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

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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 2 of this three-part series.)

As we pick up the story of Alice Ramsey, who was the first woman to drive a car across the United States from New York City to San Francisco in the summer of 1909, we find the four intrepid ladies reunited at Sioux City, Iowa, and the Maxwell gone over by the local dealer.

After a day’s delay due to heavy rain, the party crossed the Missouri River bridge and set out again across another stretch of bad road, through several miles of which the car had to be pulled by a team of horses.

As they progressed into western Nebraska the roads got better and their speed increased, until near Grand Island the other rear axle broke!

At Ogallah, they were held up for two hours by a sheriff’s posse who were hunting for a man and woman suspected of murder. In Wyoming the “road” was little more than two faint tracks with many streams that had to be forded.

Quite the adventure

The road bridge across the North Platte River near Fort Steele had been washed out and the Maxwell had to bump across on the ties of the Union Pacific railroad bridge. In a little hotel at Opal, Wyoming, the girls were eaten up by bedbugs, causing Alice to write “The town of Opal was — no jewel to us!”

In Salt Lake City the Maxwell was completely overhauled, and the ladies rested and cleaned and repaired their clothes. In the barren country to the west, the car hit a prairie dog hole, a loosened bolt fell from the tie rod, and the front wheels splayed out breaking a front spring hanger.

They wired things back together well enough to limp a few miles to a ranch, where a blacksmith made temporary repairs. After nearly 40 hours without sleep the party slept on the ground or in the car and finally reached a tiny place named Fish Springs, where they breakfasted on the only food available from the general store, dry cereal, canned tomatoes and coffee.

Part 1: Before Thelma and Louise, there was Alice

Part 2: Alice’s cross-country drive continues

Broken parts

Later, while crossing a deep arroyo, the patched spring mounting broke and damaged the front axle. Luckily there was a guide vehicle with them in which they all returned to Callao and wired San Francisco for a new axle.

Continuing by train

Alice’s three companions, with nothing to do in Callao, opted to go on to Ely by train. Meanwhile, a local blacksmith was found who offered to fix the axle if he had it in his shop, so Alice and Mr. Sharman, a Maxwell company man from Salt Lake who had accompanied the party in the other car, returned to the disabled Maxwell, removed the front axle, and brought it to Callao.

Since the new axle from Frisco was delayed, they reinstalled the repaired one and headed for Ely, Nevada. Upon leaving Ely, they drove on unimproved roads heading west. Along the way they saw a dozen Indians galloping toward them with arrows fitted to their bows — a frightening sight.

Turns out the men were pursuing a jackrabbit and swept past, ignoring the relieved travelers. Even with a guide car the way was frequently lost, as it was more trail than road across Nevada.

Flat tires

Several flat tires delayed them and they often stayed at lonely ranches. At one of these they were served lamb chops and chocolate cake for breakfast. Encountering much deep sand they let air out of the tires as recommended by so-called experts, but this caused the tire to shift on the rim and tore out the valve stems.

Finally, at about dusk they drove over a ridge along the Truckee River and saw the bright lights of Sparks, and just beyond it, Reno, in the valley below. After many dark nights in the uninhabited wastes of Utah and Nevada, it was a real thrill to see civilization again.

With 200 miles still to go, Mr. Sharman returned to Salt Lake City and two factory men from Sacramento and San Francisco met the ladies to guide them on the difficult crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

After a stiff eight hour climb on a switchback wagon trail, where they had to stop often to cool the Maxwell’s engine, and covered but 70 miles, the weary travelers reached beautiful Lake Tahoe where they spent the night in a lakeside cottage on the California-Nevada line.

Next day, the quartet climbed a few more miles before beginning the relatively easy down grade run through Placerville and Sacramento, then south to Stockton, and 40 or so miles west to Hayward, where they spent the night after a “perilous snack of hot tamales and cheese omelets.”

Finishing the trip

The next morning, a short 20 miles to Oakland, escorted on their way by a convoy of Maxwells and other automobiles. Here they had to wait for a ferry to take them and the faithful Maxwell across the bay to their grand entrance into San Francisco, and the end of the historic journey.

Alice Huyler Ramsey entered the history books as the first woman to drive across the United States from coast to coast. But such fame is fleeting — and Alice herself never tried to capitalize on it — and hardly anyone today remembers her name.

This ends my rehash of Alice’s 1961 book, Veil, Duster and Tire Iron. Alice Ramsey went back to being a housewife and mother, although she was an inveterate motorist and made some thirty more drives across the country.

At the 1960 Detroit Automobile Show she was named “Woman Motorist of the Century,” and was the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2000, 17 years after her death in 1983.

When I told the lovely Miss Nancy I was writing about Alice, she said, “Your lady readers will love it!”

I hope they did, and I hope some men liked it as well. I think it’s a great story.

Related Coverage

Part 1: Before Thelma and Louise, there was Alice

Part 2: Alice’s cross-country drive continues

 

 

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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.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hello Sam
    I am researching Alice Ramsey since I want to portray her for our women’s performance troupe Legendary Ladies in Colorado. I enjoyed your articles and if you have any other information to share, I would appreciate it. I do have the book republished book by George Franzwa including Alice’s first hand account Veil, Duster and Tire Iron.
    Thanks for the articles.

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