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Alice Ramsey: History’s Divine Dames

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This summer when you’re driving to Yellowstone with the kids in the backseat doing the arewethereyet squirm, think of Alice Ramsey. The first woman to drive across the continental United States, she paved the way for the rest of us to complain about gas prices and marvel at Wall Drug.

The year was 1909 and women wouldn’t have the right to vote for another decade. Shackleton discovered the magnetic South Pole that year; Halley’s Comet was photographed for the first time; and the Apache leader Geronimo died. In New Jersey, a salesman for the Maxwell-Briscoe Company challenged Ramsey to the cross-country trip. Six years earlier, Dr. H. Nelson Jackson had become the first person to drive coast-to-coast and two dozen others had repeated the feat since—but no women. Until Alice.

Just twenty-two years old, Alice enlisted her sisters-in-law and a friend (none of whom could drive) to accompany her. They set off from New York City heading west. In fifty-nine days, the women traversed 3,800 miles with indefatigable Alice behind the wheel the entire way to San Francisco.

Although the trip was arguably a publicity stunt to convince skeptical Americans that automobiles were here to stay, it wasn’t without adventure. Roads were nonexistent on much of the route. Service stations were few and far between and there were no road maps. In Iowa, it rained for thirteen days and the women needed a block and tackle (a rope pulley system) to hoist the car out of streams and mud holes. The roads in the West meandered through grazing pastures, and when they lost sight of the path, they’d find a high spot from which to locate telephone poles that they could follow back to civilization.

Perhaps in the exact place where some hapless summer tourist is this very moment plunking down change for a sno-cone, Alice and her gang encountered a sheriff’s posse on horseback in search of two murderers. Thinking a car full of women from the east coast a very unlikely site, the sheriff searched the car for weapons. None were found.

And in Utah, where now may stand a Super 8 Motel or a Taco Bell, Alice’s Maxwell touring auto hit a prairie dog dead on. As Alice described it in her memoir, Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, it wasn’t your average piece of road kill: “[We hit it] with such force that a tie bolt came out of the tie rod connecting the front wheels. Down went the front end, wheels spread-eagled, breaking the spring seat over the front axle.” A forge from a nearby ranch was used to make temporary repairs.

Alice Ramsey died in 1975 at the age of ninety-five. By that time, she’d made thirty cross-country trips by car, an achievement that helped her to become the first woman named to the Automotive Hall of Fame. Chances are if Alice were alive today, she’d thumb her nose at a tricked out SUV with GIS and a DVD. What fun is a long car drive, after all, without a bit of a challenge? 

Related article: First Car, Lasting Memory


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