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Not my family's story

Apr 17, 2012 1:23 PM | 2 comments

A beginner in genealogy, I recently set out to explore my family's history. Knowing they have lived in Brooklyn for generations, my first idea was to head downstairs to "the morgue," the dead files of the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper that closed its doors in 1955. (Library staff will do similar searches for anyone who wants them. Just call the Brooklyn Collection during our open hours 718 230 2762.) When the trip led me to a clipping titled "Dahl, Theodore--Dead," I thought I had found information on my great-grandfather, Theodore Dahl.  But it turned out instead to be another man of the same name, and when I delved a little deeper, the clipping led me to a convoluted story involving the transit system, a New York City Mayor, an assault and a suicide.

Gerhard Melvin Dahl, 1938 

To start, let me introduce Gerhard Melvin Dahl, brother of the Theodore Dahl who was NOT my great grandfather. Gerhard was a transit executive from Cleveland and later New Orleans who moved to New York City in 1912.  In New York, he landed several jobs including Vice President of the Electric Bond and Share Company and Vice President of Chase National Bank. In 1923 he was elected Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) Corporation during its reorganization.  Later he was named Director of the BMT serving until 1943.  His position with BMT would prove to be a successful albeit controversial time in his career and personal life.  

Transit Truths

 In 1924 during his first year as chairman, Gerhard penned Transit Truths, where he explained the problems the BMT faced and laid out plans for new subway construction, extended bus lines, and justified the need for unpopular fare increases.  He blamed Mayor John Hylan for the issues the BMT faced.


It was said that Mayor Hylan had a grudge against the transit system.  Before his tenure as mayor, while he was studying for his law degree, he worked as a locomotive conductor for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT).  In 1897, he was caught reading his law books while at the helm--some say he almost ran over his supervisor--and was fired.  According to some observers, Hylan took his revenge when he became Mayor. Gerhard Dahl thought that Hylan deliberately starved the BRT of city funding and would not allow an increase of the longstanding 5¢ fare, which would have funded new subway cars and construction.  After the demise of the BRT, Hylan went on to attack Dahl and the BMT.  Dahl fought back in his book stating:

     "Almost from the very beginning, however, the BMT has met with the bitter, personal and unfair opposition of Mayor Hylan with the result that there is no other alternative for the Company than that of continuing its dual program of giving the best service possible with existing facilities subject to political manipulation and at the same time giving full information to the public.  The people themselves will settle the transit problem with they understand the facts." 

Hylan was not against all transit initiatives, arguing for a tunnel between Staten Island and Brooklyn.  Construction began in 1923 and was quickly abandoned due to financial and logistical issues.  The entrance holes, which still remain in Bay Ridge and Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island are now referred to as "Hylan's Folly" or "Hylan's Holes." (Some also lay blame on Hylan for delaying the construction of Brooklyn's Central Library--but that's another story.)


Controversy continued to follow Gerhard Dahl throughout his career.  In 1924, his name was connected with the murder of Louise Lawson, a young actress who was bound, gagged, robbed, and left for dead.  In 1927, he was accused of insider trading; and in 1933 he was accused of receiving illegal bonuses.

That same year, he was accused of assault.  The alleged victim claimed Dahl hit her in the face, arms and neck, kicked her and tore her clothing resulting in her becoming ill and disabled.  The case was dismissed, and Gerhard Dahl was proven innocent three years later.  In 1948, his name was once again thrown into the headlines--with the disappearance of his brother, Theodore.

Theodore Dahl lived a rather quiet life in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife.  He was a reserve Lieutenant Colonel for the United States Army and an Executive Vice President of the White Motor Company of Cleveland.  In 1948, while vacationing in Miami, Theodore went missing.  The New York Times and The Eagle reported the chain of events that led to his death.  Dahl complained to the boarding house owner, Mrs. E. Strong, that he lost a lot of money and was worried about his financial situation.  Two days before he disappeared, he told Mrs. Strong he was going to Palm Beach.  Upon his return, he claimed he was robbed of $1,500 and was thrown into the ocean.  Later that night, he left a note in his room indicating that his remaining belongings should be donated to the Salvation Army.  That was the last anyone heard from him.  On March 23, 1948, The Eagle reported, he "disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Miami." 

In February 1948, a body was found next to train tracks, apparently struck by a train.  The body had no identification and was buried in a paupers grave.  It was not until a missing persons report was filed on February 27 that the body was identified as Theodore Dahl, based on Army records and fingerprints.  Theodore was 61-years-old.

So that is the story of the other Dahls.  As for my great-grandfather--I will just have to keep on looking.


4/20/2012 11:21:58 AM #

Great blog, Christine!  This is so interesting!


6/8/2012 3:46:58 PM #

Super interesting post on a little known aspect of NY's transit history. Would love to see more posts like this in the future.