Transportation pioneer Augusta Van Buren was born in New York City. She and her sister Adeline, who was born in 1889, jointly undertook a record-setting motorcycle journey across the continental United States in 1916. (The sisters were descendants of Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. president.)
Augusta and Adeline were active in the Preparedness Movement, which focused on strengthening U.S. military capacities in anticipation of the nation’s eventual entry into World War I. As a part of their participation in the Preparedness Movement, the sisters wanted to prove that women could ride motorcycles as well as men can and were therefore well-qualified to serve as military messengers using that mode of transportation.
To prove their point, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren embarked on a cross-country trip on individual Indian Power Plus motorcycles that were each equipped with gas headlights and Firestone tires. “GIRLS TO CROSS NATION,” announced a headline of a Detroit Free Press article reporting on their departure for the west coast from Sheepshead Bay racetrack in Brooklyn, New York, on July 4, 1916.
Over the next 66 days, Augusta and Adeline – courting controversy by dressing themselves in military-style leggings and leather riding breeches – made their way across the United States despite plenty of obstacles. “Impossible roads, unseasonable weather, and difficulties in untold number and magnitude were encountered at every turn,” recounted the Pennsylvania-based Harrisburg Telegraph. “Washouts, mountain slides, desert wastes and wrecked bridges delayed them but did not deter them.” One of the sisters’ biggest accomplishments en route to California took place when they became the first women on any type of motorized vehicle to reach the 14,109-foot (4300-meter) summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Augusta and Adeline’s coast-to-coast trek came to an end when they reached Los Angeles on September 8. Their trip of more than 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers) made them the first women to ride solo motorcycles across the continental United States. The previous year, Effie Hotchkiss had become the first woman to complete a transcontinental motorcycle journey across the United States; she did so, however, with her mother as a sidecar passenger.
Following the completion of their journey and several days of fun south of the border in Tijuana, Augusta and Adeline headed back home. The Harrisburg Telegraph reported, “The young ladies returned to New York by train, where Miss Adeline resumes her position in the public schools New York [as a teacher] and Miss Augusta returns to her position as head of the stenographic department of a large New York business establishment.”
In an ironic twist of fate, Adeline’s subsequent application to be a motorcycle-riding military messenger was rejected. Neither of the sisters evidently continued riding motorcycles to any significant degree and instead pursued other interests. Adeline eventually earned her law degree from New York University; she died in 1949.
Augusta, for her part, looked to the skies for a new mode of transportation worth trying and learned how to fly planes. She became an active member of the Ninety-Nines, the organization of women pilots that was founded in 1929 by Amelia Earhart and other female aviation trailblazers. Augusta ultimately settled in Delaware and, at the time of her death in 1959 at the age of 75, she was identified as her adopted home state’s oldest woman pilot.
Augusta once summarized her can-do philosophy by stating, “Woman can if she will.” In 2002, she and Adeline were inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
For more information on Augusta and Adeline Van Buren and their historic 1916 motorcycle journey, please check out http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=285&lpos=0px&letter=V&txtFname=&rblFname=S&txtLname=&rblLname=S&discipline=0.