Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lost Abbot Downing Stagecoach?

There’s something about a mystery that’s spellbinding.  Questions, uncertainties, and lost national treasures have a way of nagging their way into the forefront of our minds.  Tracking down details of the unknown can be equally addictive and, for those following the trails of our past, there are plenty of discoveries still waiting to be uncovered.  Each comes with its own set of challenges while focused curiosity and sheer determination often deliver amazing results. 

Again and again, researching yesterday’s transportation has a way of bridging the past, helping us actually connect with and ‘hear’ what an old set of wheels has to say.  Reinforcing that point, some time back, I purchased several 19th century issues of “The Carriage Monthly.”  This early trade publication was a prominent voice inside America’s first transportation industry.  As such, the magazines are a treasure trove of insights and information.  Thumbing through the pages, I made note of pertinent articles; anything from patents and construction techniques to factory transitions, industry successes, and timber shortages.  Then, alongside a story dating to 1899, I noticed a poorly reproduced photo of an early Concord Coach.  The vehicle was said to be sitting in a rundown shed in Kentucky and the image looked similar to Abbot Downing’s western-style stagecoach.  Equipped with lights (small windows near the passenger doors), leather boots, a thorough-brace suspension, and baggage rack irons, the historic look of the piece is pure Americana.  Even so, at first glance, the stage didn’t seem overly distinct from other Concords.  As with any vehicle evaluation, though, it’s the details that make the difference. 

According to well-known Concord coach historian, Ken Wheeling, this old Abbot Downing stagecoach may date to as early as the 1840’s.

Looking closer, the body style lines of the old coach didn’t exactly match the contours of virtually all Concords that I’ve seen.  For instance, the twin body rails extending forward of the doors do not come together in a pointed fashion as is often the case with Abbot Downing designs.  It’s an interesting observation.  After all, even small details can share insights into a vehicle’s provenance, originality, timeframe of manufacture, and so forth.  In this case, the construction variances could be a reflection of several possibilities such as a particular buyer requirement, a repair to a damaged coach, or they could simply be indicators of an older Abbot Downing work.  Based on the 1899 article that I’ve transcribed below, the historic coach does seem to be among the earlier pieces built by Lewis Downing and J. Stephens Abbot in Concord, NH.  Those considerations may be sufficient to explain the differences between this particular piece and most of today’s surviving western Concords.  Yet, there is a lingering question… “Where is this coach today?”

With a little more research, I discovered that the account I stumbled across in “The Carriage Monthly” had actually ran – at least in part – in as many as three other local newspapers in 1898 – a full year earlier.  Even so, the timing was still long after the heydays of western coaching.  So, has this particular Concord survived?  I reached out to well-known stagecoach historian, Ken Wheeling, for answers.  Ken is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge related to Abbot Downing history and extant Concord coaches.  Coincidentally, as I pointed out in my July 13, 2016 blog, Ken has just written a new article about the oldest-known surviving Concord.  The story is scheduled to be in the October 2016 issue of the “Carriage Journal.”  (FYI… if you’re not already a subscriber to this magazine, the upcoming story is a good reason to make the call.) 

Okay, back to the Kentucky Concord story.  According to Ken, the old coach in the photo is a nine-passenger bag boot design.  Not being able to see the complete running gear, he couldn’t confirm whether the vehicle was built as a ‘western’ stage.  He noted that the coach does not appear to have a passenger seat on the roof immediately above the driver and agreed that the forward body rails/style lines being widely spaced were unusual in their position.  Close examination seems to confirm that the rear rails are also widely spaced.  Equally curious are the small windows – referred to as ‘lights’ – near the passenger doors.  Almost all western coaches will have a matching set of lights balancing each side of the center door.  The right side of this coach body is partially obscured but it almost appears as if there may not be a ‘light’ forward of the door.  It’s possible that the framed signage or photo is actually hiding the forward light but, as Ken pointed out, if the light is missing, it may have been an early construction variance or order distinction by a customer.  Whatever the case, we’ll continue working on the mysteries within the photo as well as what may have happened to the coach.  Regrettably, it was not a match with any surviving Concords known to Ken.  

As is the nature of so much of our research and Archive holdings, the bulk of this original information can be difficult to locate.  So, in an effort to share some of our findings, the following text is from “The Carriage Monthly” article as it last appeared almost 120 years ago…

“Under a weather-beaten shed in Bloomfield, KY., is an old dismantled stage coach which has a notable history.  If it were put on exhibition, it would be an object of curiosity and wonder to the people, not only of Kentucky, but of the United States.  This old stage has had many ups and downs during its time.  It was at first the property of Ham Jones, a noted stage driver away back in the thirties.  After the pike was built from Bloomfield to High Grove, (which, by the way, is the oldest highway in the State,) by the late Henry McKenna, a man who had a wide reputation as the originator of a famous brand of whisky, this stage was then run between Louisville and Bloomfield.

The old coach was built at Concord, N.H.  During the war it was captured many times by the Confederates and recaptured by the Federals.  It was also captured many times by the guerilla bands, led by Munday, Magruder, Quantrell, One-armed Berry and Captain Terrill, who robbed the passengers, plundered their baggage and destroyed the mails and freight.  Thousands of dollars in money were hidden in the cushions and trimmings of this old stage and carried to Louisville during the war.

Among the distinguished men who rode in it were Governor Charles A. Wickliffe, James Guthrie, Governor John L. Helm, Generals Buell, Phil. Sheridan, and Rousseau, and it is said that General John H. Morgan, on one of his raids through Nelson County, took passage on this stage to Louisville, where he remained for several days.

Many of the most noted stage drivers of ante bellum days have sat on the box of the old vehicle.  The following are the names of some of them who are still remembered by many of the older people along the route between Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn.:  Ham Jones, Charles Simpson, Lee Withrow, John Goodnight, John Martin, John Brown, Billie Hall, and Tim King.

John Showalter, of Mount Washington, who died about a year ago, and who claimed to be the oldest stage driver in the Southwest, also frequently engineered the old stage on its perilous trips during the war.  Mr. Showalter, at the time of his death, was ninety years old, and could relate many interesting stories of the old stage-coaching days.  He began driving on the line between Bardstown and Nashville, Tenn., in the twenties, and during that time carried more prominent men than any other man in the country.  Among the celebrities he had driven at various times were Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Generals Lafayette and Taylor. 

This old stage is the last of its kind in the southern country, and it is a relic of more than ordinary interest.  It has been resting beneath the old shed for more than twenty years, and its trappings and woodwork are fast falling to decay.  The picture herewith shown is a faithful representation of the antiquated vehicle.”

With so much time passing since this coach was featured in the “Taylorsville Courier” (KY) and subsequent articles in “The Weekly Argus News” (IN), “The Recorder-Tribune” (KS), and “The Carriage Monthly,” we may never know what happened to this particular part of our past.  Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing story since so much provenance is revealed in the old news reports.  Like so many other vehicle mysteries I’ve shared, this one is holding tight to its secrets.  Perhaps some of our Kentucky readers can help shed some additional light on the whereabouts and well-being of the coach? 

As Ken Wheeling has pointed out in a number of his presentations, less than 10% of all Concord stagecoaches produced by Abbot Downing (individual or collective company) have survived.  With the discovery of this photo, it appears this may be another lost coach.  As such, the image is likely the only fragment remaining of such a valuable part of American history.

This authentic, western-style Concord coach, built by Doug Hansen and his team in South Dakota, is an extraordinary symbol of the American West. 

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC