Friday, November 30, 2012

THE CONCORD COACH – THE FIRST STAGECOACH ACROSS THE WEST

By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

During the month of November, many people traveled far distances to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with family members. Some took to highways and drove ‘over the river and through the woods’. Yet, the need to get somewhere quickly forced many of us to take the quickest route possible via trains or airplanes. Much as we might grumble or complain about inflated prices, delays, overbooked, or even cancelled flights, as well as increased security measures and cramped seating on airplanes where amenities like complimentary pillows, blankets, cold beverages and a bag of peanuts have become almost extinct, traveling cross country these days is a joy ride compared to what our ancestors experienced in the 19th century.

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.
Before 15 September 1857, when the US Post Office accepted the Butterfield Overland Stage Company’s bid and awarded them the much prized contract to transport mail out west by land, delivery was both time-consuming and a rather complicated process. Mail was first taken by ship to the Gulf of Mexico and Panama, and then transported to a freighter where it was carried across the Pacific, only to be ultimately shipped back to the west coast on yet another vessel. And if you were a person wanting to get to San Francisco, this would have been your best choice at that time.

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.

Points of departure out west were San Francisco and Tipton, California. Every Monday and Thursday, the Overland stage began its long (often dangerous) journey across country from both directions. The fare for a one-way trip was a very expensive $200.00, and one could expect to reach their destination roughly about 22-25 days later.

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.

Names of various stage companies might have changed, but not the type of coach they used. In 1860 when Wells Fargo took over the stage routes from Butterfield Overland, the name emblazoned on the side of their stagecoaches might have said Wells Fargo, but the vehicle was still a prized Concord Coach. In fact, the Wells Fargo bank still bears the coach as its logo today. And when the Iron Horse made its rather dominating appearance carrying passengers, mail, and freight across the American West, traveling by stagecoach still continued and the Concord Coach led the way.

But how did this remarkable, innovative coach come about?

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.

By 1827, his precise skill as a wheelwright made the company prosper greatly. At this time, with an ever-increasing interest in coach making, Downing sought the services of a craftsman who built the bodywork for coaches. J. Stephens Abbot was retained for a limited time only, but during that period the two men designed three coaches.

The design and quality of the three coaches were impressive and Downing soon started receiving numerous orders for purchase. Since he was in the wheelwright business, not surprisingly Downing asked J. Stephens Abbot to return and assist him in a new venture. In 1828, the Downing & Abbot Company was founded.

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.

However, the Concord Coach used an original and very innovative “Thorough Leather Braces” system comprised of thick leather straps beneath the carriage which created a gentle back and forth swaying ride. None other than Mark Twain described traveling in a Concord Coach akin to being in a ‘cradle on wheels’.

Coaches were custom ordered and featured beautifully painted exterior body work and mural imagery on the doors, intricate light boxes, and interiors ranging from leather to silk. Concord Coaches came in three different sizes and there were three design models from which to choose. Sizes included six, nine and twelve passenger coaches, which could be made in the company’s City, Western, or Hotel design. The average price for a Concord Coach was approximately $1200.00, roughly an estimated $30,000 to $40,000 per coach by today's calculations.

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.

The excellent reputation of the Concord Coach was recognized not just as the official coach for the Butterfield Overland Stage and Wells Fargo Companies, but was shipped to other parts of the world, including South America, Australia, and even Africa. The Abbot Downing Company continued to build their coaches until 1898, at which time their services were replaced by trains, streetcars, and automobiles.

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

Resources:
The Abbot-Downing Historical Society, Concord, NH
Abbot-Downing and the Concord Coach (Harry N. Scheiber, New Hampshire Historical Society - 1965)

18 comments:

  1. What a great post, Ashley. Now I know why several of my relatives live in Tipton, California. I also know that the coach in our local Heritage Museum is a reproduction Concord Coach. It was built and donated by the late Jay Brown, whose coaches were used in movies and for western events like rodeos and parades. Now that he's passed away, his heirs are trying to reclaim the valuable stagecoach to sell. I hope they decide to let the museum keep it.

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  2. Thanks, Carolyn. I hope Mr. Brown's coach stays in the museum where everyone can enjoy it. :)

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  3. Fascinating, Ashley. I do know of the Concord Coach, but not in this much detail. I confess, I'm one of those travelers who avoid flying anymore for all those reason you mentioned. In comparison, sure, we have a very luxurious ride.
    I was wondering how often the stage stopped, and by your decription it seemed...not very often. I don't know how long horses can go without resting.
    But the stagecoach held such allure in all those Westerns we watched growing up--they were always getting robbed.
    Thanks, once again, for a wonderful post. The photos were excellent.

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  4. Love your post, Ashley. My fifth book is based on a real life driver out in my area in the Sierra Mountains. She drove the coaches as a man, wore an eye patch and when she died and they discovered he was a she, it was a shock to everyone. Just goes to show you a woman can do more things than they expected in those days.

    We have several coaches here. Our Doc Weiser drives one in Placerville during the Christmas season and takes passengers around a couple of city streets and he always has a Christmas tree tied on top. It's a great coach, but I'm not sure which brand. Wells Fargo does use it in advertising so I am guessing it might be a Concord.

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  5. What wonderful, detailed information, Ashley! I'm sure I'll be checking back here in future!

    I rode in an authentic stage at Knotts Berry Farm years ago. I felt so bad for the horses LOL. Nearby us is a little restaurant that is an original stage stop! Cold Spring Tavern is one of our favorite places.

    Excellent post.

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  6. Hi Celia - I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I am not sure how often the stage stopped but I've read they traveled anywhere from 5-9 miles per hour. Conditions like the speed of the horses, weather and road conditions, the weight of passengers and mail, etc., would all affect how often teams of horses had to be changed. They had schedules to meet and often drove at night to make up time. I did read some interesting advice noted for coach passengers to make their ride more comfortable, including bathing their feet in cold water before the journey, and wearing loose shoes and gloves. But when it came to the schedule and relay stations, it did say: "Don't ask how far it is to the next station until you get there." LOL Another comment I enjoyed was, "Don't swear or lop over on your neighbor while sleeping."

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  7. Hi Paisley - Thank you for your comment. I've not heard of this woman driver for the overland stage, but it sounds like a fascinating story. And your Doc Weiser in Placerville sounds like another great character, too. :)

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  8. Thanks, Tanya. I am glad you found the information interesting and helpful. :)

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  9. Ashley, this is such an interesting post--you always write about the most interesting things! One year I took the kids to the Chuckwagon Cook Off at the western heritage museum here in Oklahoma City and they were giving stagecoach rides. We got in and rode for about 20 minutes and it was quite the experience. I can't imagine doing that on an extended trip. It was over Memorial Day weekend when we went, and was already so hot! Everyone was sure glad to get out of there. LOL Quite an experience, for sure.
    Cheryl

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  10. Another excellent post from you, Ashley! Thanks for sharing with us. When I was a kid there was a TV program called Tales of Wells Fargo, starring Dale Robertson if I recall correctly. The Concord coach played a big part in the stories.

    Lyn

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  11. I can't imagine traveling by stage coach. Besides being claustrophobic, I don't like being in close quarters with other people. Just ask my hubby and sister and brother-in-law. I made them walk three miles back to our motel in San Francisco because I couldn't stand to be in a crowd any longer and bailed off a bus coming from a 49ers football game.

    Great info and photos!

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  12. Hi Paty - I can understand the claustrophbic feeling. Interestingly enough, the Concord coach that Wells Fargo used was a nine passenger model. There was one row for 3 people facing forward with a backrest, another row for 3 people facing backwards with a backrest, and a center bench for 3 people with no back. Each person had 15 inches of room. Commercial airlines today only give passengers 17-18" of room. But at least on the stagecoach you would have an opportunity to rest and even walk. There were times when the stage driver would ask passengers to get out and walk a bit due to how tired the horses might be. :)

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  13. Thank you very much, Lyn. I definitely learned alot about traveling by stage doing research for this post. Can't wait to use some of it in my writing now. There are ways to check as to whether a stagecoach is a Concord coach, mainly the suspension. The wheels were also exceptional. Since Downing was a wheelwright before he got into the coach business, his wheels were known for their high level of quality and precision, and mostly all done by hand. The type of wood used for the coach itself and the lack of iron were also factors. They kept the use of iron to a minimum due to its weight. :)

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  14. Hi Cheryl - I love going to western themed events like Pioneer Days and Chuckwagon Cook-Offs. They do this often in the Historic Stockyards of Fort Worth, and one such event plays an important role in my Western Time Travel, WHISPER IN THE WIND (which will be released in early 2013). :)

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  15. What a great post. I've just gotten back from driving a trip of 1200 miles. It took two days of driving 10 hours a day with meal,bathroom breaks and overnight stays in Memphis. I can't imagine how long it would have taken if we only traveled 16 miles a day.

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  16. Hi Ruby - Thank you for your kind comment. Glad to hear you are back safely. Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving with family. :)

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  17. Every time I think of people traveling back then I think of how brave they were. So much could go wrong! And there were no Stuckey's to stop at for potty breaks.

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  18. It's so true, Diane. They were risking their lives on those journeys, especially as we know how fast and severe weather can turn, and hostility from American Indians who resented losing their lands and way of life. Anything could happen from illness to bad water or horses coming up lame. I often Imagine what all those people would think about our time and the advantages we have today on so many levels. Thanks for stopping by. :)

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