A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It
2000 Curt McConnell  177 pages

Two large social changes occurred to make this book possible.  First the automobile became a social phenomenon.  It changed lives and society radically.  Second, the women’s suffragist movement changed the roll of women and so changed society radically. 

It was a given that men could pilot automobiles and pilot them they did.  As they piloted their automobiles they carried their women with them and of course protected them.  Women were for protecting.  There were, however, women who did not want or  need protecting.  They wanted to pilot automobiles on their own. They wanted adventure and the feeling of accomplishment. 

This book covers five women who traveled across the country when automobiles were new and when hardly anyone was a “transcontinentalist.”  They must have been very special because even today traveling across the country in an automobile is an endeavor.  In the early 20th Century it was an ordeal.  The machines were not reliable.  The weather was not reliable.  The roads were not reliable; they were scarcely roads in some places.  They had to know how to fix cars and put up with dirt, heat, thirst, and the continual rattling for their teeth as they negotiated the routes across the country.

So, the book  is interesting. 

The five stories are:

Louise Hitchcock Davis – the first woman to attempt to travel the country in a car; her husband drove during the 1899 trip.
Alice Ramsey – the first woman to drive across the country; she was accompanied by three other women. 1909 and 53 days
Blanche Stuart Scott – the first woman to drive across the country (if you discount Ramsey – you’ll have to read the book to understand) 1910
Anita King – the movie star and first woman to drive across the country alone - 1915 in 48 days
Amanda Preuss – who set the record for driving across the country alone – 1916 (11 days)

Our research team is always looking for interesting stories that have to do with Donner Summit and we have quite a backlog in our DSHS files just awaiting exposure in the Heirloom.  Some stories awaiting exposure are “blindfolded mules,” “locomotives over the snow,” “the first train rides over the Sierra,”  “tunneling under Donner Summit (that’s not RR tunnels),” etc.

It was that hunt that led the team to A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It.  The  Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway, went right over Donner Summit (one of the two routes did – the other went over Echo Summit, today’s Highway 50).  Since it was the main route across the country there must have been “autoists” or “transcontinentalists” who used the route.  There must be records of their passages.   A book about five women, attempting to cross the Sierra and cross the continent must include a few who crossed Donner Summit. 

The first story ended in Chicago.  There was no Donner Summit there.    The second and third  stories’ drivers both took the Lincoln Highway route over Echo Summit.  That was disappointing.  There were only two stories left. 

Then we hit “paydirt.” Both Anita King and Amanda Preuss went over Donner Summit.    Not only did they break the mold for women and take on the challenge of crossing the country by automobile, but they went over Donner Summit doing it. That’s a little flippant, but humor is good.

The five women, all in their twenties, were not just automobile pioneers, they were societal pioneers.  They showed women could be independent. Their examples led other women to break the molds and become lawyers, doctors, and professors.  They made the world better.

McConnell uses lots and lots of primary sources to put together his stories and includes pages of notes at the end so one can follow him through the old newspapers and magazines.  He also includes lots of old pictures that are fun to look at.  A little detail is good but a lot can be tedious.  Mr. McConnell did a heroic job ferreting out all the sources he did.  He did not have to report on all of them.  He found so many he was able to spend time noting the discrepancies between newspaper articles.  After awhile that gets to be a bit much.  For example, was Blanche Scott born in 1890, 1891, 1892, or 1889?  Was her maid with her not?  Was her companion Gertude or Amy? Then, he’s such a stickler that when he lists some numbers we’d expect him to be just as strict but he does not even stop to consider their logic. He said Amanda Preuss, during her record run, covered  an average of 313 miles per day at an average speed of  13.05 MPH.   Averaging 13 MPH shows the condition of traveling in those days and how heroic these women were but it also shows that Amanda had to travel for 23.98 hours per day.  She could not eat, sleep, or do anything but drive for the 11 day trip.

That said, the book is interesting.  The women dealt with sand, mud, bad weather, rough roads and no roads, bad directions, lack of information, lack of water, flat tires, breakdowns, and danger.  That was not enough though.  The publicists for Anita King, a  movie star, embellished stories and she added more: shooting a timber wolf, being accosted by a tramp, being rescued by prospectors in the desert at the point of death, and more.  You’ll have to read the book.

McConnell also gives details about the automobiles which any car nut would like.

There are interesting stories along with the main stories.  For example, an automobile manufacturer tried to pay Blanche Scott $5000 to end her trip so the Overland automobile would not get such good publicity. There are good details like most early transcontinentalists had pilot cars as did most of the women in this book.  The pilot cars were there to help out and guide as well as react in emergencies.  Some had many pilot cars which carried reporters.  Blanche Scott had a toilet installed in her car so she could get relief without exposing herself to reporters.  That occasioned one reporter, not knowing of the toilet, to marvel at the apparent size of her bladder.  Some of the travelers sent laundry ahead so they would not have to wear the same clothes over and over.

Two the five went over Donner Summit.  They did not say much about their crossings though. The clues of their routes come from the snowsheds which they mentinoed – iconic symbols on Donner Summit and which were nowhere else in the Sierra at the time.  Anita King was stopped by a tramp in the snowsheds at the Summit, apparently as she was crossing through them.  He wanted a ride to Reno but the rules forbid that.  Later, in Reno, the tramp showed there were no hard feelings by presenting her with a bouquet.

What to take Blanche Scott pg 73
thermos bottles
field glasses, rubber cushions,
rubber ponchos
spare tires
water bottles
gas cans
acetylene gas
compressed air
block and tackle

What to Take Anita King 103
extra tires
gasoline and oil
food for four days
sawed off shotgun
huge searchlight
cooking utensils

Rules  103
Anita King, to set the record for traveling alone could not even take her dog, must make her own repairs, sleep out on the desert when the occasion demands it,

Blanche Stuart Scott must have been a “card.” She told a story,
She was a teenager and like today’s lobbied for an automobile. Eventually, like parents today, they were worn down.  Blanche got her car, a once cylinder Cadillac.  One night she was driving  by the “feeble glow of the auto’s kerosene lamps” and she saw a bicycle coming.  “I rang my bell… but the light came straight towards us without deviating from its course in the middle of the road.  “Say there you are, fellows, I’ll go between you!” a voice rang out from behind the light.  There was a crash as he ht, fair and square between the two lamps on my car.  We dug him out of the radiator, not much the worse for wear, but his bicycle was beyond redemption.  The poor man  never again mistook automobile lamps for bicycles.” pg 69

“The automobile is a treacherous animal for a long trip.”  pg 9  Louise Davis

Mr. McConnell also wrote Coast to Coast By Automobile   reviewed in our October, ’12 Heirloom