Underneath her domestic responsibilities, Alice Huyler Ramsey had the heart of an adventurer. The first woman to complete a cross-country road trip, and the first to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, Alice more than earned her placement in the Notable Names Database, where her occupation is listed not as Housewife, but Daredevil.
Alice was born in New Jersey in 1886. Little is known about her early life, but we do know that she graduated from Vassar. At a time when fewer than 7% of women went to college, this in itself was quite revolutionary.
Although Alice got a top-notch education at Vassar, she did not enter the workforce. Instead, she got married and, by the time she was 22, she was a housewife with two young children. However, Alice was not content to sit at home, and when she got her first car in 1908, she soon found herself on a series of adventures.
Good driving has nothing to do with sex. It’s all above the collar.
Despite the fact that American women were discouraged from driving cars in the early 1900s, Alice not only learned to drive her new car – she learned to drive it expertly. In fact, just a few months after she first set foot behind the wheel, she participated in an endurance driving competition that required her to drive 200 miles on unpaved roads. One of only two women in the competition, Alice not only completed the trip, she also earned a perfect score and won the bronze medal.
Alice’s perfect score received much attention from the press, and that’s when Maxwell, an automotive company, had an idea for a publicity stunt and approached Alice with an offer. They would provide Alice with a new car and an all-expenses paid trip across the country, and in exchange, Alice would show the world that Maxwell had made such a good car that anyone—shock horror, even a woman—could drive it.
Alice agreed, and on 9 June 1909, Alice and her merry band of travellers—three other women, none of whom could drive—set off on America’s first-ever female cross-country road trip.
Women can handle an automobile just as well as men.
Driving across America then was very different to how it is now. Of the 3600 miles Alice travelled, only 152 of them were paved. Most roads were not named or labelled, so Alice had to use something called The Blue Book series to get around. It gave directions like “turn right at the yellow farmhouse,” which was all well and good as long as no-one painted anything. Something as simple as a farmer repainting his yellow house green could, and sometimes did, send them hundreds of miles out of their way. Worse, there were no Blue Books at all once they passed the Mississippi River, which meant Alice literally had to guess her way out West. To do this, she followed the paths that were most worn or had telephone poles with the most wires.
In addition to navigating nearly impossible roads, Alice also showed impressive mechanical skills. During her journey, she changed at least 11 tires, repaired a broken brake pedal, cleaned spark plugs, and, at one point, fixed an overworked transmission by transporting water back and forth from roadside ditches in her toothbrush holder.
The roads weren’t the only challenges Alice and her companions faced. In Nebraska, they found themselves in the midst of a manhunt for a murderer. In Wyoming, they battled bedbugs that they contracted at a nearby hotel, and in Nevada, they were confronted by a band of Native Americans wielding bows and arrows. Still, Alice never gave up.
Despite all of the obstacles they faced, Alice and her traveling companions successfully completed their trip on 7 August 1909. Along the way, they became media darlings and folk heroes. People rode horses for miles to meet them along virtually every stop of their journey, often waiting hours to see those “pretty women motorists”.
After successfully making it to San Francisco, Alice returned home, raised her children, and authored a memoir. She never lost her love of all things automotive, and she completed over 30 more cross-country road trips before passing away in 1983 at the age of 96.
Although she’s no longer with us, her legacy lives on. In 2000, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. She also holds the title of the ‘First Lady of Automotive Travel’ and the ‘Woman Motorist of the Century.’
References include The Veteran Motorcar Club of America, Sierra College and Smithsonian Magazine.
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