Alice Huyler Ramsey was just 22 years old when she decided to drive across the country. Although that might seem like only a slightly impressive accomplishment in these modern times, Ramsey's journey is significant because she was the first woman to attempt such a trip. Six years had passed since a man completed the first cross-country trip, which made Ramsey's journey in 1909 seem all the more trailblazing.

Accompanied by two older sisters-in-law and a 16-year-old friend, Ramsey set out on her history-making adventure of a lifetime in early June. The trip took 59 days, covered 3,800 miles, and ended in California with the San Francisco Chronicle proclaiming, "Pretty Women Motorists Arrive After Trip Across the Continent."

Unusual Jump-Start

It's interesting to note that Ramsey wasn't immediately smitten with cars, the machines that forced horse-and-buggy carriages to share the road. When a car zoomed past her at a "high speed" of 30 miles an hour and scared her horse, Ramsey was furious, but her husband, John Rathbone Ramsey, believed that the best way for her to get past her trepidation — and irritation — with this growing automotive trend was to start driving a car herself.

Driving came naturally to Ramsey, and she soon became hooked. During her first summer driving, she put a whopping 6,000 miles on her car, mostly from frequently driving the dirt roads (then considered highways) around her New Jersey home. She was so taken with driving that she entered a 200-mile "endurance drive," a move that would change her future and earn her a spot in history.

Her enthusiasm and ability behind the wheel caught the attention of a representative from the Maxwell-Briscoe Company, one of the prominent automakers of the day. She was just what they needed to launch a promotion that would prove their cars were built to handle a trip across the United States, and they proudly proclaimed that their cars were so easy to handle, even a woman could do it. Ramsey jumped at the all-expenses-paid opportunity, and the original "Girls' Trip" was born.

Black and white photo of people viewing an old 1900s car in the rain
Source: Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library

Driving Ambitions

Maxwell-Briscoe provided her with a dark green, four-cylinder 1909 Maxwell DA, a 30-horsepower touring car that had two bench seats and a removable roof. The carmaker also custom-fitted this model with a special 20-gallon gas tank, giving the women a better chance of not running out of gas.

Automotive creature comforts still had a long way to go back in 1909, and the women had to wear rubber goggles and hats to remain safe from road debris. With no cross-country maps to guide them, they relied on the Automotive Blue Book Guide, which listed turn-by-turn directions between cities to help drivers navigate the unmarked roads. Because the book relied on landmarks (such as a certain color house or a particular barn), the women sometimes lost their way due to landmarks that changed faster than the book could be updated.

An even greater challenge for Ramsey and her passengers was the guides only went as far west as the Mississippi River. After that, they used intuition, a little hope, and a lot of guesswork. They chose the most worn-looking roads to travel, and when they reached a crossroads, they made their choice based on which telegraph poles had the most wires connected to them.

Black and white photo of Alice Huyler Ramsey, two sisters-in-law and a friend in an old car
Source: Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library

Making History

As one might expect, there were a few mishaps and breakdowns along the way. The tires were sometimes no match for the rough, pothole-ridden roads, and the women had to deal with everything from tire blowouts to an overheated radiator and a broken coil. By the time they ended their trip, they were a national phenomenon, and Maxwell-Briscoe got the advertising promotion it had hoped for, proclaiming the vehicle as "the car for a lady to drive."

After making history, Ramsey continued driving, although with much less publicity. She completed more than 30 additional cross-country trips and published a book, "Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron," which chronicled her original adventure. For her accomplishments, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (now the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers) named her "The First Lady of Automotive Travel" in 1960. She died in 1983 at the age of 97.

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