by Holley Snaith
“Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.”Alice Huyler Ramsey
A torrential rainfall fell upon New York City on June 9, 1909. In the midst of the downpour, a 22-year-old wife and mother from Hackensack, New Jersey named Alice Huyler Ramsey hopped into the driver’s seat of her Maxwell Touring car. Photographers gathered around the automobile, taking a series of photos of Alice, her two sisters-in-law, Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood, and her best friend, Hermine Jahns. The four women, each draped in ponchos, were embarking upon a journey that was far from ordinary; in fact, it was history. Alice was leaving New York City with one chief goal in mind: to become the first woman to drive across the United States.
There was little in young Alice Huyler Ramsey’s past that would point to her making such a daring trek that would forever immortalize her in women’s automotive history. Born in 1886 in Hackensack, Alice graduated from the elite Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Not long after, she married an aspiring politician named John Ramsey and became a dedicated wife and mother. Yet Alice found herself discontent with this simple domestic life; she was thirsting for adventure.
This anticipated adventure came to her in the form of an automobile. John Ramsey decided to purchase his wife a Maxwell car after her horse had been spooked by one of those “monster” machines that sped by at more than 30 miles per hour. Driving those dirt roads in New Jersey soon became a favorite pastime for Alice, and before long, she had clocked over 6,000 miles. Anxious to prove her skills behind the wheel, the young wife was one of just two women to enter the American Automobile Association’s Montauk Point endurance race. It was here that Alice caught the attention of Carl Kelsey, a publicity agent for the Maxwell-Briscoe Company, who thought of the perfect PR stunt to lure both men and women to the Maxwell brand. The idea consisted of Alice driving a brand-new tour car, provided by Maxwell, on a cross-country jaunt. All-expenses would be covered by Maxwell-Briscoe. This was the quest Alice had been waiting for and she immediately accepted.
After recruiting her two sisters-in-law and best friend, the four set off on a 3,800-mile journey on that dreary June day. Since Alice was the only one capable of driving, all of the pressure was on her. At first, the press balked at the endeavor, saying the long trip was “beyond the capabilities of women drivers.” She was determined to prove them wrong and the cross-country journey instantly became a media obsession.
The mishaps and events that occurred along the way were both comical and horrifying. Of course the women, clothed in long dresses with dusters and wearing hats and goggles, braved their fair share of bad weather and mechanical breakdowns. In total, only around 150 miles of the trip transpired on paved roads, so changing flat tires became routine for Alice. They stopped at hotels and enjoyed a home-cooked meal on some occasions, but most of the time they lived out of the minuscule Maxwell and survived on canned tomatoes and corn flakes. Long before the days of GPS, Alice had only an Automobile Blue Book that covered the territory east of the Mississippi River. For territory to the west, she predominantly relied upon railroad tracks and telephone lines, hoping they would lead her to the closest town.
Alice Huyler Ramsey changing just one of the many flat tires she encountered along the 3,800-mile journey. Source: Automotive Hall of Fame
Alice coasted through the state of Ohio, making headlines for cruising at an impressive 42 miles per hour on the Cleveland Highway. She ran out of luck in Iowa. The women forgot to check the gas tank, located beneath the front seat cushion and requiring both the driver and passenger to get out of the car, and they promptly ran out of fuel on a muddy road. With the transmission in dire need of water, Alice’s two sisters-in-law quickly grabbed small vessels from their toiletry kits and ran water from roadside ditches back and forth to the radiator.
Some incidents were more harrowing than others. While going through Nebraska, they found themselves in the middle of a manhunt for a murderer. In Nevada, a group from the local Pawnee Indian tribe greeted them with bows and arrows drawn. Fortunately they were only interested in hunting jack rabbits.
After nearly 60 arduous days of cruising in the Maxwell and withstanding thousands of miles of dirt roads, Alice and her entourage arrived at San Francisco’s St. James Hotel. The media, who just two months earlier had expressed great doubt in Alice’s ability to make the trip, were anxiously waiting to capture the historic moment. The headline from San Francisco’s Chronicle read, “Pretty Women Motorists Arrive After Trip Across the Continent.” Maxwell-Briscoe was thrilled with the success. After the media hype died down, Alice returned home to New Jersey via train and resumed her life as a wife and mother. Her husband John would go on to be a one-term Congressman; he died in 1933.
Although she achieved the feat of becoming the first female to drive across the continental U.S., Alice was not so traumatized by the long journey so as to not try again. In fact, she would make the trip at least 30 more times until she was nearly 90 years old. In 1960, Alice was honored to be named “Woman Motorist of the Century” by the American Automobile Association. The following year she published a memoir titled Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron and recounted her historic trip. Having never lost her fervor for driving, Alice maintained her driver’s license until the ripe old age of 95. It was only appropriate that in 2000, 17 years after her death and nearly a century after her monumental journey, the Automotive Hall of Fame chose Alice Huyler Ramsey as their first female inductee.
Article: “Alice Ramsey’s Historic Cross-Country Drive”: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/alice-ramseys-historic-cross-country-drive-29114570/
Article: “Automotive Hall of Fame: Alice Huyler Ramsey”: https://www.automotivehalloffame.org/honoree/alice-ramsey/
Video: “Alice Ramsey | Women Who Dare | Exhibit at OHTM”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mc_sxW2Ju14
Book: Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron (1960) by Alice Huyler Ramsey
About the Author
Holley Snaith is a writer and historian who specializes in 20th century U.S. history. Her passion for history began in high school when she completed her senior project on Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the March of Dimes and interned at Roosevelt’s Little White House in Georgia. After graduating with a B.A. in History from the University of Florida, Holley moved to New York and began an internship with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum. Next, she embarked upon a historical restoration project in partnership with the National Park Service at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, and served as program assistant to the Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Program at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center.
Holley has also worked for the Richard Nixon Foundation in California. There, she conducted research and created an exhibit on Pat Nixon at the University of Southern California, as well as managed donor relations. As a freelance writer and historian, Holley continues to write articles on inspirational historical figures and has been published in American Heritage Magazine. She holds an M.S.A. in Public Administration from the University of West Florida.