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Alice Ramsey was wowed by Nevada during her historic 1909 cross-country road trip.
Photo: Alice Ramsey (pictured); Below: Marianne McCoy (pictured: Emily Jane Anderson)
Alice Ramsey’s most vivid Nevada memory during her 1909 visit wasn’t the chocolate cake and pork chop she was served for breakfast at a ranch west of Austin; nor the “rather enjoyable” sensation she felt when she saw a dozen bare-chested American Indians on horseback, bows drawn and galloping toward her outside of Eureka; nor her delight at the beauty of the irrigated ranches surrounding Fallon. Rather, it was the electric feeling of reaching Sparks.
In Ramsey’s narrative, Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, she recounts the story of her historic automobile trip across the United States—she was the first woman to complete such a journey. In 1961, the 74-year-old wrote, “I shall never forget the surprise of the vista busting upon us in the darkness. Here was a hollow in which lay a community brilliantly lighted with electricity! Right out of the dark and barren desert, this almost bowled us over. It was only a couple miles from Reno and was connected to it by trolley! Surprise! Surprise! Suddenly we had returned to civilization!”
During the early 20th century, when Ramsey learned to drive her 1908 Maxwell Model K Gentleman’s Roadster, reliability runs and endurance tests were popular outings for those lucky enough to own one of the new machines. Drivers tested the dependability of their automobiles to convince skeptics that they were suitable for the average person’s transportation needs. These events were also a chance for drivers to show off their skills.
During a 150-mile drive from New York City to the lighthouse on Montauk Point, Carl Kelsey, sales manager for the Maxwell-Briscoe Company, observed Ramsey’s competence as a driver. Kelsey approached her with a challenge, proposing she become the first woman to drive across the country from Hell Gate on the East Coast to the Golden Gate in the West. The 22-year-old accepted the proposition and accomplished the feat in August 1909. Ramsey, who made more than 30 transcontinental excursions during her lifetime, completed the 3,800-mile trip in 59 days (41 days of driving time).
Due to the primitive conditions of roads and lack of services along the route, Ramsey’s 1909 Model DA Maxwell was outfitted with a 20-gallon fuel tank instead of the regular 14-gallon one, two extra tires, spare tubes, and a tire repair kit. Ramsey took along three passengers—her husband’s two sisters, Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood, and her friend, Hermine Jahns. Each of the women was allowed one suitcase, which was wrapped in rubber and attached to a rack on the back of the car. In the event the travelers not reach a scheduled food stop, they also carried picnic supplies.
Route finding was tricky, especially after the women crossed the Missouri River. Maps were incomplete. There were no road signs. Directions in guidebooks often read as such: “Turn left at the red barn with the yellow house,” which worked as long as the farmer had not repainted the home blue, which happened in one instance. Often, Ramsey navigated by following telegraph lines or railroad tracks. Roads turned into wagon trails and what Ramsey calls “mere horse trails” in Wyoming. Though Ramsey referred to Salt Lake City as a highlight of the trip, road conditions were still primitive there.
Ramsey was delayed several days near the Nevada-Utah border. She was forced to wait for the arrival of a new axle to replace the one damaged while attempting to cross a four-foot deep gulley near Callao, Utah. Anxious to continue to Nevada, Ramsey initially miscalculated her route to Ely, taking a wrong turn that forced her to backtrack before crossing Schellbourne Pass into Steptoe Valley. Road conditions improved, and Ramsey skimmed along into the “active town” of Ely. After lunch at a café owned by Bert Fuller and a send-off from the mayor, the women continued to Pat Walsh’s ranch west of Austin, where they were served the unique breakfast Ramsey remembered years later.
After purchasing oil from a general store in Rawhide, Ramsey wrote, “…there was an eight-mile climb followed by a seven-mile coast; nice traveling while it lasted!” Following the sighting of the ranches around Fallon, the women motored through Hazen, Fernley, and Wadsworth and finally into Reno, where they spent the night at the Riverside Hotel. A few days later, on August 7, Ramsey drove up San Francisco’s Market Street. Spectators waved and cheered the first woman to drive across the United States.
On June 9, 2009, the 100th anniversary of Ramsey’s departure, 37-year-old Emily Jane Anderson of Seattle began a cross-country trip commemorating Ramsey’s historic adventure. Anderson will spend six days in Nevada, July 1-6, while traveling west from Ely to Reno-Sparks. She will be driving a 1909 Maxwell DA that has been completely restored by her father, Richard Anderson.
Anderson will follow Ramsey’s lead and drive the entire route herself, while being accompanied by three female passengers. Anderson’s co-pilot, navigator, and friend, Christie Catania, will travel with her for the entire journey—the other two seats will rotate to women from across the country. One of the seats will be in constant rotation, reserved for various women of note, including politicians, celebrities, and businesswomen. The final seat will rotate and be donation-based. Anderson began her trek from the same location as Ramsey, 1930 Broadway in New York, once the sales office of the Maxwell-Briscoe Company.
Though Anderson will have the advantage of better roads, tires, accommodations, and maps, she still has concerns: “Big-city driving and anything unpredictable such as flooding like they experienced last year in the Midwest,” she says. “But the conditions of the roads are a million times better now, and the navigation is not nearly as hard.
Anderson will share her adventures during the reenactment at the National Automobile Museum in downtown Reno from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday, July 6. This special evening performance is part of the 14th annual Artown festival. The performance is open to the public and is $20 for museum members and $25 for the public. automuseum.org, 775-333-9300
WORTH A VISIT
“On the Road with Alice Ramsey: 100 Years Ago”
Reno’s National Automobile Museum
July 1-Jan. 11, 2010
Alice Ramsey Centennial
Baldini’s Sports Casino, Sparks
WORTH A READ
Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron
By Alice Huyler Ramsey, Castle Press, 1961
By Gregory Franzwa
(order at aliceramsey.org)
Alice Ramsey’s Grand Adventure
Written and illustrated by Don Brown, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997