It looked like a storm brewing in the distance. Seconds later, out of the cloud, a band of Native Americans — shirtless and in trousers — appeared rumbling across the vista. They carried drawn bows and arrows as they rode horses parallel to the car. The women stared in awe, which promptly became fear. In unison, the riders turned their horses in the direction of the dark green auto, making its boxy metal profile look pitiful next to its rival the horse in the arid, western landscape.
The hunting party pulled up alongside, and Alice Ramsey’s mind reeled. A front page article in the New York Times a few months prior reported an “Indian Revolt” out west that left six men dead. The item took on new meaning as the thundering horses and their riders kept pace with the vehicle.
It was a lonely spot for such an encounter — the desolate sagebrush plains outside of Ely, Nevada. Alice and her companions, three women from the upper crust of east coast society, couldn’t have been more out of place, and were a stranger sight than the native riders. The four of them were at a pivotal moment in Alice’s daring journey to become the first woman to cross the country driving an auto — still a newfangled invention in 1909. The odds were against them, as were legions of critics, and there was still a betrayal to come that would shock Alice. For now, with the armed riders bearing down, it seemed they had finally pressed their luck too far, and they were scared.
That’s when the object of the riders’ pursuit came into view: a jackrabbit. The men in the hunting party never even slowed down or acknowledged the curious women motorists, who heaved a sigh of relief and embarrassment — and who, of all people, should never have fallen for a simplistic press narrative.
Alice, quickly retraining her gaze on their mission, accelerated the hulking car, and off they went, kicking up their own cloud of dust as the hunting party retreated toward the horizon.
Nine months earlier, Alice Huyler Ramsey, 21, awoke to no sign of sun or soul. At 4:30 am she slipped out of her Hackensack, New Jersey home leaving her husband and baby fast asleep. A young mother of her position could typically expect a day centered on instructing the maid on matters of household and children. It might have involved a stroll down main street or a game of bridge, a life of quiet predictability. But not today.
Today will be something a little different, Alice told herself as the house receded into the distance and she drove toward her first-ever race.
In Columbus Circle, Manhattan, 40 drivers readied their cars, cranking engines and taking positions on the starting line. The glistening metal sea came alive with vibration. Alice saw the male drivers do a collective double take. There was just one other woman in the field of competitors. Joan Newton Cuneo, 32, had already racked up headlines for perfect scores, speed records, and racing — and even beating — male drivers in big contests. (The next year, the American Automobile Association, or AAA, would react to Cuneo’s daring and prowess by banning all women from their competitions, confining them to women-only regional races.) Compared to Cuneo, Alice was a nobody. Her screeching-red Maxwell Runabout looked like an enthusiastic bug dwarfed by Cuneo’s imposing 50-horsepower dusky Rainier.
Alice pulled her thick glass goggles down, feeling the pulsing motor’s energy in her chest and in her fingertips, which gripped the wheel.
The flagman’s wave whipped the air.
She was off. Touted as a two-day mechanical endurance contest rather than a race, the drivers had to cross 150 miles of mixed coastal terrain from New York City to the lighthouse on the eastern tip of Long Island in Montauk and back, in the process showcasing automobiles as serious alternatives to their rivals, the horse and carriage. For the moment, the prediction by the New York Times that “the automobile is going to take its place among the recognized implements of civilization” was still that: a prediction.
Alice had always enjoyed her freedom. As a teen, she earned the headline “Fifteen year old Girl Fights Hackensack School Board” when she launched a house-to-house canvassing campaign to protest the shortening of summer vacation in her hometown. As a young mother, she was nearly thrown from a cart when the horse pulling it was spooked by the unfamiliar sound of a passing auto. Her husband, John Rathbone Ramsey, better known as “Bone,” decided she would not be taking out any more horses. To keep his wife safely occupied, he instead went car shopping, picking the 1908 Maxwell since it was $25 cheaper than the Model T. That automobiles could be three times as powerful as a horse, and far more dangerous, requiring a set of skills not yet possessed by the average man, was lost on him. The red Maxwell Runabout became Alice’s passion. She spent the entire summer learning the ins and outs of the auto’s mechanics, and racking up 6,000 miles of driving in and around New Jersey while Bone stayed at home. She felt “buoyed up by the accomplishment” of driving, and on a whim had entered the field of contestants vying in this endurance contest.
On one leg of the journey to Montauk, roads narrowed so much they were impassable to more than one vehicle at a time. The wild, scrub-clad moors produced deep pockets of sand, mud sloughs; steep hills delayed many vehicles. Alice fought the wheel, zigzagging on the sandy trails before the day’s final stretch. Her first auto contest and newfound passion might end with a bang if she lost her handle. With all eyes on Montauk, each auto that survived intact could bolster the case for the entire fledgling industry.
The eastern end of the island was like a deserted, foreign land. Alice caught the scent and sounds of waves crashing 75 feet below. Passengers in all the remaining vehicles sported white-knuckled, death grips as cars hugged curves over crumbling cliffs. Near Southampton, Alice watched as one of the official scout’s motorcycles careened off a small bridge into a stream below.
After a final dune hurdle, sunlight fading, Alice spotted the bright beacon of Montauk Light in the distance. She had made it. She climbed out of the Maxwell feeling exhilarated, the scores for her driving and for the car putting her neck-and-neck with Joan Cuneo. Her eyes feasted on the magnificent vehicles that arrived after her. REO, Mora, Haynes, Pullman, Ford — she was surrounded by mud-spattered brass and steel, rich hues, and men, many of whom cast curious glances her way as she climbed out of her Maxwell.
As she mingled during the festivities afterwards and made her way into the banquet for the drivers, a man locked eyes on her. He represented Maxwell, the manufacturer of the car she drove.
“I’ve watched you drive all day,” he said, “and I think you’re the greatest natural woman driver I’ve yet seen. Now… do you know what I am about to prophesy?”
“I don’t,” replied a bewildered and now self-conscious Alice.
He pointed directly at her. “You are going to be the first woman ever to drive an automobile across the United States of America, from Hell Gate on the Atlantic to Golden Gate on the Pacific… and in a Maxwell!”
Alice went numb, aware the attention of the room was now squarely on her. This man is crazy, she thought as she excused herself and headed straight to her room. Just outside the inn, seventy-mile-an-hour wind gusts rolled 8-foot waves onto the nearby shore. Alice tossed in her bed, her mind howling like the storm outside. A cross-country trip? There was no way she could leave little John Junior for that long. And what would Bone say? Was it even possible? It seemed preposterously dangerous. Autos themselves were still controversial. An anti-auto society called for arming its members with guns and threatened to start shooting at drivers passing through farm country. In rural New York, motorists had already been pulled from their vehicles and whipped. Other “friends of the horse” booby-trapped dirt roads with glass and tacks to get their message across. Most places didn’t even have roads, leaving drivers lucky to find dirt horse paths. (The Federal Aid Highway Act, which created a national highway infrastructure, was still nearly half-a-century in the future.) A cross-country trip was madness. That kind of opportunity belonged to someone else, not her.
Later, she fell into a fitful sleep. Then, in the long hours of the night, as if shot through by a bolt of lightning, she sprang upright.
Why shouldn’t I? she asked in the darkness.
On June 9, 1909, dozens of onlookers lined the Broadway puddles, bombarding Alice with flashes from camera bulbs as she arrived to begin her cross-country attempt that could change history or prove that women had no place on the road. The Maxwell-Briscoe company would provide the car and provisions, and Alice and her crew had forty days to drive from New York City to San Francisco. Among the crowd, Alice’s eyes met those of Joan Cuneo. The newspapers painted the women as rivals, but Cuneo braved a beating rain just to wish Alice luck. The two were warriors on the same side of a battle, and it was Alice’s turn to be on the front lines.
Convincing her husband had been an adventure of its own. Bone was 24 years her senior, having secured her hand before she headed off to Vassar at 16, and he sometimes seemed worlds removed from her. After he first bought Alice the Maxwell, the only question he’d asked during their inaugural ride was, “How do you stop this thing?”
Greatest natural woman driver. Maxwell. Transcontinental. Forty Days. She had tried to keep an even tone back in Hackensack as she explained to Bone her opportunity, buoyed by the medal she’d received in Montauk for a perfect score at the contest. With slicked graying hair and mustache, with his creaseless three-piece suit and its standard issue pocket-square, Bone was a picture of lawyerly austerity. He hadn’t expected the vehicle he purchased to keep her safely occupied would now be taking her far out of reach to the other side of the country. Alice stared at him with her azure eyes and a soft, dimpled smile. She is young, he told himself. He set his conditions.
Those conditions came in the form of Bone’s sisters, Nettie Powell and Maggie Atwood, who were the most conservative members of the esteemed Ramsey family. Fastidiously composed in the latest French heels, Alice privately chuckled to herself at their elaborate floral hats, which had ribbons so large they cast twice the shadow of any hat of Alice’s. But in person, Alice felt “considerable awe” toward the pair, who bickered interminably amongst themselves — even though Nettie, 47 and older by three years, invariably exerted her dominance over Maggie. Now they were coming on this attempted record-breaking journey. “We won’t be able to carry much luggage will we?” they asked Alice. “How will we dress for it?”
Rounding out her crew, Alice recruited her 16-year-old friend Hermine Jahns. With a hearty midwestern build and perennial smile, Hermine towered over petite Alice. She had only just come from Wisconsin and knew little of the wider world. Like the sisters, she didn’t know how to drive. Everything was new to the teen, so the newness of autos made little difference.
After two men and their goggle-wearing dog had completed an epic cross-country drive six years earlier, others had tried to prove that a woman could do the same, and faltered. Just before Alice’s set departure, Mrs. Minerva Teape and her daughter made an attempt from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, but sickness took hold in Kansas City, crushing their chances. Maxwell reps made sure not to mention these failed attempts to anyone, let alone Alice.
As they gathered together in the middle of Manhattan for the start of their odyssey, each woman wore a soot-colored, billowing rubber poncho with sleeves shirred at the wrist into elastic hems. On their heads, like fishermen, they donned rubber caps with visors, and cape-like flounces draped to their shoulders. “This adventure was surely not going to be a style show,” Alice thought. The drab color scheme and silhouette gave the impression of a quartette of vulcanized nuns. Not enjoying the comparison, Nettie, a widower and ripe for the inelegant term spinster, took off her helmet for photos when possible. The youngest, Hermine, followed suit. Alice posed in full regalia.
The other attraction was the machine itself. The company had delivered the brand-new, deep forest green 1909 30-horsepower Maxwell DA, also called the Maxwell 30, to the Ramsey home to give her a chance to familiarize herself with their updated model. The car cost $1500, not including upgrades. It had a right-hand drive, a 4-cylinder engine, and glistening brass details along with an American and Maxwell flags decorating either headlamp. The Maxwell wore its own hat, a waterproof top of Pantasote — a fabric like leather but more flexible — to shield the women from the rain. The company had made a special alteration — a 20-gallon gas tank instead of its standard 14-gallon tank, which would increase the car’s range. Loaded, it weighed in at somewhere between 3500 and 3800 pounds, far heftier than Alice’s breezy little Runabout.
Enough is enough. “We ought to get started,” Alice announced just before 10 o’clock. There was a command in the young mother’s voice that caught the men nearby by surprise. The spectators, the newsmen, and all interested parties paused, then started to clear a radius in preparation for the adventurer’s official start. A few men rushed forward in hopes of giving the engine its ceremonial first crank.
Alice shouted to stop. No one was going to crank the engine but her. “We’d better get ourselves started!” she said, and with that she handed off a bouquet of soaking wet pink carnations, which had been forced on her and the others from people in the crowd. Keeping her thumb alongside her fingers, Alice gave the motor a yank — any hesitation could risk a broken arm — and rushed quickly to retard the throttle next to the steering column.
As a last gesture, Alice ran through the crowd and gave Bone a farewell kiss. She tried to keep thoughts of her beloved John Junior — 27 months old now — at bay. Then she hopped into the vehicle through the passenger side, a necessity as the spare tire blocked the driver’s side. Nettie followed behind her with Maggie and Hermine already seated in the back. They were packed to the gills with hardly an inch to move.
With all the well-wishers, plenty in the crowd had their doubts, even some of the Maxwell men. Bone certainly did. He had already lost his first wife unexpectedly years ago and now the auto-phobic lawyer watched his young wife drive into the unknown. Suspicious bystanders hurled questions at Alice from the street.
“Don’t you have any pillows?” asked one spectator, while others seemed disappointed to see they weren’t bringing along a dog. Alice couldn’t help but roll her eyes.
“Where are your guns?” a man in the crowd asked. “What about protecting yourselves?”
Alice replied: “We’re not afraid.”
The rear tires’ chains, installed to grip the mud, clanked into compliance and the wheels turned. From this point, we are on our own, Alice thought.
Bone was not alone in his distrust of the automobile, even outside radical anti-auto societies. While some feared change, others rightfully warned of the dangers high speeds and powerful engines posed to reckless drivers and bystanders alike. Bermuda had already banned automobiles from the island and communities throughout the U.S. explored doing the same to these “freak locomotives” and “devil wagons.” These were the same rural communities and unfriendly faces Alice would be driving straight into.
The primitive roads themselves posed their own dangers. New Jersey had spoiled Alice with macadam roads, some of the smoothest in the country. The roads where she was heading were barely roads at all — arid desert paths, muddied farmlands, and deep wagon tracks awaited.
Then there was the question of whether women should be allowed behind the wheel. While the growing numbers of suffragettes united behind the push for voting and equal rights, those opposing women’s suffrage also grew in number, many of them other women. Organizations like the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage comprised prominent women who believed suffrage threatened their unique position in established home life and child-rearing, destroying the necessary division of labor between sexes. As it had for men, the automobile soon became a symbol of economic and social freedom in a world which afforded women few others. A woman driving unchaperoned could easily be perceived as a political act. Others argued that women by nature were unfit to drive, too nervous to master a skill that most men still hadn’t.
So instead of reporting on the crowds gathered to see Alice off on her historic attempt, the day’s New York Times covered “New Woman a Freak,” an address by Episcopal Bishop William Doane, denouncing suffragettes and a woman taking on “masculine” roles as lusus naturae, a freak of nature.
Alice Ramsey unknowingly represented all these fears rolled into a young woman with blue eyes and a dimpled smile.
It wasn’t for politics or for Maxwell, nor for fame or glory, Alice wanted to set off across a wild country with nothing but her vehicle and her wits. She was an adventurer deep down, and this challenge had all the ingredients to make an adventurer’s heart sing.
The rain continued through the early days of the women’s journey, forcing Alice to keep the grating tire chains on continuously, despite the excessive wear she knew they were putting on the Maxwell’s rear tires. With each passing mile, the four women grew slightly more accustomed to the road — though only slightly.
In the more populated areas, crowds often greeted them, cheering and waving. At one point, a Western Union Telegraph boy stood, mouth agape at the sight of not one, but four ladies packed in the automobile. Even in rural areas, they found they were expected. Driving past a pulled-over farm wagon with a team of beautiful horses, Alice slowed down. Before Alice could utter a hello, the sunbonneted woman waved to them enthusiastically.
“Are you the women who are driving from New York to San Francisco?” she asked.
“Yes, we are,” they answered.
“I’m sure glad!” she said. “I read about you in the paper and I’ve come six miles to see you and I’ve been waiting for a long time. Yes, I’m sure glad I saw you!”
Alice was touched by the effort this woman went through to reach them, reinforcing her resolve to tackle the mission at hand.
On the road, they confronted a new reality: there were no standards for women behaving and making conversation on a road trip. Through heavy rains and desolate byways, the ladies’ quirks came out. Maggie’s nervous squeals and white-knuckled grasp around curves; Nettie’s more domineering tendencies masked by unfailing decorum; Hermine’s happy-go-lucky naïveté and goofy smile. In those unguarded seams, the stodgy fabric of propriety that bound the women in everyday life began to tear on the open road.
At one point, their guidebook directed them to turn left at a yellow building. But the man who owned it had painted it green to confuse them. A farmer and his son seemed to relish in every hole the Maxwell found itself stuck in, doubling the fee to tow them out with their horse each time. “Get a horse!” was the blunt suggestion by a boy crying out to them early in the trip. “Why don’t you wash your dirty faces?” another man yelled out.
Nettie and Maggie, who considered themselves proper ladies, were especially rattled by outbursts like these. Once, during an overnight stopover in Chicago, Nettie called for a “sweeping renovation.” After scrub downs and laundry service, Alice almost didn’t recognize the women that emerged from the hotel. Nettie sported a dress suit that included a jaunty, tailored chevron and striped jacket, while Maggie’s outfit complemented her sister’s. All of the women — save Alice — wore beflowered, beribboned hats of ample dimension and plumage. Where had they hid them? Alice wondered as she straightened her only hat, a motoring cap with its stiff visor and single adornment — the bronze medal from her perfect score in Montauk. The ladies hit the town for some well-deserved fun.
The Maxwell company sent out teams of “pilot cars” to check on the ladies and guide them in unmapped areas along the way, and dispatched an “advance man” — a coordinator and publicist — named John D. Murphy to follow their route by train. Alice, who had quickly tired of the spectacle of their departure and preferred to focus on the day-to-day of their undertaking, was not eager to meet their handler, but she and her companions turned the corner one day to find the good-looking, neatly groomed Irishman awaiting them. Murphy introduced himself as “J.D.,” a genuine smile atop a sturdy build and wide shoulders. He wasn’t quite what they had expected, and Alice found herself charmed by him.
J.D. had been an early auto convert, an amateur racer who wrote about autos for the newspapers before landing a spot inside the industry, which promised paths to bigger and better things. He would meet up with Alice and her companions at their stops — it sometimes seemed he’d appear before them as though by magic — and take them out to eat at lunch counters and diners, booking their lodging, while listening raptly to their stories and jotting down details. If they didn’t show up when he expected them, he became worried sick, pacing back and forth while running his fingers through dark curls.
Alice grew anxious during stopovers and wanted to be on the road. As commander of the mission, she had to keep track of every tedious aspect and operation of the auto. Even to check the fuel level, she had to remove her seat cushion and body from the vehicle and submerge the wooden measuring stick into the tank to eyeball the remaining contents. Gas itself was hard to come by, only available from mechanics or by Maxwell delivering it to them, barring the occasional general store that sold it. It was easy to get trapped between stopovers low on fuel.
The Maxwell blew a tire shortly after pulling out of Chicago. One of the pilot cars was near and the men inside prepared to help. Alice waved them off. “You may watch, if you like. And I might let you pump,” she said mockingly. Then she sprang into action, removing her duster and crawling beneath the car under the cases in rear to position the jack and raise the tire off the ground. Then she dispatched her crew like a capable conductor:
“Nettie, would you please bring me the pliers and the two tire irons from the tool box.”
“Hermine, there’s a cylindrical box in the tire that says ‘Tire Repair Kit’. I’ll need that.”
“Maggie, you might get out the pump.”
Step by step she explained the process as she moved with finesse. The ladies asked questions and followed her instructions. As unlikely a pit crew as they looked, the three passengers had gotten into the spirit of the adventure. Even her once-intimidating sisters-in-law now recognized Alice as a born leader.
The men in the pilot car stood hypnotized by Alice’s proficiency. She used the pliers to loosen the nut at the base of the tire valve stem. She maneuvered the tire irons to force the bead over the rim without pinching the tube. Much like a bicycle, the inner tubes of these bias-ply tires contained compressed air and an outer casing reinforced by layers of rubberized fabric. Like her mother extracting the entrails of the Thanksgiving turkey, Alice reached inside the casing to draw out the tube.
She used a metal file to rough the rubber before applying cement to the tire patch, and then she doubled-checked for protrusions before carefully replacing the tube inside. Her task finished, she turned back to the men from the pilot car.
“Now, boys, it’s ready for the pump. And — let’s not be selfish about it — since there are several of you, you might take turns.”
Darkness came to the travelers in various forms. They encountered sights of America that most men — much less women — never would. During their leg through upstate New York, they were invited into Auburn State Prison. The two older women were especially anxious, while Hermine beamed to see the place. Good girl, thought Alice, proud of their youngest team member. The prison was worse than they imagined. Tedium as their sentence, the stone gang toiled away with rusted hammers, breaking big stones into little ones along the edge of the walls.
Driving at night was downright perilous. The Maxwell’s manually-lit headlights cut through the foggy darkness, unnerving Maggie to her core. “Objects took on an entirely different aspect in the eerie artificial light,” Alice recalled. “Every little thing along the roadside was another spook to Maggie. First, the shining eyes of a cat gave her a scare; then a particularly menacing apparition, looking for all the world like a brilliantly illuminated trolley car on the left, turned out to be nothing more than a group of milk cans.” When they had passed through rural New York, the women, thinking of Washington Irving’s chilling tales, could almost see Sleepy Hollow’s Headless Horseman chasing poor Ichabod Crane. Ghosts seemed to be everywhere.
At one point, they were sideswiped in traffic by a hit-and-run driver who didn’t so much as stop to apologize. Maggie was further traumatized by the steep cliff-side roads the Maxwell had taken along The Palisades.
Out West, they encountered the shirtless Indians, looking like something out of the dime novels sold at train station bookstands back East. At another point, their car was stopped by a group of uniformed police officers.
“What’s going on?” Alice asked the man in charge.
“Where yer comin’ from?” he said gruffly, ignoring her question.
“From New York.” she said, “We’re on our way to San Francisco.”
“In that?” he said with a snicker.
Alice was insulted but didn’t want to provoke him.
“Yes,” she said.
“Got any guns?”
If they had listened to advice upon their departure from New York, they would have, and the scene could have gotten worse very quickly. “Not a one.”
The officer’s manner dripped with suspicion. “Well, wait.” He walked away without giving any more information.
“You didn’t tell us what’s the matter!” Alice called after him
“Oh, just a little murder,” he said casually, and kept on his way.
They had to wait for two hours, their minds running wildly ahead as the Maxwell stayed in place. Ushered to move along at last, they alighted in town and pieced together what happened. A local man had been robbed and murdered in his cabin. The presumed perpetrators were a husband and wife who were on the lam spending lavishly. The unusual sight of Alice driving had actually made her a temporary murder suspect.
But Alice’s biggest battles remained at the steering wheel. They were experiencing the worst storm season in the region to date, leaving behind floods and Iowa gumbo — a special concoction of mud and the Hawkeye state’s best kept secret. Conditions seemed impassable. “No words can describe Iowa gumbo, and it is my frank opinion that only he or she who has been right in it knows what it is,” Alice explained.
The Maxwell was just too heavy to cross the never-ending ocean of mud loaded with four women, equipment, and their luggage, let alone the upcoming steep climb known as Danger Hill. Most cars were forced to turn back on approach.
“If I were you women,” said a man in Boone, where the advice was flowing freely, “I’d put that Maxwell on a flat car and ship it down to Omaha.”
“Sure would,” a bystander agreed. The chorus of curious onlookers — mostly men — nodded their heads. “This isn’t going to get any better until you’re over the Missouri River about a hundred miles,” he finished.
Alice’s team faced a decision. Their only chance was to lighten the load for this stretch of the journey, but the idea of splitting up seemed unthinkable. Over the course of the journey, the women had grown from companions, even chaperones, to collaborators. During the same Iowa deluge, Alice had to keep the transmission in low gear because the motor’s water was boiling and nearing bone-dry. There wasn’t a storefront for miles. “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner came into Alice’s mind.
“There’s plenty of water in the ditches beside us,” Maggie had said, “but how can we get it into the automobile? We have no pail.”
The answer dawned on Nettie. “We will use the containers in our luggage.” The passengers were excited to be helpful. Soon, Alice’s older companions took out their cut-glass, sterling silver-topped toiletry holders from the fancy luggage they carried, which Alice had originally dismissed as excessively luxurious for such a trip. Nettie and Maggie deployed the elegant containers to scoop mucky water in what they later called “Operation Cut-Glass.” People are rarely one thing, Alice thought to herself about the women to whom she had attached her own preconceived ideas.
That night they battened down the hatches and tried to get as comfortable as they could in the rainy darkness under the contractible Pantasote canopy. Hermine volunteered to walk to the farm a ways back to procure some food. She bought a loaf for the extortionate sum of 25 cents and came back running from a large pack of scuttling pigs. Meals had varied in size and quality throughout the trip, and they had become experts at preparing food with a little can of cooking fuel. Tonight they dined on dry bread and water, and none of the women complained.
“This isn’t too bad,” said Hermine.
Alice appreciated the younger woman’s optimism — her own inner supply was running dangerously low after so many mounting difficulties. And now in Boone, seeking out advice about the treacherous mud, the women found only discouraging news and the prospect of splitting up or turning back all together.
With a pang of impending separation, Nettie, Maggie, and Hermine volunteered to sacrifice themselves. All of the luggage in hand, they said goodbye to Alice and boarded a train. Alice would continue driving, and the women would meet her in Omaha.
J.D., picking up on Alice’s growing frustration with the mounting obstacles, had volunteered to accompany her as the sole passenger once the other women left. It was, in Alice’s opinion, a regrettable but necessary compromise to the horrid conditions that didn’t require getting the Maxwell suits involved.
Danger Hill had a 90-degree turn at the bottom that prevented cars from gathering a running start. With her expert manipulation of the clutch and feel for the weight of the car, Alice conquered the hill handedly. She even insisted on towing out another vehicle stuck ahead of her and driven by a man. J.D. marveled at her skill and composure. He also proved useful, assisting her by estimating the depths of the massive puddles. He would call out, as though surrounded by landmines.
On your left.
Catch your breath.
Alice drove by his voice. As if blind, she worked the car back and forth. It felt both odd and perfectly natural to pass time alone with a man other than Bone. Whereas Bone was older by decades, she and J.D. were contemporaries with much in common.
Their growing friendship would be especially important as they entered the destroyed town of Vail, Iowa.
A cloudburst one day had given way to a Biblical-level deluge all night. The historic rains had uprooted half a dozen buildings from their foundations in downtown Vail and continued to batter Iowa and rewrite their plans. The small downtown was in shambles. Its devastation could only now be taken in by the light of day. Shopkeepers waded through waist-deep water to salvage what they could. The boarded sidewalks buckled under the weight. Foot-deep water gurgled inside stores while the swift current outside nearly carried away a baby until a timely rescue.
The local grocer took pity on what he mistook for a young married couple and set up wooden crates to make chairs and a makeshift table in the back room. He added a bit of wrapping paper as a tablecloth. The only thing missing were candles. Alice and J.D. enjoyed a feast of sardines, crackers, and cheese, using toothpicks for forks while they assessed the damage before them.
The Maxwell’s route to rejoin the women was impassable. Alice and J.D. were forced to temporarily leave the car in place and hop the rail to the Omaha hotel for an emergency meeting with a group of Maxwell’s Midwest executives, one of whom was notably “discourteous and disagreeable.” No car on earth could handle this muck. They could put the vehicle on a train, and Alice could ride the train, too. She’d then resume the drive in clearer conditions.
As if awakening from a daze, she suddenly realized she was in a room full of men deciding her future.
Alice could feel her grasp of the wheel slipping away, along with the integrity of her undertaking. She thought of the woman in her sunbonnet who had driven six miles and waited for hours outside just to catch a glimpse of the motorists about to shatter the bounds of where women could go and how. She thought of the women who attempted the drive before her; she thought of Joan Cuneo’s defiant pursuit of her passion in the face of prejudice. No, I will drive every inch, Alice declared, as much to herself as to the gathered men. She would find another way.
Staring at the maps before them, it was decided that the Maxwell would bypass Omaha altogether, instead taking the less-chartered route from Vail to Denison and then northwest to Sioux City on higher, drier ground where the other women would join her by rail. From there, they would have to cross the Missouri River into Nebraska and gradually rework their way back to their original route at Columbus.
Alice and J.D. returned to the Maxwell in Vail and continued on their new route into uncharted territory. A flooded Sioux River pulled the Maxwell into its edges. The car teetered far off to the left, about to tip over. It was a low point on every level. Her support system had fled with her three traveling companions. People far more familiar with the region had warned she would never make it through these conditions, and she risked becoming a laughing-stock like others who had tried and failed to push autos past their limits. Worse still, thinking of the reports of armed anti-auto activists in farm country, the danger of floods could pale next to the danger of bullets and sabotage that still faced her. Continuing seemed impossible.
In the midst of exhaustion and stress, a temptation also presented itself in the form of the experienced driver next to her. She could let J.D. take the wheel. That would allow her to recover energy and resolve.
But not this day. She tightened her grip. This was her drive to make.
Alice jerked the car back from the brink of the river’s edge in the nick of time, but her handbag flew out from the front seat. Though her companions had packed extensively, this was among what little Alice had. Acting on instinct, J.D. instantly braced himself between the seatback and the dashboard, lowering his body until he could weave his foot into the bag’s handles just before it was swept it away.
Alice coaxed the Maxwell into Sioux City, where she finally reunited with Nettie, Maggie, and Hermine, who anxiously awaited her return. A sense of rejuvenation settled in. Alice purchased a new duster and replacement glass for her goggles. Together again, the four women trooped on in their car. A feeling settled over the voyage that nothing could stop them from reaching San Francisco. They reached areas where there were no Blue Books — driving guidebooks containing chartered routes and detailed directions largely east of the Mississippi — to help them, and they had to follow wire poles and pilot cars to keep on track. Their party crossed the Continental Divide twice before they were done.
They drove across bumpy railroad tracks, navigated irrigated ditches and fields of high grass, opening and closing pasture gates in the cattle country they passed through. Approaching the Rockies, they took the elevating hills and wound around alkali lakes and small streams in the shadow of adobe cliffs and deep arroyos. Each narrow butte formed an otherworldly shape that hypnotized the riders in the otherwise desolate terrain. From inside the Maxwell, they experienced the fluctuating, diverse landscape of America.
They spotted curious animals like prairie dogs, which Alice futilely attempted to capture in photos, and fended off blood-thirsty bed bugs in their hole-in-the wall hotels at night. The women examined the eroding cliffs with sides resembling “magnified pleatings in an enormous elephant’s hide.”
A group of three young men on their own transcontinental trip in a Pierce-Arrow brought another much-needed shot of energy. The men had made their way from New York State to Salt Lake City and traded stories with — and accepted advice from — the ladies. Alice, in particular, made friends wherever she went, even in the desert, thanks to her mix of charisma, capability, and humor. The dimples shining through her dirty duster and cap opened doors for the other, more timid women to make friends as well. All four grew more confident and comfortable out in the wider world with each passing day, and they drove into Salt Lake a rejuvenated pack.
Alice’s skill at repairs had grown, as well, and she’d often huddle with local mechanics to give them directions or take over entirely. The spring bumpers and shock absorbers needed to be addressed, while the leaf springs were separated and oiled. Alice scraped the Maxwell’s cylinder heads by hand. When a new axle was needed and couldn’t be found, she convinced a local blacksmith to forge another spring seat on the existing axle instead of waiting for a replacement. When the linkage between the engine and accelerator lost a bolt, Alice replaced it with a hairpin. She later recalled the car being held together by “hairpins and safety pins” by the time they were out West.
Once they reached Stockton, California, Maxwell requested they wait the night before making the final sprint to San Francisco. Not yet the moment of triumph, it was one of reflection. Alice remembered challenges gone by, which had seemed so grand in the moment. She remembered a horse towing them from endless holes around Wisner, Nebraska, and a pitiful hitchhiker roaming the southwest desert that she picked up and took to Rawhide, and of course the lone woman in the sunbonnet at a crossroads just waiting to see them pass by. All were part of the same vast adventure, which she and her companions had pulled off with grit and improvisation, and by overcoming not a little fear. Nothing she had ever done had ever left her feeling so driven or accomplished.
On August 7, 1909, after 3,800 miles and driving 41 out of the last 60 days, they arrived. The ferry from Oakland bumped against the slip and docked at the Ferry Building at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. J.D. had certainly come through in ensuring appropriate fanfare. As they drove into the city, a large crowd of onlookers and autos welcomed them. The other drivers squeezed their bulb horns on repeat to show appreciation. A cavalcade of Maxwells escorted them into the city proper. Crowds waved and cheered the women as they drove up Market Street.
“She was accorded a reception such as few women receive,” noted her hometown Hackensack Republican.
San Francisco was still undergoing the long process of reconstruction after the Great Earthquake of 1906, but the spirit of the city seemed fully renewed. They were led to the Hotel St. James, a large, white 4-story building with rooms starting at one dollar a day. Three prominent American flags luffed from its roof at Van Ness and Fulton streets. Just as when they started in Manhattan, cameras captured their every move now. The four women were weighed down with bouquets of flowers. This time they were dry.
After all the impossibilities she made possible, it was easy for Alice to make the mistake of thinking nothing remained to overcome.
The Los Angeles Herald pointed out the fact that “male mechanics were not necessary” in a trip “made without a mishap.” Alice had also gone a long way toward “proving, too, her contention that a tour across the United States from New York to San Francisco was easy for a woman, if driving the right car.”
Her contention that it was easy for a women… driving the right car? Alice had never “contended” that to the Los Angeles Herald or anyone else. Papers had also reported that the Maxwell had received a “perfect score.” Had that score counted the 11 flat tires, the trouble with the ignition, or the time Alice had to clean a spark plug after Weasel Creek because it produced a skip in the motor? The score didn’t explain that the spring on the brake pedal broke off between Vail and Cheyenne or how Alice cleverly fixed it with a piece of wire, or the time the engine failed outright, requiring all new plugs.
It wasn’t the armed anti-auto extremists. Not the escaped murderers hiding in the woods or the police who thought she could be the culprit. The real enemy standing in the way of her rightful victory had been the men behind the Maxwell company all along. Proud though she was, Alice felt used, naïve to believe the trip had been about her or her driving skills at all. It was marketing, of course, and she knew that. But seeing the story twisted in newspaper accounts and massaged for the company’s benefit was jolting.
Charming J.D. Murphy had been there all along, appearing like a specter, to cover up for the faults of the car. All the moments fit together like a puzzle. He was the former newspaper reporter looking for his own big break. Furiously jotting down notes as the exhausted women nourished themselves with soup and sandwiches, picking and choosing what to share with the press. He’d wire his scoops, hand feeding quotes and details. Maxwell’s goal wasn’t to show how she had overcome the impossible, to celebrate her feats and show how she proved the male naysayers wrong. Maxwell’s goal was to open up the nascent auto industry to sell cars to women, to send revenues into the stratosphere, while still catering to the egos of the husbands buying the cars. When the Maxwell executive in Montauk had “prophesied” her driving cross-country, it wasn’t her, exactly; it was her as a type. They had to show that any woman could do what Alice had done, and that there was no risk to women’s place in their marriages or society. Whether she had driven each mile or not, she would be Maxwell’s “golden opportunity” to surpass the Ford Motor Company. Alice was showing she was special while they had to prove she wasn’t. She had been a pawn all along, as had J.D. in many ways.
Now that she could see the press clippings, it all added up. While she was hard at work with a local mechanic, the Deseret Evening News had been guided by the Maxwell men to downplay Alice’s efforts and suggest the car took care of itself: “The car is being overhauled today at the Sharman garage but there is really nothing much to do with it. The engine appears a bit dirty but otherwise it appears to be in splendid condition.” When Motor World Magazine mentioned J.D.’s role in the trip, they wrote how his duties “in addition to seeing that no harm befalls the ladies, is to make sure that proper notice is taken of them and their car by the newspapers of the cities at which they arrive.” Alice had saved his skin in the flood, he only saved her handbag.
The press carefully reminded the public that Alice and her companions did not cross boundaries of the fairer sex. One newspaper out west reported “an occasional shot at a coyote, prairie dog and such, but, woman like, missing everything.” It was easy for them to miss, considering they didn’t have guns; the only thing they shot were photos with a camera. There was the insistence they not enter San Francisco under cover of dark, to slow down their history-making drive — because it would be untoward and improper for ladies to be out at night, and bring negative attention to the auto. To the last moments, the Maxwell-Briscoe Company tried to control Alice and keep her firmly within the confines society dictated.
The San Francisco Chronicle marked their arrival with the headline “Pretty women motorists arrive.” The papers didn’t celebrate her as Alice but rather as “Mrs. John R. Ramsey,” noting her “brown as a berry” skin thanks to the western sun. “Most of such feats have been performed by women who give the impression of a certain amount of masculine composition in their make up,” noted the San Francisco Call “but in the quartette that arrived yesterday the impression was far different.” She wasn’t the lusus naturae Bishop Doane had warned of, nor was she the dreaded suffragette. She was not a threat to gender norms, and neither was the Maxwell. The lovely, young mother served their new slogan well: “Perfectly Simple. Simply Perfect,” — a vehicle that even a woman could handle.
Whatever the corporation had done, the car itself now felt like an extension of her. With all its troubles, the Maxwell outperformed its limitations and the roads that weren’t roads. “That motor surmounted more difficulties than a modern driver can dream of,” Alice said years later. “I’m still proud of that Maxwell engine.” But she couldn’t even keep the car that had taken her so far. The company shepherded it away. The Maxwell immediately went on display in the San Francisco showroom, and she could only look at it through glass like everyone else. (Prudently, the company ultimately decided to gift her another Maxwell.)
She had wondered what would happen after her history-making trip. What will it feel like to arise and no longer have a quest? What will life be like when this is all over? How could I return to normalcy? But the quest didn’t end. “I’m probably happiest when I’m holding on to a wheel,” Alice later wrote. To have her freedom, she would need to break out of her lane. She would complete the same trip more than thirty times, watching America change before her eyes on each voyage, and would be the first woman inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2000, 17 years after her death. J.D.’s glory, on the other hand, faded. He bounced between writing for the auto sections of newspapers and doing car company advertising. Maxwell-Briscoe, facing stiffening competition as the auto finally and firmly won over the masses, shuttered its doors in 1925.
After her journey, whenever Alice got into a car, she did it with no fanfare and on her own terms. No attention, no cameras. Putting on her fur-collared coat, she tied her oversized hat’s crepe de chine veil neatly into a bow underneath her chin and pulled up her gauntlet gloves. She’d drop powdery gray carbide pellets into the gas generator, turning the petcock until it dripped water. One-by-one she struck matches and threw the little flames into the glass lenses of the lamps — igniting the headlights and the world before her. This was how it should be. Nobody would stop her from driving through the night now. Cranking the engine, Alice would jump to the steering wheel, advance the spark.
She would drive.
GABRIELLA GAGE is a nonfiction writer and journalist from Somerville, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Boston Globe, and MuckRock, and she is a 2019 James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence.
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