Part 2: Alice’s cross-country drive continues

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Alice Ramsey
Alice Ramsey stands in front of the 1909 Maxwell 30 touring car given to her by the Maxwell-Briscoe company so she could become "the first woman ever to drive an automobile across the United States of America." (United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division)

(Read to bottom for Parts 1 and 3 of this three-part series.)

Today I’ll continue the story of Alice’s drive with some of the things she and her three lady companions experienced on their 3,800-mile trip from New York City to San Francisco.

This feat was accomplished in 41 days in 1909, while driving a Maxwell “30” 4-cylinder car, of which Alice later wrote, “That motor surmounted more difficulties than a modern driver can dream of — and never coughed. I’m still proud of that Maxwell engine!”

Part 1: Before Thelma and Louise, there was Alice

Part 3: Alice finishes her cross-country trip in 1909

Maxwell Motors was sponsoring the trip and had alerted their dealers all along the way to help the ladies as much as possible. For example, at one stop for the night, while the women slept at a hotel, the local Maxwell agent washed, fueled, and went over the car before returning it in the morning all ready to go.

In addition, dealers west of the Mississippi often furnished guides for the ladies along the often unmarked route. The smooth treaded tires, and tire chains which were required in wet weather, were a continual source of trouble.

Breaking down

Tire casings wore quickly from the chains and cross links broke frequently and had to be patched before they beat the fenders to death. In Auburn, New York, the car wouldn’t start, the local dealer couldn’t figure it out and a mechanic from Syracuse was called, came by train and replaced a defective spark coil.

Several times they were obliged to travel by night, with only the light from the acetylene headlamps to show the way and no one else on the road; Alice said that her one sister-in-law especially, was spooked by everything along the road in the eerie light.

Maps were scarce. In those early days of motoring, maps were scarce but there was the Blue Book, a series of travel guides published by the American Automobile Association. Alice tells of one time in northern Ohio when the Blue Book said “At 11.6 miles, yellow house and barn on rt. Turn left.”

They never saw a yellow house and became lost. After inquiring of a local, they found the man who owned the yellow house didn’t like automobiles and had painted his house green to confound drivers.

Approaching Chicago, they found wide, smooth limestone roads, but were plagued by the heavy white dust. Here too, a speeding Cadillac passed them and clipped their one front wheel, denting the hub cap before speeding on without stopping.

In Chicago the ladies attended the Cobe Cup race, which was won by Louis Chevrolet in a Buick, rested for a day, did some sightseeing and renovated their wardrobes.

Leaving Chicago, they added to their equipment a tow rope, block and tackle and a shovel, all of which they would need in future, although they enjoyed a pretty uneventful trip through the farmland of northern Illinois.

Entering the West

Crossing the Mississippi into Clinton, Iowa, on a long iron bridge with a wood plank floor, Alice and her friends felt they, “Now, at last, were West!”

In Iowa, the party encountered heavy rains which made the dirt roads nearly impassable for an automobile and which slowed progress a good deal.

In addition, while nearing Cedar Rapids, the Maxwell sputtered to a stop — out of gas, to Alice’s intense embarrassment. A walk of more than a mile through the mud to a farmhouse with a phone brought the Cedar Rapids Maxwell dealer to their aid.

Upon leaving Cedar Rapids, the Maxwell plowed slowly through the mud, mostly in low gear, and the engine overheated and the radiator boiled dry. They carried no spare water but there was plenty in the roadside ditches — but no bucket.

Finally, the two sisters-in-law dug the small cut class jars from their fancy toiletry sets out of their suitcases and made trip after trip carrying a little bit of water each time until the radiator was filled.

Before long they came to a bridge that was so deeply under water that they couldn’t cross, so they made a cold supper on the meager provisions they carried and determined to sleep in the car.

Engine missing

After a miserable night, the water had gone down enough for them to plow on, but because of the wet, the engine began to miss and Alice had to remove the spark plugs, take them apart and clean and dry them.

At Boone, Iowa, the travelers were told that the road west to Omaha was nearly impassable and were advised to ship both themselves and the Maxwell to Omaha by train. This Alice refused to do so, but the road was also quite steep in places and they needed to lighten weight considerably if they hoped to get through.

So Alice’s three companions and their luggage took the train, leaving Alice, accompanied by the expedition’s advance man, J.D. Murphy, to continue the drive, which involved getting stuck several times.

Once they got themselves out by using the jack and a fence rail or two, giving Murphy a mud bath in the process, and once they were pulled out by another car. When they reached another steep grade, known locally as “Danger Hill,” another motorist was stuck halfway up.

Alice eased the Maxwell past him, they hooked on the tow rope, and the sturdy Maxwell got them both to the top. Finally, they gave up on Omaha and detoured northwest to Sioux City, Iowa, where they intended to cross the Missouri into Nebraska.

On the way, a rear axle broke causing a two-day delay, and when they started again, they had to be pulled out of mud holes a couple of times.

More to come

I intended to finish the story in this column but I find Alice still far from her goal, so I’ll wrap it up next time. I hope you’ll bear with me.

By the way, Alice Ramsey once said, “Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.”

Related Coverage

Part 1: Before Thelma and Louise, there was Alice

Part 3: Alice finishes her cross-country trip in 1909

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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