The Van Buren sisters on the road in 1916. Photos courtesy BMW Motorrad USA, Inc.
On July 4, 1916, sisters Adeline and Augusta Van Buren set off on a transcontinental journey from New York City to San Francisco, and ultimately, Los Angeles. While this is hardly enough to be remarkable, what is noteworthy is how the sisters traveled from coast to coast: riding a pair of 1,000cc Indian Power Plus motorcycles, on roads that were little more than dirt trails, at a time when women traveling without men were often viewed with suspicion. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Van Buren sisters’ trip, the Sisters Centennial Motorcycle Ride will retrace the journey to raise money for women’s charities.
If the name Van Buren rings a bell, it should: Adeline (who went by Addie) and Augusta (who went by Gussie) were descendants of U.S. President Martin Van Buren. Both “society girls” with a keen interest in U.S. affairs and women’s rights, the Van Buren sisters were aware of the country’s inevitable involvement in the war in Europe, and believed that women were just as capable as men in being dispatch riders for the military. Furthermore, by demonstrating that women could participate in the war effort, even in a non-combat role, the sisters believed this would eliminate one oft-repeated reason for disallowing women the right to vote.
As with every endeavor tackled by Addie and Gussie, their cross-country odyssey began with extensive and careful planning. To ensure both were up for the rigors of the road, the sisters practiced by taking ever longer excursions from their New York City home, on motorcycles believed to be the finest touring machines of their day. Though scandalous at the time, the women dressed in pants and leather riding breeches, far better suited to conditions than the otherwise required skirts and dresses.
Gussie (L) and Addie Van Buren.
Addie and Gussie departed from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, on July 4, 1916. The ride took them through Chicago and Omaha, across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. In Colorado, the sisters became the first women to reach the summit of Pikes Peak by motorcycle, before continuing west through Grand Junction and into the deserts of Utah and Nevada. On September 2, 1916, the pair reached San Francisco, ending the transcontinental portion of the trip, but opted to press on to Los Angeles, arriving on September 8. As if this weren’t enough, Addie and Gussie then rode south through San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico, in order to add a border crossing to their trip.
As recounted by the AMA’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame, the sisters faced numerous hazards along the way, including harsh weather and nearly impassable mud. Ruts (and sometimes fatigue) caused crashes, thankfully none producing serious injury. West of Salt Lake City, Addie and Gussie nearly ran out of water, a mistake that could have proven fatal in the summer heat. While any man running the same route would have experienced similar difficulties, the sisters also had to contend with several arrests in small Midwestern towns, for the now-laughable charge of wearing men’s clothes.
At the conclusion of the ride, Addie applied to the military to be a dispatch rider, assuming that published reports of the sisters’ trip would prove her qualifications. Her application was rejected, but perhaps worse was coverage of the trip in period motorcycling magazines. While writers praised the Indian Power Plus motorcycle and even its Firestone tires, the sisters’ two months of hardship was described in terms that made it sound like little more than an extended vacation.
Addie and Gussie continued to push boundaries in their lives, with Addie eventually earning a law degree from New York University and Gussie earning her pilot’s license and flying with a group founded by Amelia Earhart. For their pioneering transcontinental trip, the pair was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.
This year’s Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride, sponsored by BMW Motorrad USA, will depart from Brooklyn, New York, on July 3, and arrive in San Francisco on July 23. En route, the ride hopes to raise awareness and money for Final Salute, Inc., an organization that provides temporary and permanent housing to homeless women veterans; and the Women’s Coalition of Motorcyclists, which provides scholarships to increase the number of female motorcycle instructors and coaches.
Riders participating in this year’s event include Sofié Ruderman, Addie’s great-granddaughter, and Sarah Van Buren, the great-niece of the sisters. Participation in the ride is open to women only, and includes both a fully supported tour and individual segments of the trip. For additional information on the 2016 event, visit SistersMotorcycleRide.com.; for additional information on the Van Buren sisters, visit VanBurenSisters.com.