Alice Huyler Ramsey wasn’t the kind of woman you’d expect to be a child of the early 20th century. She was well-educated, attending Vassar College, and married well. She could drive, and she even started to race. But on August 7, 1909, the 22-year-old housewife and mother did something no woman had done before: She drove 3,800 miles from Hell Gate in Manhattan, New York to San Francisco, California to become the first woman to ever make a coast-to-coast road trip across the United States.
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Ramsey’s congressman husband, John R. Ramsey, bought her a Maxwell-brand vehicle in 1908, at which point Alice Ramsey fell in love. She was on the road almost constantly, racking up 6,000 miles of travel near their New Jersey home. Later that fall, she entered the AAA’s Montauk Point endurance race, where she was one of two women to compete.
While there, Ramsey saw her opportunity. The Maxwell-Briscoe representatives had traveled to the race to support one of their factory drivers, and Ramsey pitched them an idea. Supply me a touring car, assistance, and parts, and I’ll drive your car across the country. A boon for Ramsey, yes, but Maxwell was hoping to prove that its cars could be driven by women, too, and therefore market to a wider audience.
So, she was provided a green four-cylinder 30-horsepower Maxwell DA touring car. She brought her two older sisters-in-law (Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood) and her teenage friend Hermine Jahns. Only Ramsey knew how to drive; her friends were there to keep her company.
Back then, cross-country roads really weren’t a thing yet. Nor were detailed maps. Instead, anyone wanting to drive from coast to coast would have to contend with disappearing roadways, getting lost, stumbling into a town to find that it was little more than two houses on a stretch of road, weather, and more. This was, after all, an era where roofs, windscreens, and in-car heaters weren’t a thing, so these women would have been exposed to the elements. They donned hats and goggles and covered their dresses in dusters. They ran out of gas and water in the transmission. They changed their own tires and spark plugs, repaired a broken brake pedal, and even slept in the car when they got stuck and couldn’t make it to a hotel. After all, only 152 miles, or just over four percent, of their roads were paved.
Without detailed maps, these women had some maps from the AAA that laid out vague paths and town names, though they were by no means precise. They directed drivers with landmarks; take a left at a white barn, and you’ll stay on your path. That said, landmarks changed more frequently than the maps were published. Instead, Ramsey navigated by following telephone poles; she assumed that the poles and wires would eventually lead to a town.
Ramsey and her party left a rainy Manhattan on June 9, 1909, and they arrived in San Francisco on August 7, 1909. They arrived three weeks later than anticipated, but that was viewed as being quite a successful trip.
After her brief flirtation with fame, Ramsey settled into the more regular life of a housewife and mother — but she still tried to make a cross-country road trip at least once a year. We don’t know how many she made; she says she lost count after her 30th drive.
Ramsey died on September 10, 1983 at the age of 96.