A century ago, a diminutive, cheerful, tough-as-nails clerical worker from Sacramento shattered the record for a woman driving from coast to coast.
From Aug. 8 to Aug. 19, 1916, Amanda Preuss, 25, drove solo from Oakland to New York City over rutted and nearly invisible roads to beat the women’s cross-country speed record by 37 days.
“Amanda Preuss’ accomplishment is especially remarkable considering that women didn't become motorists in any numbers until 1912, when the self-starter was invented,” said Amanda DeWilde, archivist at the Sacramento Public Library’s Sacramento Room. Electric self-starters replaced hand-starting cranks that required considerable strength.
Preuss, a stenographer in a Sacramento law office, traveled 3,520 miles in 11 days, 5 hours and 45 minutes, nearly matching the transcontinental record for men. Sleep-deprived Preuss averaged more than 300 miles a day.
Along the way she had her adventures, including the time the radiator in her Oldsmobile V-8 roadster sprung a leak after being damaged in a crash with a horse. Preuss faced arrest for hitting the horse, and only was allowed to continue her cross-country trek after paying a sheriff $150.
Preuss and other female record-seeking drivers between 1899 and 1916 helped bring about the age of the auto, according to Curt McConnell, author of “A Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows It.”
McConnell said the pioneering female motorists proved that an automobile could safely travel long distances, helped lobby for highway improvements, put to rest the prevailing view that women would be bad drivers and tipped the auto industry to a possible pool of women buyers.
Preuss’ trip was also meant to publicize the building of the Lincoln Highway that connected New York to San Francisco and had been dedicated in 1913.
The Bee described her cross-continent auto run this way: “She did it for the fun of the thing and to demonstrate that a girl could go it alone across the United States in perfect safety, make good time with ease and certainty.”
Preuss, whose trip was sponsored by the Sacramento YWCA, noted in a booklet penned post-trip titled “A Girl – A Record and an Oldsmobile,” that her training got off to a rocky start. While crank-starting an old car before a practice run, the engine kicked back and broke her arm.
The Oldsmobile company agreed to supply her with her new roadster. Not long after that, when an Olds representative saw her arm in a sling, his jaw dropped.
“My arm healed rapidly,” she wrote in her booklet. “In two weeks, I was again at the wheel, this time in my own Oldsmobile, a self-starter, believe me.”
Ready for adventure, on Aug. 8, she began her trip in Oakland, with the press and dignitaries on hand. The roads into Sacramento, she related, carried her “with ease and dispatch.”
At the Capitol, she was received by a delegation of state officials, led by State Treasurer Friend Richardson – and a bunch of her Sacramento well-wishers.
Once on the road later that day, she headed to the foothills and the mountains. She safely passed through the Sierra and then headed downhill, “curving wickedly toward Donner Lake, in the heart of the mountains.”
She arrived in Reno at 8:15 p.m., having covered 270 miles. She started for Ely, Nev., the next day, but it was not such easy going in the desert.
“It was plough, plough, plough, through heavy sand all the way,” she wrote. “At one place, despite the magnificent pulling power of my eight-cylinder motor, which had carried me over the Sierras in high gear, I had to travel 14 miles in first and second speed.”
She would make it to Eureka, where the town was asleep, except for men playing cards in a hotel lobby. The hotel bartender fetched her hunks of bread and sliced cold beef for dinner.
“This I ate before an interested group of spectators, and then stumbled up the staircase to my room, where I slept soundly until morning,” she wrote.
Preuss traveled across the country on the Lincoln Highway, motoring on roads that were slippery with torrential rains, pot-holed and poorly marked.
According to the Sacramento Union, only one crash marred her travels. She collided with a horse that was running free on the road near Pine Bluffs, Wyo. Passers-by freed the horse from underneath her Olds.
“An examination showed that it had its leg broken and would have to be shot,” she wrote. “I drove down the road about a mile and waited, my hands over my eyes.”
That was not the end of the horse saga. In Kimball, Neb., she was stopped by the local sheriff who had been telephoned ahead to have her arrested.
“To get away, I finally had to pay the sheriff $150, to be turned over to the horse owner, whose sole defense was that the animal had been running free on the road the last four years and that nothing had happened to it in that time.”
She arrived at Times Square on the afternoon of Aug. 19. Preuss wrote that she averaged about 14 miles per gallon and that she had only one tire blowout, the result of hitting a sharp rock in Cheyenne, Wyo.
“As for myself, I was none the worse for wear, though I found I had lost 17 pounds,” she wrote. “I also found that the many days of exposure in all kinds of weather had given me a deep coat of tan, though my skin, due to the fact that I used nothing but cold cream, was in excellent condition. My ears, however, were as hard baked as a prizefighter’s from sun and wind.”
Author McConnell notes that after her trip, the novelty of transcontinental speed runs waned as traffic increased on the Lincoln Highway. City driving also picked up.
Sacramento was early-on a big automobile town, and women really started to motor during World War I, according to Sacramento librarian DeWilde.
“With men away at war, more women became solo drivers,” she said. “Just after Preuss completed her journey, the city had its first auto saleswoman, women served as drivers for the Red Cross, they drove and repaired tractors on Valley farms, and they took soldiers from Mather Field on auto tours of the city. Sacramento was a prime place for someone like Preuss to get her start.”
After she finished her coast-to-coast run, Preuss drove to Chicago to see her parents. Not much is known of the intrepid traveler after that, but a year after her trip a Sacramento Union story indicated she moved from the city:
“Cards were received on Sunday from Mr. and Mrs. John Preuss announcing the marriage of their daughter, Miss Amanda Preuss, to Asa C. Wilson on Wednesday, March 7, in Chicago, Ill.
“With the announcement came a dainty card bearing the information that Mr. and Mrs. Wilson would be at home after the first of May in their home, 3921 Worth Street, Dallas, Texas. Miss Preuss, who formerly resided in this city, is the girl who, unaccompanied, drove her automobile across the continent last summer.”