Stagecoaching’s star vehicle…

An honest look at the Concord Coaches that were the mainstay of stagecoach service in Illinois and the rest of the Old Northwest from the 1830s through the 1850s, would make it difficult to envision a more impractical vehicle to negotiate the region’s primitive roads.

Although advertised as the epitome of the coachbuilder’s art, Concord Coaches were top-heavy, narrow, and by most accounts of those who rode in them, some of the most uncomfortable traveling vehicles ever devised. Despite these seemingly fatal disadvantages, the coaches soldiered on for some 75 years after their development, basically unchanged in appearance.

I’ve always figured their remarkable longevity was due to their sturdy construction that enabled them to withstand years of abuse. Also, while their high ground clearance resulted in a tendency to overturn over with dismaying frequency, it also allowed them to ford shallow streams without soaking their passengers and clear the obstacles that dotted the nation’s primitive road system in the 1830s and 1840s.

Concord Coaches were built by the Abbot-Downing Company in Concord, N.H., and weighed about 2,000 lbs. each. While other coachbuilders—including those located in and around Troy, New York—soon copied Abbot-Downing’s design, Concord Coaches remained stagecoaching’s top-of-the-line vehicles until the era finally ended.

Lewis Downing got his start in the transportation business as a wheelwright. An advertisement in the New Hampshire Patriot on Aug. 3, 1813, announced that: “Lewis Downing respectfully informs the inhabitants of Concord and its vicinity that he has commenced the wheelwright business in Concord where he flatters himself that by strict and constant attention to business and the correct and faithful manner in which his work will be executed to merit the patronage of the public. N.B. Carriages of all kinds repaired on the shortest notice.”

By 1816, Downing’s business had turned into one of Concord’s major businesses, one that kept on growing along with the region’s network of roads. Thanks to that confluence, by 1825, Concord had become a passenger transport center for New England.

Like the businessman he was, Downing observed there was a need for an improved coach to carry passengers on the routes that were expanding throughout the area. In conversation with his father-in-law, Jonathan Wheelock, who was a stage driver on the Concord–Boston route, Downing’s ideas on coach design began to take shape. With a concept in hand, he turned to wagonwright J. Stephen Abbot, who apparently became intrigued with Downing’s plans. The two quickly decided to build three coaches to test the market. The first advertisement announcing their new Concord Coach appeared in June of 1827.

The project proved an almost immediate success, spurring Abbot to permanently relocate to New Hampshire. The two started their formal partnership Jan. 1, 1828, calling the new firm Abbot and Downing. For the next two decades the partners built Concord Coaches until the pair split, apparently amicably, in 1848. Downing retired in 1865, leaving his son, Lewis Downing Jr., in charge of the firm. The younger Downing merged his company with the J.S. and E.A. Abbot Company to form the Abbot-Downing Company, and the new firm soon became the most powerful in the industry. Coaches, wagons, and carriages were built under the company’s nameplate until 1919.

This highly detailed model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach includes all the major details, including the vehicles' top-heavy tendencies when loaded with passengers and their luggage.

This highly detailed model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach includes all the major details, including the vehicles’ top-heavy tendencies when loaded with passengers and their luggage.

As originally designed by Downing, the flat-topped oval-shaped coach bodies rested on strong three inch thick, six inch wide rawhide straps called thorough-braces in lieu of springs. The double braces created a loose hammock-like suspension system easy on horses but hard on passengers.

In his humor classic Roughing It, Mark Twain described the Concord Coach as “a cradle on wheels,” rocking on its thorough braces instead of bouncing on steel springs. Others were far less forgiving about the quality of the ride.

Coach wheels were made of well-seasoned white oak. Coach bodies were heavily and solidly built of hardwood strengthened with iron bands—which also tended to accentuate the vehicles’ awkward top-heaviness.

The coach body had one door on each side featuring a glass window. The doors were each flanked by two open windows. Adjustable leather or canvas curtains on the windows slightly impeded the passage of, but did not keep out, the dust and wind, let alone snow or rain. When the passengers closed the curtains, they made the interior pitch-dark and airless. When open, the wind, Illinois’ numerous insects, and other indignities annoyed the passengers.

Undercarriages were typically painted bright yellow, but coach body colors were the purchaser’s choice. Typical colors were scarlet red and green. Reportedly, those were the colors the largest Midwestern stage company, Frink, Walker & Company, chose for their coaches.

Each coach body included a triangle-shaped leather boot at the rear that covered a small cargo space on the exterior plus another cargo area on the flat coach roof. The driver’s seat was unprotected and only about eight inches lower than the roof.

Coach interiors typically measured slightly over four feet in width and about four and a half feet in height. The three seats—front and rear facing bench seats and a center backless bench seat—were upholstered and could seat nine to 12 passengers, depending on size and weight. An additional passenger could sit beside the driver. Unlike coaches seen in Western films, Illinois coaches did not carry armed guards; the driver was the only company employee aboard.

Baggage and the all-important mail portmanteau, which could weigh up to 200 lbs. all by itself, were loaded into the boot and strapped to the top of the coach, creating a further imbalance.

Coach horses were of medium weight, probably averaging about 1,200 lbs. According to several sources, local farmers made a fair profit selling horses to the stage lines. Frink & Walker apparently raised their own horses on the land they owned all across their network of stage lines, including here in Kendall County.

Sitting as high off the ground as they did, Concord Coaches were well-suited for traveling over the stumps and large rocks that dotted Illinois’ early roads. Generally, large trees were cut to about 14 inches above the ground, so vehicles had to have plenty of clearance to negotiate the region’s roads.

But the combination of a high center of gravity caused by its tall aspect and heavy construction, aggravated by the addition of up to a dozen passengers (some usually adding to the instability by sitting atop the coach), their belongings, a few hundred pounds of mail, assorted freight, and the driver, made stagecoaches prone to overturning. No one was immune from the experience, from Indian chiefs to famed politicians.

After the Black Hawk War of 1832, the U.S. Government sent the Sauk warrior Black Hawk on a tour of eastern cities to impress upon him how large, powerful, and full of people the United States were. Black Hawk’s coach overturned. As the old warrior recalled the incident in his memoirs: “We had traveled but a short distance [from Wheeling, West Virginia] before our carriage turned over, from which I received a slight injury, and the soldier had one arm broken. I was sorry for this accident, as the young man had behaved well.”

Similarly, the great Henry Clay was involved in a stagecoach accident, also in Pennsylvania, near Uniontown. The coach turned over, the driver was thrown clear, but broke his nose when he landed. Clay climbed from the coach, brushed himself off, and quipped that due to the accident, the Clay of Kentucky had been mixed with the limestone of Pennsylvania.

So, imperfect as they were, Concord Coaches became the most recognizable form of mass transit in the years before rail lines snaked west of Chicago. And, in fact, the coaches continued to provide faithful, if uncomfortable, service, west of the Mississippi right up to the 20th Century. It was an enviable record in anyone’s book.

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Filed under Illinois History, People in History, Transportation

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