Alice Ramsey was the first woman to drive an automobile across the United States and the first woman to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
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. Ramsey, a 22-year-old mother from Hackensack New Jersey was determined to be the first to assert women’s rights to travel freely across the nation.
Ramsey was already an experienced motorist, having booked more than six thousand 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, owned by Brisco, noticed her adventurous spirit and offered to sponsor her on a quest to be the first female to traverse the nation. She accepted the challenge and along with her two sisters-in-laws and her best friend, she set off on June 9, 1909 at 10 a.m. 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.
Native Americans with weapons greeted Ramsey and her team 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 it when Ramsey declared, “We are on a drive to San Francisco from New York City.”
Finding bridges to cross rivers often proved to be difficult, but they found that a train bridge would 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 led 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 among a fleet of Maxwell automobiles and a parade worthy of a conquering hero.
In 1961, Ramsey chronicled the adventure in her book, “Veil, Duster and Tire Iron.” In 2000, she became the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Ramsey loved to drive all her life and maintained her driver’s license until age 95. On one of her 31 cross–country journeys, she was accompanied by her grandson Jeffrey Mahl. Her courage and determination are inspirational. Today, Mahl continues to share the magnitude of her accomplishments through lectures and presentations.
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 a.m. in the pouring rain. Surely, as she took off in her restored Maxwell, Ramsey was there in spirit. No doubt, she was encouraging Anderson throughout her journey!