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Come Rain or Mud or Broken Axle - Part II

Alice Huyler Ramsey pushes across the US in a sturdy Maxwell, becoming the first woman ever to drive coast to coast

ALICE HUYLER RAMSEY drove her Maxwell on a northern route, across New York State, into Ohio, then Illinois, then into Iowa where for 13 days she fought her way through rainstorms which transformed the dirt roads into a crucible of mud. She and her three companions were the first women ever to drive a car across the United States. The year was 1909. After Iowa came Nebraska, then north a little into Wyoming, down to Utah, across a sizzling Nevada and into golden California. In Wyoming, pilot cars led Ramsey because all the wagon trails had a tendency to meander into nowhere. There was no typical day of traveling on this historic journey. Each state had its perils of driving and rewards of scenery, but generally the women got an early morning start after spending the night in a small hotel, a farmhouse, at the homes of Maxwell dealers, but only once by the side of the road. In the major cities time was consumed by receptions and eager officials wanting to show off their cities to four remarkable women.

In recounting the long journey in her 1961 book, ``Veil, Duster and Tire Iron,'' Ramsey adopts a diplomatic tone. If there were differences of opinion during the trip between her and her passengers, or with J.D. Murphy, the advance man, Ramsey chose not to mention them. She describes two of her companions before the trip as ``well-groomed and dressed in the daintiest of French-heel footgear ... conservative and reserved to the nth degree.'' Perhaps beneath their propriety beat the heart of adventurers.

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But it was clearly Ramsey's show and her decisions prevailed over how fast they went, the hours driven, and how they got from here to there on a daily basis. ``We had been able to work up the terrific speed of 42 miles per hour on the Cleveland Parkway,'' Ramsey said in citing their top speed for the trip. In one stretch through a blistering Ohio they managed three days of almost 140 miles each day, ``but the roads were bumpy and rough,'' said Ramsey despite the accomplishment. There is no mention of how her ``conservative and reserved'' companions managed from day to day.

Whenever a blowout occurred (a dozen during the journey) and Ramsey wanted to save the spare, she would stop the car, gather up her skirts, jack up the frame, remove the wheel, pull out the inner tube, either insert a new one or patch the old one, and then pump the tire up. Lapse time? About an hour. The other women watched and handed her tools.

``It was my general policy,'' said Ramsey, ``to keep the gasoline tank at least half full. The 20-gallon reservoir was situated under the front seat cushion.... To check the contents it was necessary to empty the front compartment of personnel and cushion. A wooden stick, marked off in inches, was plunged into the tank revealing how many inches of fuel remained.''

IN Iowa, the constant rain and mud took a toll on the engine. ``Before too long there was a skip in the motor,'' said Ramsey. ``I discovered the offending spark plug by the simple trick of holding a hammer head against each one and shorting it against the water jacket of the cylinders. Plugs were manufactured then so they could be taken apart, cleaned with fine sandpaper or emery cloth and reassembled, which I did on the spot.''

In Salt Lake City, she removed and scraped carbon out of the cylinder heads. Another time she overhauled the magneto. At night she cleaned and fussed over the car while the other women slept after a grueling day. Ramsey must have had exceptional stamina.

Wherever they stopped they gathered information about the roads ahead from local people who crowded around the car in disbelief. More than once, J.D. Murphy would help unload the car in a town and send the spare parts ahead by train along with the three passengers. Then he and Ramsey, covered head to toe in ponchos, would drive the now lighter Maxwell into a stretch of mud that local people swore was a road.

Overheating of the radiator was a constant problem when hills were part of the landscape. Near Boone, Iowa, the four women spent the night in the car while waiting for flood waters to subside.

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One day as they neared Ogallala, Neb., a grim-looking sheriff's posse on horseback halted the car in the sage brush and surrounded it. ``Where yer comin' from?'' demanded the sheriff. When Ramsey answered, ``New York,'' she quickly added, ``we're on our way to San Francisco.'' The sheriff looked the muddy, battered car over and said, ``In that?''

After determining they had no guns, the sheriff let the women go. Later they learned there had been a murder in a nearby town. Any strangers, even four women from Hackensack, N.J., were suspects.

STOPS in big cities meant a chance to get mail, to bathe, and have their clothes washed and pressed. In Ely, Nev., they turned a heap of dirty clothes over to a Chinese laundry. Returning the next morning before the clothes were done they discovered a Chinese laundry man ironing their skirts. To sprinkle the clothes, he filled his mouth with water, spewed it out on the skirt in a fine mist, smiled at the women, and then ironed. ``I just tried to forget what I saw,'' Ramsey wrote in her book.

Just outside Grantsville, Utah, the Maxwell struck a prairie dog hole while traveling in wagon tracks and spread-eagled the front wheels. ``The bolt came out of the tie rod connecting the wheels,'' Ramsey said, ``and the spring seat had broken away from the axle.''

Ramsey jacked the car up, got down in the dust, and bound the axle with wire. Limping into the next town, she drove the car carefully to a blacksmith who heated a strip of metal and bound it around the axle. Because the Maxwell, and all cars in those days, were basically simple machines, makeshift repairs had more staying power. A hundred miles later a blacksmith in another town worked a whole day and forged a new spring seat.

After mud and rain in Iowa, floods in Nebraska, and stifling heat in Nevada and Wyoming, the women reached the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. ``What clarity in the atmosphere,'' exclaimed Ramsey, ``and how the peaks stand out against the azure sky! ... and now trees!''

Led by pilot cars they stopped at the southernmost tip of Lake Tahoe. ``Even a puncture just before arriving failed to dim the pleasure of that glorious entrance to California,'' said Ramsey. Night was spent in a cottage by the lake; the next day they reached Sacramento, and the next day a tooting, hooting parade took them through downtown Stockton.

FROM Stockton, on their way to the Oakland Ferry, they were escorted by a line of Maxwells led by a grinning J.D. Murphy. On the morning of Aug. 7, exactly 59 days after leaving New York, the Maxwell disembarked from the Oakland Ferry into the noise of downtown San Francisco, the little engine still chattering smoothly. With Ramsey at the wheel, a parade of honking cars led the Maxwell up Market Street to the splendor of the St. James Hotel.

The next day a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed, ``Pretty Women Motorists Arrive After Trip Across The Continent.'' The Chronicle reporter wrote, ``... The trip across the continent was made largely for pleasure and to see the country, and the exclusion of men was largely just to show that they are not at all necessary, even for a trip of such magnitude....''

Ramsey couldn't resist a little needling when she was interviewed. In recounting a tough stretch of road in Nebraska, she told reporters, ``As it was, a number of cars driven by men either turned back or were shipped ahead on flat cars, but I stuck to the wheel and got through.''

After the trip, Ramsey returned home and resumed her role as wife and mother, although she drove cross-country at least 30 more times and throughout Europe. She owned more than 25 different cars during her lifetime. Her husband was at one time a congressman from New Jersey.

Not until later in life did Ramsey get the recognition she deserved as one of the women who took automobiles out of the exclusive hands of men. At the 1960 Automobile Show in Detroit she was honored as ``Woman Motorist of the Century,'' and the Automobile Manufacturer's Association acclaimed her as ``Our First Lady of Automobile Travel.''

Ramsey died in Covina, Calif., in 1983 at the age of 95. Auto historian John S. Hammond said that not once in Ramsey's life was she in a traffic accident, and the only traffic ticket she ever received was for making a U-turn in Covina.

The story of the first part of Alice Ramsey's journey appeared on the Home Forum yesterday.

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