The trailblazing all-girl road trip started on a rainy day, June 9, 1909. Alice Huyler Ramsey would soon make history as the first woman to drive across country. After posing for photographs at 1930 Broadway in New York City, the 22-year-old Vassar graduate signaled her three female passengers that it was time. They climbed into Ramsey’s dark-green, four-cylinder, 30-horsepower 1909 Maxwell DA, a touring car with two bench seats and a removable pantasote roof. Only Ramsey knew how to drive, but they were determined to reach San Francisco or bust!
It was a time of record-breaking “firsts” and huge publicity races. To name just a few, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland raced around the world in 1889-90. Annie Londonderry bicycled around the world in 1895. In 1911, Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to be awarded her pilot’s license.
Yes, Horatio Nelson Jackson and his dog Bud were the first to drive from San Francisco to New York in 1903. But Alice Ramsey was determined to be the first woman to make the transcontinental drive.
Alice Ramsey’s preferred mode of travel around her home in Hackensack, New Jersey had been trustworthy horses. One day a “new-fangled” horseless carriage raged past her at 30-miles per hour, spooking her horse and scaring the life out of her.
Ramsey’s husband, John Rathbone Ramsey decided that if you can’t beat them, you better join them. He purchased his wife her soon-to-be famous Maxwell. Ironically, he never learned to operate a vehicle himself.
Ramsey was a natural-born driver. That first summer, she racked up more than 6,000 miles in her new Maxwell along the mostly dirt roads of New Jersey.
The men at the Maxwell dealership were impressed with her enthusiasm and her ability to handle a Maxwell. They also knew a good publicity angle when they saw one. Much like the Kodak Girls campaign, Maxwell was trying to market to women by making them feel comfortable with their product. They didn’t have to work hard to get Ramsey’s approval.
In 1908 they encouraged her to enter the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) endurance race at Montauk Point. She drove one of the three Maxwells entered that year. She not only handled her car well for the 200-mile race across dirt roads, she made record time. Carl Kelsey who drove one of the three Maxwell’s in the race that day was the publicist for Maxwell-Briscoe. Ramsey’s performance that day gave him an idea.
The idea for a brilliant publicity stunt was simple. Maxwell-Briscoe would give Alice Ramsey a new car and pay all her expenses. The road trip would start in New York and end in San Francisco. She could bring three friends for company. Ramsey chose her two 40-something sisters-in law, Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood, and a 16-year old friend, Hermine Jahns.
None knew how to drive, but all were enthusiastic and stalwart passengers. They wore hats, goggles and dusters to cover their long dresses along with rain slickers for inclement weather. Ramsey wore a rubber helmet, visor and goggles to protect her from mud that sprayed continually over the small windshield.
Maxwell-Briscoe sent a second car with a press person who would arrange interviews from town to town as well as visits to dealerships to help the women along their journey. But the women were largely on their own to fend for themselves.
In 1961 Alice Ramsey published Veil, Duster and Tire Iron, in which she revealed hilarious to hair-raising details of their historic road trip. It was not all glamour and giggles.
For starters, there were few paved roads in 1909 and America was largely unmapped. Of the roads that were paved, most were not yet named or numbered. Navigation was as much a treasure hunt as a science. Alice Ramsey’s three female passengers acted as her Onboard NAV and Waze app combined.
They did have their trusty Automobile Blue Book, A Guide For Bikers and Road Travelers, but it was not entirely reliable. At one point, for example, the book said they should turn left at a “yellow house and barn.” The farmer, who was not a fan of automobiles, had painted his house green.
In areas that were largely unmapped in the handy field guide–such as much of the territory west of the Mississippi River–the women followed telegraph poles that had the most wires. The intrepid travelers reasoned that larger bundles of wires would lead to larger towns.
While Maxwell-Briscoe’s publicity campaign was to prove the unfaltering reliability of their automobile, the ladies did encounter a few issues. For starters, the car needed to be cranked to start. That was a real challenge for women wearing long skirts. Without a gauge, checking the gas was a two-woman operation that required removing the front seat bench to measure the level in the 20-gallon tank with a ruler.
Along the way, they had to clean sparkplugs and change numerous tires. They added water to the temperamental radiator by filling it with whatever fetched from rivers in whatever small vessels they improvised from their toiletry kits.
The women were terrified when surrounded by Native Americans on horseback. As it turned out, they were only hunting jackrabbits and gladly gave the strange women a wide berth. They were trapped on the bank of a river swelling in an unseasonable downpour. They were stuck in mud ore than once. At one point they even encountered a Sheriff’s posse that was hunting for a murderer.
Last but not least, they endured the bad food and questionable accommodations that are so often part of a road trip.
Alice Ramsey and her friends arrived in San Francisco on August 7, 1909. They had travelled 3,800 miles in 59 days. The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline read” Pretty Women Motorists Arrive After Trip Across The Continent.” The trip took about three weeks later than planned. The highest speed they attained was 42-miles per hour on the Cleveland Highway in Ohio. With all the excitement they encountered along the way, no one cared.
Ramsey crossed the United States 30 more times in her life as well as 5 of the 6 Swiss Alps.
Maxwell’s other famous customer was Jack Benny who drove a 1923 Good Maxwell Tourer. Chrysler purchased the Maxwell-Briscoe Company in 1926. Only a few Maxwells remain on the roads today.
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