Road trip at the dawn of an era: Women drive cross-country in 1909 – NorthJersey.com


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The rain was a drag.

In a photo just before they left on the first ever all-female cross-country drive,Alice Huyler Ramsey and her companionsare draped indour rubber ponchos and clutching bouquetsin front of the Maxwell automobile showroom on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Her sisters-in-law appear grief stricken. Ramseybeams from the flank.

Ramsey, a 22-year-old from Hackensack, was about to leave her husband and year-old child behind for the epic girls trip. Itwould beon the Maxwell-Briscoe Companys dime.

Itsounded like a magnificent adventure, Ramsey wrote of the trip in her 1961 book, Veil, Duster and Tire Iron. And I liked it.

Born in Hackensack in 1886, Ramsey was an excellent mechanic, says Katherine Parkin, a Monmouth University professor who wroteWomen at the Wheel in 2017. Ramseyhad support both financially and emotionally from her husband, John Rathbone Ramsey, a lawyer more than twice her age whom she married after two years at Vassar College.

John, who was an aged attorney whom she met as a teenager. didnt drive. Nonetheless he bought Ramsey her first car, a red 1908 Maxwell, after an auto badly spooked her horse. She picked up the roofless roadsterin New Brunswick, took two lessons and never looked back.

In the summer of 1908, Ramseydrove 6,000 miles on the dirt and crushed stone highways near her summer rental in Asbury Park, Parkin says. By the fall, Ramsey was racing, The Record reported. Shes got pluck. Shes got determination, and she loves to drive, says Parkin. The car was freedom. It was adventure and, at the time, lives as women were very prescribed.

Ramsey'sfirst endurance racefrom Manhattan to Montauk Point in the 08 Maxwell caught the attention of company repCadwallader Carl Kelsey. Kelsey drove Maxwells up staircases to draw attention to the brand, but he had a grander stunt in mind. InRamsey, he found the ideal driver. Kelsey told her flatly: she would drivea Maxwell across America.

I was numb all over, Ramsey wrote. He might as well have said I would fly to the moon the following week!

Alice Ramsey at some point during the trip.(Photo: National Automotive History Collection,Detroit Public Library)

Ramsey agreed and set off more than six months later on June 9, 1909 in a dark-green Maxwell. The red one stayed in New Jersey. It now sits restored on loan atLeMay America's Car Museumin Tacoma, Washingtonnext to a dark-green 1909 Maxwell that made a cross-country trip in 2009 in tribute to Ramsey.Rene Crist, the museum's curator of collections, saysthe rare Maxwells make for apopular attraction.

This is one of our showcase displays, Crist says.The 08 is beautiful. It's just a gorgeous example and very rare. Allthose Maxwells are kind of rare, but they were popular at the time ... and mostly because of their advertising.

The 1909 that made the trip, like all cars of the day, didn't have muchto sayfor itself.It had four cylinders and three speeds.Its roof was a glorified umbrella. Itmade just 30 horsepower. Perhaps most importantly, itcarriedfour:Ramsey, the president of the Womens Motoring Club of New York; her older and adventure seeking sisters-in-law, Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood; and her 19-year-old companion, Hermine Jahns.

The frocked quartet left New York Citys relatively well-kept roads equipped with hats, goggles, dusters and tire chains. The need for the gear quickly became clear. The country roads, little more than trails by modern standards, made travel a slog. On their best day, the women traveled 198 miles. On their worst, they managed only 4.

The group spent nearly two weeks crossing Iowa. In Nebraska, where the roads resembled gumbo, the Maxwell was twice extricated from the muck within the span of a mile. The farmers son caught one of their horses in pasture and pulled us out for a fee then walked on to the next hole, repeated his towing, but doubled his fee! Ramsey wrote.

Ramsey conducted tire changes after blowouts and standard maintenance throughout the trip. Still, a networkof local mechanics drafted by the Maxwell-Briscoe Company were also consulted for engine trouble, a broken axle and other damage. Mistakes were made. The car ran out of gas. At one point, Atwood and Powell were forced into roadside service. They used their silver toiletry holders to fill the radiator with runoff.

Alice Ramsey and her three passengers, Hermine Jahns and sisters-in-law Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood, travel in a Maxwell motor car along a rural dirt road during their 1909 cross-country travel.(Photo: National Automotive History Collection,Detroit Public Library)

Often caked in mud, the women happily slept in hotels and ate at restaurants when they could. However, an Iowa creeks bank once acted as accommodation. In Utah, coffee, corn flakes and canned tomatoes sufficed for a morning meal.

Throughout the route, maps were shaky and road signs were lacking. In the East, Ramsey relied on Blue Books that relied on questionable navigation landmarks. The yellow home near Cleveland, for example, was painted green post-publication by a mischievous homeowner. To remain on populated paths, Ramsey often followed the route with the highest concentration of telegraph wires.

The West proved wilder.

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Without Blue Books or reliable maps, and only six years after Horatio Jacksons 1903 cross-continental drive, Ramsey occasionally relied on local drivers hired by the Maxwell-Briscoe Company to provide navigation. Still, she had to backtrack on several occasions, including a time when she was ledinto a sandpit, and then amine. That wason the way to Opal, Wyoming, where bedbugs ruined a nights sleep for Ramsey and Jahns.

Despite the daily trials, the significance of the event was not lost of Ramsey. In her book, Ramsey noted the crowds that gathered to see them in Detroit, the young Western Union telegraph page who froze as they drove through Chicago and the escort of Maxwells that brought them into the spectator-lined center of San Francisco.

The party arrived on Aug. 7 after roughly 3,800 miles and 59 days, The Record reported. Ramsey, who had expected to make the trip in about a month, said she drove 41 days due primarily to Jahns becoming ill on the trip. Ramseymade the return home by train.

The successful journey was important for the Maxwell-Briscoe Company. Though it failed to disclose the service history of the car to the public, the company claimed the trip proved their cars could safely travel anywhere with a young woman at the wheelstill a selling point for cars today, Parkin notes. People were generally unimpressed by Ramsey, however, she says.

Criticized for leaving her young son in the care of her nursemaid for two months, Ramsey was overlooked for being the 10thperson to complete the cross-country attempt, Parkin says. Ramseys trip also coincided with a cross-country race. The more popular exhibition featureda large cash prize offered by M. Robert Guggenheim.

Ramseys tale reached legendary status 50 years later in perhaps another effort to sell cars to women, Parkin says.

In October 1960, Ramsey was named the American Automobile Associations Woman Motorist of the Century and the Automobile Manufacturer Associations First Lady of Automotive Travel. The move allowed the industry to show off itssupport of women at a time when Americans were taking roadtrips and women were gaining consumer influence, Parkin says. It was nonetheless overdue recognition for a true pioneer or automotive adventure, she adds.

Before her death in 1983 at the age of 97, Ramsey, a mother of two made more than 30 coast-to-coast trips. She drove five of the six Swiss Alps passes and remained behind the wheeluntil she turned 95. In 2000, Ramsey became the first woman to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan.

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