On The Stagecoach Trail

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
Published on:
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
Share This Blog:
Many of you have been faithful readers of this blog for years.  Along the way, you’ve been privy to a number of discoveries that we’ve been fortunate to be a part of.   Like any time-consuming undertaking, none of those revelations came easy.  We’ve been doing this long enough now that there are a number of success stories.  Yet, it’s taken us quite a while to get to the point where we understand where to look – and more importantly – how to recognize a significant lead.  The actual process of locating rare pieces is a pointed reminder of just how much can still be learned about America’s first transportation industry. 

With that in mind, you may remember that, last September, I wrote a blog entitled, “Lost Abbot Downing Stagecoach?”  The title was posed as a question because we weren’t sure if a recent ‘photo-find’ was a unique Abbot-Downing coach or an equally elusive example from another maker.  After all, while Abbot-Downing is the acknowledged originator of Concord coaches, there were other firms mimicking the design as well.  So, this particular discovery of an old photo actually stirred up even more questions.  It’s a scenario that can easily happen with breakthroughs of any type.  The unveiling of new knowledge tends to spur even more curiosity. 

Truth is, the ‘find’ that I’d stumbled across was both a photo and an article about an old stagecoach.  The story was written in an 1899 issue of The Carriage Monthly.  The account indicated that the legendary coach was an Abbot-Downing-built vehicle.  Even so, speculation remained as to whether the claim could be substantiated.  One reason for the uncertainty was that the coach was designed with a different feature than is typically seen on an Abbot-Downing Concord.  Herein was the problem... the raised, side rails on the body were spaced much farther apart at the ends instead of converging at the front and rear portions of the coach. 

Some might say that an examination focused predominantly on these style lines is too small of an observation.  However, many times, this type of truly unique detail has opened doors to additional provenance.  Plus, in all of my reviews of true Abbot-Downing-made Concords, I’ve never seen a coach body with these lines.  They seem to always converge, coming together at the ends.  The mystery was further fueled when other authorities consulted could not recall a surviving coach built like this either.  For the moment at least, I had reached a dead end.  Fortunately, in the world of research, dead ends can also be the uncharted beginnings of more discoveries. 

This close-up detail shows the converging style lines that we’re generally accustomed to seeing on an original Abbot-Downing Concord coach.  Our thanks to Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop for sharing the photo.
Compared to the uppermost photo in this blog, the area near the 'W' watermark clearly shows a wider variance in the stagecoach body style lines.  The construction difference is unique and caught our attention.    
So, with my interest piqued, I became even more vigilant, actively seeking out additional Concord coach photos and looking for any that might have a similar body design.  Months passed and, while the pursuit was slow-going at first, the efforts did finally pay off.  To date, I’ve run across a handful of images that appear to show this same stage both operating in and on display in Montana.  These photos show both sides of the coach and the style lines are the same for either side.  Nonetheless, without actually locating the old stagecoach, there seemed to be no way to know who had built it or when it was created.  Was it truly made by Abbot-Downing as the 118-year-old article had stated?  Perhaps, instead, the wider rails were indicative of an equally obscure coach built in Troy, New York or some other region?  Troy, after all, was known for building these types of stages.  Other questions also remained... where is the coach today... why is it designed differently... and who was it built for?
Why is any of this important?  Well, beyond the satisfaction of curiosity, every step that draws us closer to finding answers (for any antique vehicle) is a step toward restoring more provenance and meaning while also helping us better understand the builder.  Additionally, cultural provenance can often increase both financial values and public appreciation for an early set of wheels.  Along the way, it also helps reconnect the pieces of long-forgotten puzzles, weaving a unique story that can only belong to one set of wheels.

Over and over again, I’ve experienced the rewards of persistence while digging for answers.  While some dead ends are just that; sheer determination can bring about amazing surprises.  This is one of those stories.  While I’ve continued to search for this coach, I never really expected to find undeniable provenance to its history as well as confirmation of its maker.  The long stretches of searching have taught me to temper my expectations while still hoping for the best.  While we still don’t know everything we’d like to know about this old transport, we can say with confidence that the coach is an Abbot-Downing.
Our archives hold a number of original Abbot-Downing materials.
How did we get to this conclusion?  Because, in our searching, I came across an original cabinet card photo actually produced by Abbot-Downing in 1897.  Incredibly, the card featured the exact same photo as the one shown in The Carriage Monthly and identified the coach as one that A-D had built in 1868.  The well-worn promotional image is tattered, stained, and showing its 120-years of age.  Even so, all of the important details are still intact.  The image was produced by the Kimball studio in Concord, New Hampshire and it’s imprinted by Abbot-Downing as well.  The reverse of the card also includes a fair amount of background to the coach’s provenance.  Turns out that the coach was shown in the 1893 Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago.  From the look of the surrounding exhibits in the old image, it’s conceivable that the photo was actually taken at the 1893 event. 
Visually examining all of the content contained within the image, we noticed that the old stage has a framed image hanging from it.  Close inspection has confirmed that that framed piece shows a well-known photo taken in 1868.  It depicts thirty Concord coaches that Wells Fargo purchased and had transported in one trainload to the edge of the frontier at Omaha, Nebraska.  With Abbot-Downing’s mention that this coach was built in 1868, we’re left to wonder... could this coach be one of those thirty?  It may be difficult to know without laying hands on the actual coach and getting a look at a serial number.

Even though we now have several images of this unique coach and now know the maker as well as some very interesting provenance, we still don’t know where the coach is today.  The most current photos we have appear to date to the 1920’s.  Locating any imagery after that timeframe has been tough.  Once again, the trail has turned cold.  It’s possible that this legendary icon was destroyed by a fire or some other natural disaster or perhaps it’s still hidden away somewhere?  We’ll certainly keep our eyes open.  After all, what are the chances that we’d come across the original nineteenth-century mounted photo card from Abbot-Downing in the first place?  It’s another reminder that anything’s possible if we’re committed to the search.  Over the years, I’ve seen that statement borne out as fact again and again.  We’ve managed to find a number of needles in haystacks.  This one not only helped us conclusively identify the coach’s maker but may have put us a step closer to adding another chapter to Wells-Fargo’s legendary order of thirty stagecoaches.    

Next year, the coach – if it still exists – will be 150 years old.  Within its life, it was among the first to carry mail in Montana, was once captured by Indians, and is documented as making a 108-mile run (Fort Ellis to Helena) in eight hours.  The last evidence we’ve found shows that it was put on display in Yellowstone National Park.  Perhaps Park officials may have some information as well.

As a final note... Interestingly, there are a fair number of discrepancies between the personal history of the stage as shared in the 1899 Carriage Monthly article and the historical provenance of the coach provided by Abbot-Downing a full two years earlier.  There’s no doubt that the photos are one and the same.  Since the magazine story is a much later piece and Abbot-Downing would easily have been able to identify their own work, our belief is that the news publication may have used an image they had on hand to describe a completely different story that needed a photo.  Further affirming the reliability of the Abbot-Downing-supplied history are the extra photos we’ve found showing the coach operating in Montana (as described by A-D and not by the trade publication).  
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
Go Top