Alice Ramsey was the first woman to drive a motor car across the United States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Alice’s Drive is a reprint of Veil, Duster and Tire Iron, by Alice Ramsey, with additional notes called “Chasing Alice” by Gregory Franzwa.
By 1909, only a handful of people, all men, had driven coast to coast. Although automobiles were becoming more accepted, only 155, 000 were owned by individuals, and many people believed that they were too complicated and physically demanding for women to drive. Alice Ramsey, although adventurous and already an experienced driver at age 22, was otherwise a typical young mother. She wanted to make a statement to the world that women could drive anywhere they wanted, without having men around to help.
She was eventually teamed up with a Maxwell 30 Touring Car, an advance publicity crew, and three other women who rode in the car with her. Two were her older sisters-in-law – presumably chaperones, and the fourth was 16-year-old Hermine Jahns, an alternate driver.
They left New York on June 9, 1909 and arrived in San Francisco on August 7, but along the way they certainly had adventures! As Alice wrote this journal-type book she was aware of the humor of many of the situations, but she probably couldn’t have imagined how outrageous much of it would appear 100 years later. In many places there were no roads at all. Flat tires were common, and multiple ones were major problems. Public lodging wasn’t always available in small towns. Rain compounded every problem. The publicity men sometimes helped and sometimes made life even more difficult for the women.
Franzwa has added extensive footnotes that are worth reading as you go along. Some simply help to locate the text in a modern landscape, but many of them add depth to things that Alice assumed were common knowledge, or didn’t explain well.
I won’t spoil the stories, but the highlight for me is the recounting of crossing the Platte River, near Laramie, Wyoming. It involves a missing bridge, and permission from the Union Pacific Railroad. I’ll just quote Alice, “We were pretty unprepared for what this turned out to be.”
Following the trek, Alice’s accomplishment was largely forgotten. She wasn’t a politician or celebrity at heart. She was just what she claimed to be, a normal woman and a mother, but possessing an adventurous streak.
The women wore dusters (long coats) and veils (wide brimmed hats with a gauze veil that could cover the entire face), mostly for protection from dirt and dust. Hence the title. Even men who toured wore dusters. It was the appropriate gear for the times. The text is punctuated with many photos taken during the original drive– worth many a good laugh themselves, and not just because of the fashion. Looking at a picture of an open car with skinny tires bogged in a mudhole can make even the most calloused modern driver appreciate pavement!
The additional text, “Chasing Alice, ” by Gregory M. Franzwa, isn’t going to have much appeal for the general reader. His interest is in the historical Lincoln Highway, established in 1913. Much of Alice’s route followed the roads later collected under that presidential title. Franzwa tried to determine exactly where she traveled, where Alice’s notes were less than perfect. He looked for the places she stayed, and found additional photos. If one wanted to try to duplicate her trip, these notes would be invaluable, but they are a bit dry for the average reader. We (I read this out loud, with a friend) slogged through, however, determined to glean every possible tidbit from the text.
Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron is 140 pages long. I wanted more! Chasing Alice is an additional 100 pages. The book is paperback.
I really identify with women who don’t fit the mold, having completed some exciting adventures myself (including being the first woman to hike the entire 4400-mile North Country National Scenic Trail). If you love books about adventurous women, this should definitely be on your reading list. I’ve created a list of such books at Amazon, if you are hungry for more.