By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Then again, everything is relative as this post will attempt to explore. Cramped or stressful as airplane travel might be for us, it is often the best choice available. And for people needing to travel somewhere as quickly as possible in the 19th century, the fastest and most convenient way for them was by stagecoach. What is rather surprising, however, is that the reason they were able to get from Point A to Point B riding in a stagecoach at all was because of the US government’s determination to deliver mail out west in a more expeditious manner.
But when the Butterfield Overland Stage Company began its land-mail delivery, along with each stagecoach carrying up to 12,000 pieces of mail and freight, passengers were also aboard. Briefly, the company’s two main depots in the east were located in Memphis, Tennessee and St. Louis, Missouri. From there, stagecoaches traveled to Fort Smith, Arkansas then continued west through Indian Territory, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona toward their ultimate destination of California.
There is no denying the journey must have been a grueling, exhausting experience. Watch any western movie with a stagecoach travel scene in it and you can’t help but feel sorry for those poor people enduring mile after mile of bumpy rides, rattled teeth, motion sickness, and the overall physical discomfort and stress from sitting in such close quarters with a variety of other people you don’t know (some of whom likely bathed only once a year). And let’s not forget the ever-present dangers caused by weather, washed out roads, rock slides, and hostile Indians or outlaws. Schedules had to be kept, and often that meant the coach traveled at night. When the stage did take time to stop, it was only to change the horses. Any passenger who exited the stage to rest often found themselves waiting weeks until another stagecoach came through with space for them.
However, if you were traveling via the Butterfield Overland Stage Company, you had one thing in your favor – the vehicle in which you rode. The Butterfield Overland Stage Company owned 250 Concord Coaches...the most famous, reliable, well-built and comfortable coach of its day.
In the northeast of the United States in the early 1800s, horse-drawn wagons, sleds, hearses and carriages were essential, and there were three companies recognized for the manufacturing of such transportation for purchase, namely the James Gould Co. of Albany, New York, the Eaton & Gilbert Company of Troy, New York, and the Abbot-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire. Of these three companies, the most highly recognized and famous carriage maker was Abbot-Downing.
Born in June 1792, Lewis Downing, Jr. was the son of a tanner whose skill was often used for wagons and harnesses. However, by the age of 21, Lewis opted not to pursue the family trade in leather and began working as a wheelwright. The Downing family had relocated from Lexington, Massachusetts to Newburg, New York, and were living where the most highly traveled roads existed between Boston and New York. Among the businesses who capitalized on this location and its great demand for vehicles of transportation were the James Gould Co. in Albany, and the Eaton & Gilbert Company in Troy, New York.
It can only be theorized why Downing decided to begin his business career in New Hampshire. Quite possibly, he did not want to compete with the two primary businesses already well established. However, he was also engaged to a young woman with family in New Hampshire. Whatever the reason, in 1813 Downing established a wheelwright company in Concord, New Hampshire.
In little time, catalogues were printed up and although the company manufactured several horse-drawn wagons including the overland wagon and a wagon that resembled a trolley-type design, their original coaches were the big sellers. Listed in the company’s catalogue as the ‘mail coach’ – these coaches became so popular they soon were known by the name of the city from whence they came into being…Concord.
What separated the Concord Coach apart from other stagecoach designs was their original suspension. Until the Concord Coach came along, coaches (and wagons) used metal springs, but they did little to prevent the harsh jarring of the vehicle or the constant uncomfortable bouncing up and down ride passengers experienced.
In the 20 year period from 1827 to 1847, over 700 Concord Coaches were manufactured by the company. However, in 1847 the company’s two founders parted ways. Historians have speculated that the depression of 1838 and its effect on the company’s finances might have prompted the decision although it is also altogether possible the split resulted from “creative differences”.
Abbot retained possession of the company’s buildings on Main Street in Concord, and renamed the business, J.S. Abbot. Lewis Downing moved his new business, named L. Downing & Sons, across the street and (as the name implies) became partners with his sons. Although one might think the close proximity of these two separate companies caused problems, the two businesses functioned ‘peacefully’.
Twenty years later, in 1865, both Downing and Abbot retired, leaving their businesses to their children. Ironically, their children decided to join forces again and became Abbot Downing & Company then simply The Abbot Downing Company.
You may be lucky enough to find a preserved Concord Coach in your area, or perhaps used during a western celebration. However, if your travels ever take you to in Concord, New Hampshire, be sure to check out the Abbot-Downing Historical Society and its museum barn in Hopkington, New Hampshire where various models of the Concord Coach are on display.
Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed the history of the remarkable coach that first traveled across the United States. ~ AKB
The Abbot-Downing Historical Society, Concord, NH
Abbot-Downing and the Concord Coach (Harry N. Scheiber, New Hampshire Historical Society - 1965)