Bernard A. Drew| Our Berkshires: 'George,' Mrs. Westinghouse said...
GREAT BARRINGTON — Imagine the conversations at the breakfast table at Erskine Park, overlooking Laurel Lake in Lee, early 1900s, between George Westinghouse (1846-1914) and his wife, Marguerite Erskine Walker Westinghouse (1842-1914). They had a home in Pittsburgh, but were often at their retreat Solitude in White Plains, N.Y., at Erskine Park or, winters, at Blaine House in Washington, D.C. They traveled between the various homes in the private rail car called Gleneyre.
George attended Union College and served as a naval engineer during the Civil War. His compressed air brake (1869) and other railroad, gas distribution and telephone switching patents and his advocacy of alternating current (prevailing over Thomas Edison by 1890) earned him millions. At the 100th anniversary of the American patent system in 1936, he was proclaimed one of the country's dozen greatest inventors.
Mrs. W loved her country home here, a "white marble villa, the material from quarries on her 600-acre estate on Laurel lake in the midst of landscape gardens of which she was not only the inspiration but the actual designer. For 25 years she spent her summers in Lenox, and [was] the Lady Bountiful of the neighborhood," the Detroit Free Press said.
The Westinghouses had first come to the Berkshires in 1888, and not long after acquired the Schenck, Clark and Hunt farms. Mrs. W planned the driveways, artificial ponds and bridges on the 600-acre estate. "She wore white in all seasons. Her automobiles were upholstered in white, her furniture in her homes in Lenox, Washington and in Pittsburgh were covered with white. This color was paramount in her gardens, although other colors were not sacrificed there to produce effect," The New York Times said.
George was a titan of industry. At home, however, he listened to Marguerite.
Do you supposed one day in 1903 she said, "George, when the horse pulls the mower over the lawn, it makes rude deposits from time to time."
Immersed in his newspaper, George replied, "I will take care of it, dear."
The next summer, as Mrs. W. "opened the social season at Lenox by a large and brilliant reception in honor of Lady Durand and Miss Durand Mr. Westinghouse is the envy of all the owners of other large estates in the Berkshires by his introduction of horseless lawn mowers, which are keeping the lawns of his beautiful place, `Erskine Park,' in perfect order," The Evening Star reported. The mowers were electric, of course."
George," Mrs. W might have said another day, "you know, our Waverly won't go very far on its small battery, and the Winton is open to the elements. Do you suppose you could invent a better car?""
Edison and I talked about making a car back in 1901," George muttered. "We were going to have the bodies made by Studebaker. But Tom was more interested in making batteries than cars."
Westinghouse had already acquired patents held by Hub Motors Co. in order to manufacture electric bus chasses. His Pittsburgh engineers planned a few electric passenger vehicles, but the focus turned to gasoline-powered alternatives. French autos were highly respected. So he had his French branch operation, Soci t Anonyme des Automobiles Westinghouse, built Model 40 touring cars and limousines from 1904 to 1912. They were designed in Pittsburgh, manufactured in Le Havre and exported to the United States. They sold for $7,500.
Marguerite was a bit inventive herself.
As rugged as her auto was, it was no match for Berkshire snowdrifts. In February 1907, with her son, George Westinghouse III, who was recovering from typhoid fever, she "started from Erskine Park today for Pittsfield in her French touring car. In the event of her getting stalled in snow drifts she took along Supt. Edward J. Norman of the Erskine Park estate and four assistant snow shovelers, besides the chauffeur," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
"All went well until they were opposite Mrs. William H. Bradford's villa, Wayside, on the State Road. There the snow was piled up five feet deep. The shovelers got busy and it took them half an hour to dig out the car. Half a mile further on they got stuck again, with the same result. Mrs. Westinghouse arrived in Pittsfield at 1 o'clock after having been two hours and a half going eight miles."
Mrs. Westinghouse became a proponent for good roads. When Jacob's Ladder was opened in September 1914, a straighter, drier route than ever before, she raised an American flag at the Becket summit. Mrs. Westinghouse so enjoyed the dedication, she brought George back once a year for a daybreak flag-raise.
Did she become dissatisfied with the Westinghouse limo? Did she say, "The motor car is jarring to ride," one morning at breakfast in 1910? Westinghouse came up with an air spring, which he said would relieve wear on tires by 60 percent. Westinghouse Machine Co. put the shock absorber into production.
Westinghouse died in Manhattan in 1914. Three months later, his wife died at Erskine Park, having two years previous suffered a paralytic stroke while attending a Lenox Garden Club meeting at Overlee. Both are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.
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