Bernard A. Drew: Rebellious teen driver raced Berkshire highways

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GREAT BARRINGTON >> Katherine D. Dahlgren (1894-1966), daughter of Eric Sr. Bernard Dahlgren and Lucy Wharton Drexel Dahlgren of New York City and granddaughter of Admiral John H. Dahlgren, motored the roads of Lenox and Berkshire, sometimes incautiously. She was fined $36 in Lee District Court on July 23, 1915, the Boston Daily Globe reported, "on a charge of overspeeding her racing automobile in Stockbridge Sunday . Miss Dahlgren promised to reduce the speed of her car and to have the muffler repaired so it will not annoy the populace."

As the Globe noted in a story two days later, 18-year-old Dahlgren took her Lenox colony friends "for dashes at more than a mile a minute on narrow highways, unbanked for racing, with 120 horsepower unleashed and a bit of a girl back under the high hood holding this force within bounds."

The description of her transport as a race car wasn't an exaggeration. She didn't drive just any old putt-putt. She had paid $3,000 for the speedster that had won the 500-mile meet in Elgin, Ill.

"The machine is capable of 90 miles an hour and with the exception of once slipping out of the road on Three Mile Hill, in Great Barrington, and knocking down a few lengths of fence, an accident that might happen to any driver, she has met with no mishaps," the Globe said.

Stout-lunged car

One friend who had ridden shotgun with the miss described the car "as yellow as grass butter in June time. On either side of the car there stands out in almost bold relief the numerals '20.' Under the hood there are four big cylinders: they are stout-lunged and the gear is high." The car was equipped with a bench seat. It had no roof or running board.

The friend described her ride: "We slipped out into the highway. Starting off there had been a rattle of explosions like a bunch of firecrackers, but once under way the motor began to purr. It was beginning to be fed rations of gas and the car was as soft-footed as a kitten."

The driver, by the companion's account, bore "the expression of speed mania. Her head was bent forward and there was a steely glint in her eyes. The mouth was compressed, the whole expression was one of excessive concentration. Muscles in her forearms stood out and it was evident that almost every bit of strength that this girl possessed was exerted in holding this car within bounds."

When they came to a stop, Dahlgren "wiped her face with her handkerchief. 'That's the worst of it,' she said. "I've had the mudguards changed, but still it throws such a lot of dirt. But how did you like it? Isn't it fun?'"

The exuberant young woman, with hair as yellow as her car, was of medium height, "of the greyhound type," by one description.

In August 1915 she answered the challenge of George E. Turnure Jr. of Lenox, who, having acquired a racing motorcycle in Pittsfield, wanted to see if the Harley-Davidson could really do 60 miles an hour. They decided to race on a state highway at an early hour. According to one account, they planned to ask authorities for permission, "as there is no intention to violate the laws." Sure.

Mamma worried

"I simply couldn't take a dare from Mr. Turnure, particularly as I have driven my little yellow roadster at better than 60 miles an hour many times," she is quoted in the Wichita Daily Eagle for Oct. 21, 1915. "If it is safe for a man to run a motorcycle at a faster clip than that, a girl ought to be able to go him one better with a powerful engine and four wheels. Mamma doesn't want me to take any risks, but dear Mamma doesn't know that it is perfectly safe to drive a car fast when you know the roads perfectly.

"All the village constables for miles around are watching us to prevent the race, but it will be over before they get through shining up their badges."

Turnure, as it turned out, was seriously injured on his motorcycle while readying for the contest. There was no race.

Dahlgren would soon get beyond her rebellious phase. She would serve with Emergency Services during World War I. She would raise two daughters, one each with husbands Oliver Eaton Cromwell Jr. and then Richard Emmet.

But in 1915 Dahlgren was in hot water. The Massachusetts Highway Commission suspended her driver's license, according to The New York Times on Oct. 17. "She was three times in the Lee District Court on charges of speeding, operating her automobile in a dangerous manner, and driving the car with the muffler cut off. She was fined on two charges, the rest being filed."

She was obliged to turn in her motor vehicle license No. 23,229.

She said she might buy an airplane next.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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