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Before Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic, before Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to enter space, before Janet Guthrie became the first female racecar driver for the Indy 500, there was Alice Huyler Ramsey, the pioneering 22-year-old housewife who became the first woman to take a transcontinental, American road trip. Back before paved roads, AAA roadside service and air conditioning, she conquered the coast to coast route and paved the way (literally, yo) for women to hit the open road.
Alice was born in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1886, and went on to attend Vassar College. In 1908, her husband bought her a Maxwell runabout (a small little city car, except, you know, from the turn of the century). She quickly found a passion for driving, and that year, she drove a Maxwell in the American Automobile Association’s Montauk Point endurance race, one of only two women to compete. It was there that she met Carl Kelsey, who worked for Maxwell-Briscoe doing publicity. Maxwell was a brand that was looking to target the female market, since women hadn’t traditionally been encouraged to drive, and Kelsey saw an opportunity to work with Ramsey. He proposed that she take a cross-country road trip as a stunt; Maxwell would provide a new touring car and parts as needed. She agreed to the all-expenses paid adventure.
On June 9th of 1909, she, along with her “conservative” two older sisters-in-law and 16-year-old friend Hermine Jahns set off for San Francisco from Hell Gate in Manhattan. (The idea that road trips are best taken with friends is not a new one!) She was the only one of the bunch who knew how to drive, but along the way, the whole group learned more about cars than they probably bargained for. In 1909, road trips looked a little different: For starters, only 152 miles of the 3,600 they traveled total were paved. Ramsey changed 11 tires, kept the spark plugs clean, and repaired a broken brake pedal. They got creative during tough situations, bringing water to cool off the overheated radiator using their toiletry holders. During one memorable moment, while they were waiting on a coil repair, a passerby shouted at the waiting women, “Get a horse!” The maximum speed they reached? 42 MPH. They had AAA maps, but also followed the wires on telephone poles in the hopes that they would lead to a town.
They saw and experienced a lot along the way. They slept in the car when it got stuck in the mud, passed by a manhunt for a serial killer in Nebraska, got bedbugs from a Wyoming hotel, and were surrounded by a Native American hunting party, bows drawn, in Nevada. 59 days after they set out from New York, they arrived at the St. James Hotel in San Francisco, where a crowd awaited them. The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline about the trip proclaimed, “PRETTY WOMEN MOTORISTS ARRIVE AFTER TRIP ACROSS THE CONTINENT”. (A lot has changed since 1909, but some things haven’t, apparently.)
Ramsey learned another thing about road trips that we all know to be true: They’re addictive. Between 1909 and 1975, she took more than 30 additional cross-country road trips, and even tackled 5 of the 6 Swiss Alps passes (she would have done the 6th, but her doctors had to tell her to slow down as she got older). She didn’t just disprove the myth that women were incapable of driving and taking care of automobiles… she freakin’ destroyed it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go take a refresher on how to change a tire, since Alice is making me feel a touch guilty that I haven’t been able to master that particular skill.
Alice Huyler Ramsey’s Route