Alice Ramsey’s TransContinental Journey

August 27, 2020

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Native Americans with weapons greeted Alice Ramsey, her best friend and her two sisters-in-law in Nebraska. They feared the worst until they learned that the Pawnee were hunting for jack rabbits. Somewhere west of Laramie, Wyoming, their Maxwell was surrounded by an armed posse on horseback who proceeded to search their vehicle. They were on the trail of a murderer and refused to believe Ramsey when she declared, “We are on a drive to San Francisco from New York City.”   

In the five years since the continent had first been traversed by an automobile, only a couple dozen brave souls had managed to conquer America’s trails and rutted roads. In 1908, Alice Ramsey, a 22-year-old from Hackensack, New Jersey, accepted the Maxwell Motor Company’s challenge to be the first woman to travel across the nation.

Ramsey was already an experienced motorist, having booked more than 6,000 miles along the county roads near Asbury Park, New Jersey where she spent summers. Driving the Maxwell Touring car her husband had given her was among her greatest joys.

She entered a sweepstakes racing event between New York and Philadelphia, winning the Benjamin Briscoe Trophy.  The Maxwell Motor Company, represented by Mr. Carl Kelsey, noticed her adventurous spirit and offered to sponsor her on a quest to be the first female to cross the country. She accepted the challenge and along with her two sisters-in-law and her best friend, she set off on June 9, 1909 at 10 AM from New York City in a downpour. They had 3,800 miles to go. 

Ramsey and her companions (who did not drive during the trip) experienced numerous challenges on their journey: bad roads, awful weather, 11 flat tires and mechanical breakdowns, including a broken axle.

Finding bridges to cross rivers often proved to be difficult, but they found that a train bridge could substitute. Multiple times Ramsey sent her companions across trestle bridges and motored the Maxwell across the bumpy tracks for up to ¾ of a mile, all the while listening for an approaching train. Navigation was often done by scanning the horizon for telephone poles, which lead to the next town. Iowa tested Ramsey’s fortitude. This state alone required 12 days to cross. 

After 59 days of grueling but steady progress, the women drove onto the ferry to cross Oakland Bay greeted by a fleet of Maxwell automobiles and a parade worthy of a conquering hero.

In October 1960, AAA named Ramsey “Woman Motorist of the Century.” In 1961, Ramsey chronicled the adventure in her book, “Veil, Duster and Tire Iron.” And in 2000, she became the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.  

Ramsey loved to drive all her life and maintained her drivers license until age 95. Ramsey completed 31 cross-country trips by car, including one in the summer of 1959 with her then 10-year-old grandson Peter Ramsey now 71.

Footnote: Ramsey’s journey was replicated 100 years to the date by Emily Anderson, who also departed from New York on June 9, 2009 at 10 AM, in the pouring rain. Surely, as she took off in her Maxwell, restored by her father, Richard Anderson, Ramsey was there in spirit. No doubt, she was encouraging Anderson throughout her journey!

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