Lost Abbot Downing Stagecoach?

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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There’s something about a mystery that’sspellbinding.  Questions, uncertainties, and lost national treasures have a way of nagging their wayinto the forefront of our minds. Tracking down details of the unknown can be equally addictive and, forthose following the trails of our past, there are plenty of discoveries stillwaiting to be uncovered.  Each comes withits own set of challenges while focused curiosity and sheer determination oftendeliver amazing results. 

Again and again, researching yesterday’stransportation has a way of bridging the past, helping us actually connect withand ‘hear’ what an old set of wheels has to say.  Reinforcing that point, some time back, Ipurchased several 19th century issues of “The Carriage Monthly.”  This early trade publication was a prominentvoice inside America’s first transportation industry.  As such, the magazines are a treasure troveof insights and information.  Thumbingthrough the pages, I made note of pertinent articles; anything from patents andconstruction techniques to factory transitions, industry successes, and timbershortages.  Then, alongside a story datingto 1899, I noticed a poorly reproduced photo of an early Concord Coach.  The vehicle was said to be sitting in a rundownshed in Kentucky and the image looked similar to Abbot Downing’s western-style stagecoach.  Equipped with lights (small windows near thepassenger doors), leather boots, a thorough-brace suspension, and baggage rackirons, 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 ofthe old coach didn’t exactly match the contours of virtually all Concords thatI’ve seen.  For instance, the twin bodyrails extending forward of the doors do not come together in a pointed fashionas is often the case with Abbot Downing designs.  It’s an interesting observation.  After all, even small details can shareinsights into a vehicle’s provenance, originality, timeframe of manufacture,and so forth.  In this case, theconstruction variances could be a reflection of several possibilities such as aparticular buyer requirement, a repair to a damaged coach, or they could simplybe indicators of an older Abbot Downing work. Based on the 1899 article that I’ve transcribed below, the historic coachdoes seem to be among the earlier pieces built by Lewis Downing and J. StephensAbbot in Concord, NH.  Thoseconsiderations may be sufficient to explain the differences between this particularpiece and most of today’s surviving western Concords.  Yet, there is a lingering question… “Where isthis coach today?”

With a little more research, Idiscovered that the account I stumbled across in “The Carriage Monthly” hadactually ran – at least in part – in as many as three other local newspapers in1898 – a full year earlier.  Even so, thetiming was still long after the heydays of western coaching.  So, has this particular Concordsurvived?  I reached out to well-known stagecoachhistorian, Ken Wheeling, for answers.  Kenis a walking encyclopedia of knowledge related to Abbot Downing history andextant Concord coaches.  Coincidentally, asI pointed out in my July 13, 2016 blog,Ken has just written a new article about the oldest-known survivingConcord.  The story is scheduled to be inthe October 2016 issue of the “Carriage Journal.”  (FYI… if you’re notalready a subscriber to this magazine, the upcoming story is a good reason tomake the call.) 

Okay, back to the Kentucky Concord story.  According to Ken, the old coach in the photois a nine-passenger bag boot design.  Notbeing able to see the complete running gear, he couldn’t confirm whether thevehicle was built as a ‘western’ stage.  Henoted that the coach does not appear to have a passenger seat on the roof immediately above the driver and agreedthat the forward body rails/style lines being widely spaced were unusual intheir position.  Close examination seemsto confirm that the rear rails are also widely spaced.  Equally curious are the small windows – referredto as ‘lights’ – near the passenger doors. Almost all western coaches will have a matching set of lights balancingeach side of the center door.  The right sideof this coach body is partially obscured but it almost appears as if there may notbe a ‘light’ forward of the door.  It’spossible that the framed signage or photo is actually hiding the forward lightbut, as Ken pointed out, if the light is missing, it may have been an earlyconstruction variance or order distinction by a customer.  Whatever the case, we’ll continue working onthe mysteries within the photo as well as what may have happened to thecoach.  Regrettably, it was not a match with any surviving Concords known to Ken.  
As is the nature of so much of ourresearch and Archive holdings, thebulk of this original information can be difficult to locate.  So, in an effort to share someof our findings, the following text is from “The Carriage Monthly” article asit last appeared almost 120 years ago…

“Under aweather-beaten shed in Bloomfield, KY., is an old dismantled stage coach whichhas a notable history.  If it were put onexhibition, it would be an object of curiosity and wonder to the people, notonly 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, anoted stage driver away back in the thirties. After the pike was built from Bloomfield to High Grove, (which, by theway, is the oldest highway in the State,) by the late Henry McKenna, a man whohad a wide reputation as the originator of a famous brand of whisky, this stagewas then run between Louisville and Bloomfield.

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

Among thedistinguished men who rode in it were Governor Charles A. Wickliffe, JamesGuthrie, 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 NelsonCounty, took passage on this stage to Louisville, where he remained for severaldays.

Many of the mostnoted stage drivers of ante bellum days have sat on the box of the oldvehicle.  The following are the names ofsome of them who are still remembered by many of the older people along theroute between Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn.:  Ham Jones, Charles Simpson, Lee Withrow, JohnGoodnight, 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 theoldest stage driver in the Southwest, also frequently engineered the old stageon its perilous trips during the war. Mr. Showalter, at the time of his death, was ninety years old, and couldrelate many interesting stories of the old stage-coaching days.  He began driving on the line betweenBardstown and Nashville, Tenn., in the twenties, and during that time carriedmore prominent men than any other man in the country.  Among the celebrities he had driven atvarious times were Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Generals Lafayetteand Taylor. 

This old stageis the last of its kind in the southern country, and it is a relic of more thanordinary interest.  It has been restingbeneath the old shed for more than twenty years, and its trappings and woodworkare fast falling to decay.  The pictureherewith shown is a faithful representation of the antiquated vehicle.”

With so much time passing since thiscoach was featured in the “Taylorsville Courier” (KY) and subsequentarticles in “The Weekly Argus News” (IN), “The Recorder-Tribune” (KS), and “TheCarriage Monthly,” we may never know what happened to this particular part ofour past.  Nonetheless, it’s anintriguing 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 lighton the whereabouts and well-being of the coach? 

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

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
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