documentary "Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip," many Americans know that in 1903, a doctor by the name of Horatio Jackson became the first person to successfully complete a transcontinental drive across the United States. Intent on winning a $50 bet, Jackson set out from San Francisco on May 23, 1903, and arrived in New York City more than 60 grueling days later.

But what many Americans don't know is that just six years later, in 1909, a 22-year-old housewife and mother from Hackensack, New Jersey, made the same monumental road trip.

It began as a publicity stunt

One hundred years ago this June, Alice Ramsey and three female companions (only Alice could drive) piled into a 30-horsepower 1909 Maxwell DA touring car and drove from Manhattan to San Francisco in 59 days, cementing Alice's name in the record books as the first woman to drive cross-country.

What began as a publicity stunt for the Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company quickly evolved into a grand American adventure, and a huge leap forward for the cause of women's rights. More than ten years before women won the right to vote, at a time when women were discouraged from coming anywhere close to the controls of an automobile, Alice and her friends utilized early AAA maps to travel more than 3,600 miles (only 152 of which were on paved roads) through 14 states on what Alice would come to call "our saga of adventure." Newspapers of the day lampooned the idea that a woman could achieve such a feat, calling the drive "dangerous," "ridiculous" and "beyond the capabilities of women drivers."

"This criticism, of course, merely whetted the appetites of those of us who were convinced that we could drive as well as most men," Alice wrote in her 1961 memoirs Veil, Duster and Tire Iron.


"Newspapers of the day lampooned the idea that a woman could achieve such a feat, calling the drive dangerous, ridiculous and beyond the capabilities of women drivers."

"It's been done by men," Alice added, "and as long as they have been able to accomplish it, why shouldn't I?"

Rugged adventure

But concerns surrounding the trip were not without warrant. Piloting a car in those days was a rugged adventure, no matter who was doing it. Horseless carriages of the early 20th century had none of the features and comforts that we are accustomed to today: power steering, air-conditioning, reclining bucket seats with lumbar support, windshield wipers (or windows for that matter), radios or power brakes. Tires were simply canvas tubes coated in treadless rubber, and blew out incessantly. Roads were often little more than washed-out wagon trails. Road maps of regions west of the Mississippi were virtually nonexistent.

The Ramsey party navigates the main road across Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Alice and company would not be deterred. "If you're going to go, go!" Alice declared as she and her companions set out in the pouring rain from the Maxwell auto dealership at 1930 Broadway in Manhattan on June 9, 1909.

"We were there to start a trip which was to bring me the distinction of being the first woman to drive an automobile from New York City to San Francisco," Alice would later write. "We had a job to do. So-let's get at it."

The following 59 days would test Alice's mettle. The group was besieged by rain that rendered roads sloppy with mud and nearly impassable. Alice compared the slog to driving through gumbo. The Maxwell navigated swollen creeks and gullies 12 feet wide and four feet deep, and steep ascents over the Rocky Mountains. The car's rear axle broke twice. Dozens of times, the ladies had to rely on the kindness of strangers to be towed from a ditch or sheltered from a storm.

Perseverance and success

But the party persevered. Along the route, Alice changed 11 tires, tightened loose bolts, cleaned sparkplugs, repaired a broken spring on the brake pedal and slept in the car on more than one occasion when the Maxwell became bogged in mud. Twice the ladies ignored the stern recommendations of men to ship the car by train rather than attempt a particularly treacherous stretch of road.

When the Maxwell happened upon a swollen creek, Alice wasn't above hiking up her skirt and wading out into the rushing water, intent on determining if the car could pass. When the car's radiator ran low on water far from town, Alice and crew pulled cut-glass toiletry jars with sterling silver tops from their luggage, and used them to fill the radiator with water from a roadside ditch. More than once, the women came to the aid of men stranded in their cars at the side of the road.

The trip wasn't without its surprises. 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 Ramsey party navigates the main road across Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Fifty-nine days and 3,600 miles after setting out from rainy Manhattan, Alice and company arrived in San Francisco on August 7, 1909. Crowds waved and cheered as the ladies drove down Market Street in their sturdy Maxwell. Upon arrival at the St. James Hotel, Alice and her companions were swarmed by photographers and press men.

"What a day!" Alice would later write. "But for that matter, what a journey!-a prelude to the thousands of women drivers who would later make this same trip."

In 1960, AAA named Alice "Woman Motorist of the Century," and on October 17, 2000, Alice became the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Throughout her life, Alice maintained a love affair with driving and the open road, and completed a cross-country drive nearly every year for the rest of her days.

Dean Blaine is a freelance writer based in California.

Retracing the route

More than five years ago, Seattle antique car aficionado Dr. Richard Anderson and his 37-year-old daughter Emily Anderson devised a plan to recreate Alice Ramsey's drive in an authentic 1909 Maxwell DA touring car.

The first challenge was finding the car. Because there was only one 1909 Maxwell DA left in existence and it wasn't for sale, Dr. Anderson spent years scouring the world for original Maxwell parts and rebuilding a car from scratch to the maker's original specifications. On June 9, 2009, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of Alice Ramsey's drive, Emily Anderson and three female "co-pilots" will depart Manhattan for San Francisco, following the original route as closely as possible. Follow Emily's progress via her blog at www.aliceramsey.org.