From Coast to Coast

By Louise Boyd James

 

 

 

 

 

 

                On June 9, 1909, twenty-one-year-old Alice Ramsey impatiently answered questions and posed for pictures in a torrential rainstorm at the New York City Maxwell (Maxwell = automobile manufactured in the United States between 1904 and 1925) automobile headquarters. Suddenly she announced, “ If we’re going to go, let’s go.” She cranked the four cylinder, thirty-horsepower touring car to life and climbed behind the right hand-drive steering wheel. With a last kiss for her husband, John, Ramsey and her three women passengers (two sisters-in-law and one family friend) began a historic journey of four thousand miles from New York City to San Francisco, making her the first woman to drive an automo9bile across the United States.

                In 1909, there were few paved or marked highways, only a scattering of service stations, and no road maps, as we know them. A coast-to-coast trip was an adventure, one that only about two dozen automobiles-all driven by men-had completed.

                Few women drove cars, and some doctors had suggested it was dangerous for women eve to ride in them. They said that women became too excited at speeds of fifteen to twenty miles an hour and would be unable to sleep at night. There was also the danger of “automobile face”- a perpetually open mouth that resulted in sinus trouble! Thus, many people believed that Alice Huyler Ramsey would be unable to complete her transcontinental trip. But this young woman was determine, saying, “I’ll drive every inch of the way-if it kills me!”

                The easiest part of the journey was from New York City to Chicago. Roads were best in this part of them country, even though many were designed for horses and wagons, not cars. Travel went so smoothly on the Cleveland Parkway, between Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, that Ramsey reached her top speed of forty-two miles per hour.

                Travel east of the Mississippi River was guided by the Blue Book, which gave directions and mileage from one town to another. But even the Blue Book could be wrong, as Ramsey discovered. Outside of Cleveland, it had directed: “At 11.6 miles, yellow house and barn on rt [right]. Turn left.” There was no yellow house and barn; both were painted green. The man who owned them disapproved of automobiles and had hoped the changed colors would confuse drivers. Alice reached Chicago, one-third of her journey, in two weeks. From there west, there was no Blue Book, and the roads were much worse.

                The trip was a promotion for the Maxwell Briscoe Motor Company. Officials had realized that a woman driving a Maxwell cross-country, over practically uncharted wilderness, was a great advertising opportunity. The auto company had furnished the forest-green car and hired J.D. Murphy as the advance man.

                Murphy traveled ahead of Ramsey, usually by train. He arranged publicity, located gasoline and service stations, plotted the route, and found food and lodging for the women. One morning their breakfast consisted of corn flakes, canned tomatoes, and coffee. Another day was started with lamb chops and chocolate cake.

                Travel across Iowa was the worst. I rained for thirteen days, and Ramsey drove th4rough mud, mud, mud. “Roads were horrible!” she said late. “The accumulated rains of the past several days had already soaked deep enough below the surface of the roads to rend3eer them bottomless. We plowed our way along, forced to keep the transmission in low gear most of the time.”
                When the roads began to dry, potholes remained. In many places, it was impossible to avoid these; Ramsey had to weave the Maxwell around them, hitting as few as possible. “The Maxwell careened (careened = swerved) back and forth, diving in one direction, then another. Dodge a hole! Catch a breath! Now another! And another!” Ramsey wrote in her diary.

                Once the right front and rear tires both got stuck in deep holes. Ramsey and Murphy jacked up the front wheel and used a fence post to force the rear wheel out. On one especially muddy section in Nebraska, the Maxwell was towed by a team of horses for thirteen miles. A dozen flat tires, a broken spring and two broken axles and a sheared tie-rod bolt failed to stop Ramsey.

                On August 7, sixty days after she had begun, Ramsey pulled into San Francisco amid a parade of honking Maxwells. She made the coast-to-coast trip at least thirty more times before her death, at age ninety-fi8ve. Alice Ramsey never had a traffic accident, and she received only one traffic ticket-for making a U-turn. In 1960, the Automobile Manufacturers Association named her Woman Motorist of the Century in honor of her adventurous spirit and contributions to the industry.