On the road

Vacation Testing Ground: Early Women Tourists in Nevada

Shery Hayes-Zorn, curator of the museum artifact Collection and Peter Kopp, the guest curator of the Vacation Testing Ground exhibit at the Nevada Historical Society Museum.

Shery Hayes-Zorn, curator of the museum artifact Collection and Peter Kopp, the guest curator of the Vacation Testing Ground exhibit at the Nevada Historical Society Museum.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

In the spring of 1919, Beatrice Massey and her husband decided to travel from New York to San Francisco by car. She writes in It Could Have Been Worse that she had “motor fever,” and within 10 days of her decision, they were off.

They eventually reached Nevada, and she describes the day as “the worst experience of the trip,” calling Nevada a “God forsaken desert.” Massey and her husband finally shipped their car to Reno and boarded a train in Montello, Nev., the closest city, 115 miles away. Essentially saying, forget Nevada, we’re taking a train.

Massey’s story is one of many on display at the Nevada Historical Society Museum’s exhibit, Vacation Testing Ground: Early Women Tourists in Nevada. Like Massey, many women came through Nevada to get to San Francisco. In their travel logs, they reveal what Nevada was like nearly 100 years ago.

Guest curator Peter Kopp’s exhibit has compiled numerous stories of these women tourists and found correlating photographs from magazines, prints or maps of what these early women tourists would have seen of Nevada at the time. The writings linked with the photographs draw a nearly complete picture of Nevada during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Kopp, who is also a doctoral student of environmental and public history, says many of the stories act as a study in landscape theory. The physical world can connect to the culture and experiences of a period.

“It’s the idea that landscape isn’t something that essential,” says Kopp. “It’s changing, it’s malleable.”

Kopp chose to study women because, in many cases, women, who were the passengers, were also the record keepers of many of these trips. But the exhibit reaches beyond simple stories and photographs.

First, it examines women who saw Nevada from behind train windows. Second, it examines women once they have gotten behind the wheel. The change represents a shift in women’s roles.

“Women were protected in these cars,” says Mella Harmon, curator of history for the Nevada Historical Society. “And here these women are allowed to be outside and challenge themselves physically.”

In some ways, the train can be a symbol of public domesticity, says Harmon, and the transition to the outside was like the transition out of the Victorian women’s role to a new women’s role.

In 1909, Alice Ramsey was even paid by an automobile company to travel across the United States. The company proclaimed, “Even women can drive.”

“It’s just a more immediate experience,” says Kopp. “You feel the weather, you smell the trees. In the Pullman cars, they’re talking about how nice the curtains are.”

The photographs are eerily similar to what you might find today. Nevada’s quintessential sagebrush desert and lonesome hillsides are still seen from a 100 years ago. Nothing about traveling in the Nevada desert seems changed.

A map of the major highways and travel routes reveals a Nevada not that different from today. Reno and Las Vegas are still highly traveled areas, with hardly any routes or population in between. For many of the women, Lake Tahoe acted as the long-awaited reward to such a grueling journey.

“They traveled across the state and, ‘Oh, this is horrible,'” says Kopp. “Then, ‘Oh, Lake Tahoe! We’ve finally made it.'”

Effie Gladding’s recollection of Nevada is a favorite for Kopp. Regardless of how others saw Nevada, she knew how people felt about Nevada back then, much like today.

“The land about us was dreary and desolate,” Gladding writes. “And yet had its own charm.”