Alice Huyler Ramsey: First Woman To Drive Cross-Country

Alice Huyler Ramsey, standing beside her auto – Photo: Library of Congress

Who comes to mind when you’re asked about women who made history? Do you think of world travelers like Amelia Earhart or space explorers like Valentina Tereshkova? What about Alice Huyler Ramsey, the first woman to drive across the United States from coast to coast? Have you ever heard of her?

Before any of these other women were breaking glass ceilings, Ramsey was paving the way. At just 22 years old, she became the first woman to take a transcontinental road trip.

A Vassar College graduate born in 1886, Alice Huyler Ramsey developed a passion for driving after her husband, John Rathbone Ramsey, purchased her a Maxwell runabout in 1908. 

That same year, she drove her car in the American Automobile Association’s Montauk Point Endurance Race. She was one of just two women who competed. At the race, she was introduced to Carl Kelsey, who was in charge of publicity for the Maxwell-Briscoe Company.

At the time, Maxwell was on a journey to target the female market. After seeing Ramsey drive, Kelsey proposed her taking a cross-country trip as a PR stunt. Maxwell would provide a new vehicle and cover all expenses in exchange for some great press.

A year later, in 1909, Ramsey set off with her two older sisters-in-law, Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood, who have been described as much more “conservative” than she. A friend, 16-year-old Hermine Jahns, accompanied them as well.

Alice Huyler Ramsey and her three passengers – Photo: Detroit Public Library

The road trip started at Hell Gate in Manhattan, New York, and ended in San Francisco, California.

Of the four women, Ramsey was the only one who knew how to drive, and the trip was arduous, to say the least. Of the 3,600 miles traveled, only 152 of them were paved. Sounds like a bumpy ride!

Along the way, Ramsey had to change 11 tires. She was also responsible for maintaining the car, including keeping the spark plugs clean and repairing a broken brake pedal.

Plenty of people were supportive of Ramsey, her crew, and her journey. However, they received their fair share of criticism, too. At one point, while the group was waiting for a coil repair, someone yelled to them from the side of the road to “get a horse.”

The women arrived in San Francisco after 59 days. They were greeted by a crowd and recovered at the St. James Hotel. The San Francisco Chronicle also covered the story, publishing it with the headline, “Pretty Women Motorists Arrive After Trip Across the Continent.”

This trip may have been Ramsey’s first, but it certainly wasn’t her last. She went on to take 30 more cross-country trips and was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2000.

Not only did Ramsey show that women are more than capable of driving and caring for vehicles, but she also paved the way for other women adventurers to break down more barriers.

The women of today owe a lot to those like Ramsey, who wasn’t afraid to venture off the beaten path (literally, in this case) and prove that anything is possible with a little grit and determination.