Monday, October 10, 2011

Those Were the Days, 3: Homage to the Concord


      Stagecoaches were the common form of transport on roads in the 19th century. Coaches provided the glue that held the young nation together by bringing news and mail to remote communities. For those isolated on lonely farms, a gaily-decorated coach speeding by regularly was a reassuring link with the outside world that lessened the pangs of solitude
      The Rolls Royce of coaches was the Concord. Built in the New Hampshire town of that name on the banks of the Merrimack River, the Concord was a unique product of Yankee ingenuity combined with loving craftsmanship. Of the 3,700 Concords painstakingly built by hand in the shops of Abbot-Downing & Company, only about a hundred have survived.

Concord Beginnings
Lewis Downing, a wheelwright, launched the business in 1813, the year he sold his first wagon for $60. In 1826, He decided to construct stagecoaches and hired J. Stephens Abbot, a journeyman coachbuilder, to assist him. When New Hampshire innkeeper John Shepard decided to start a stage line and purchased Downing and Abbot’s first Concord coach, it launched a new era in road travel.
      Until then, the traditional egg-shaped British coach was the standard on rough American roads. Not only was it heavy, it was top-heavy and turned over easily. Downing and Abbot’s new design was a radical departure. They flattened the top of their coach and made the body wider and roomier, with space for nine passengers. Like the Jeep of World War II, the carrying capacity of a Concord was almost without limit. In a pinch, additional passengers could ride on top.
      At the front and rear were the boots—leather cargo compartments that could swallow mailbags, express boxes, passengers’ luggage, and even an occasional stowaway. A team of two or four horses or mules provided motive power.
      Bright colors reflected the tastes of the time for vivid decoration. The body was often painted a gaudy English vermilion. Running gear—wheels, axles and the shaft, or “pole”—were straw yellow. After applying several coats of paint, each painstakingly hand-rubbed with pumice, two coats of spar varnish were added. The intricate scrollwork carved by Charles Knowlton was gilded. Miniature landscapes or portraits graced the doors, with no two alike. Abbot-Downing brought artist John Burgum from England to be the firm’s master coach decorator.
      Weighing a little more than a ton, this masterpiece of the coach maker’s art could cost as much as two thousand dollars, a considerable sum when the average wage was only a few dollars a week.
      A unique suspension system was another reason for the Concord’s success. Unlike British coaches, its body was not attached to the axles by rigid metal leaf springs that broke easily. Instead, the Concord was cradled between the wheels on a dozen long and wide strips of rawhide three to four inches thick, laced or riveted together.
      Called “thorough braces,” these are usually described as leather springs to ease the bumps and jolts of the road on the passengers. That was indeed one outcome, but their real function was to act as shock absorbers for the benefit of the team pulling the coach. Thanks to the moderating qualities of the thorough braces, the horses felt no violent jerks. The gently rocking coach body enabled them to surmount difficult obstacles.
      Equally important in relieving the animals of shocks from rough roads was the style of loose hitching favored by American stage drivers. Breast straps and traces were connected with plenty of freedom, as contrasted with the tight hitching of English coachmen. Although passengers in the coach might be experiencing a swaying ride, a loosely harnessed team could concentrate on steady pulling and arrive in fresh condition. Comfort of passengers was secondary to care of livestock.

Stage Lines Appear
Primitive early stages were dubbed “hack wagons” or “mud wagons,” and a wagon is what they were--hard-riding, bone-jarring, metal-spring wagons with bench seats and a canvas top. When the Concord made its appearance, it was an instant sensation. It also brought a significant change in mail-carrying patterns.
      For more than a century, post riders had carried letters in their saddlebags over the post roads of the colonies. In 1785, the government awarded the contract to carry the mails over the Boston Post Road to a stage line formed by Levi Pease and Reuben Sykes. Mail contracts required that passengers also be carried.
      The first Concord reached California in 1850 via Cape Horn. With the opening of overland routes to the goldfields, demand grew. A single order in 1867 from Wells, Fargo & Company for 30 “elegant coaches” took a year to complete. The train that brought them to Omaha from New Hampshire consisted of 15 flatcars carrying the coaches and four boxcars with 60 sets of four-horse leather harnesses, plus spare parts.
      Other coaches were shipped to Mexico, South America, South Africa and Australia, and earned praise for their sturdiness and dependability. Concord coaches also gained a reputation for being able to go anywhere. An eight-horse team once pulled a Concord to the top of the tallest peak in the Northeast, New Hampshire’s 6,288-foot-high Mt. Washington.
      Lewis Downing’s business philosophy was to seek no more business than he could supervise himself. There was no “standard” Concord; all were individually built by hand to the customer’s specifications and marked with an identifying number.
      A competitor of the Concord, the Troy coach, manufactured in Troy, N.Y., by coach makers Charles Veazie and Orsamus Eaton, never attained the popularity of the Concord. Its makers also built railroad passenger coaches.

The Stage Driver
On eastern roads, the usual crew of a stagecoach was one: the laconic, hard-drinking, tobacco-chewing driver, idol of all small boys. Holdups were unlikely, and no shotgun-toting guard was necessary. Unlike the West, where the cargo was often gold bullion and currency, Eastern banks and businesses used checks and bills of exchange of little value to a highwayman.
      Dressed in his working outfit, with his wide-brimmed beaver hat, greatcoat and calfskin boots, the stage driver was an imposing sight. In winter, drivers favored coats of fur or buffalo hide and hand knit stockings imported from Canada. Like his flannel underwear, a driver’s stockings were always red, a color thought to be warmer than other colors. To complete his garb, the driver wrapped his waist with a tasseled silk sash, bright red and tied on the left. In winter, the sash was of knitted wool.
      The badge of the stage driver’s calling was his whip. Measuring seventeen and a half feet from the end of the handle to the tip of the lash, a crack of this whip sounded like a pistol shot. Another piece of standard equipment carried by coaches was the long, tapered tin horn with which the driver announced his arrival at each settlement.
      Much of what we know of the life of a stage driver comes to us from the writing of a remarkable woman, Anne Royall, the country’s first female reporter and editor. She spent much of her life crisscrossing the country in stagecoaches and writing about her experiences.
      Stage drivers, lumberjacks, river boatmen and canal laborers were among the lustiest consumers of alcohol. The men engaged in these occupations were members of a new, mobile class without habitual conventions, roots or social ties. Despite its romantic allure, the life of a stage driver was hard, often boring. Much of his time was spent at a tavern waiting for sufficient passengers or cargo to make a trip. On the road he drove over deeply rutted tracks, soaked with rain and splattered by mud, or chilled by wind or snow.
      Although he might live in a town, the stage driver worked under wretched conditions on the road, alone and remote from family and friends. His work was detached from much of society. Many of his passengers were rude and unreasonable types who cursed him for jostling them. Not surprisingly, drivers turned to alcohol, taking a drink whenever they stopped to water their horses at a tavern.
      On one long trip, Anne Royall noted that only one driver had not publicly consumed alcohol on the road. “It was well the horses were sober,” she concluded. So prevalent was drinking at every stage stop, one foreign observer wrote in 1834, “The American stagecoach stops every five miles to water the horses and brandy the gentlemen.”

The End of the Concord
The spreading rail network restricted stagecoach travel and movement of the mails to remote areas. Fortunately for Abbot-Downing, hotels in cities and at summer resorts still found Concords ideal for transporting guests to and from train stations.
      It was the automobile, first called a “horseless carriage,” that sealed the doom of horse-drawn vehicles. Even so, Abbot-Downing did not surrender without a fight. The company kept going with repair work and the manufacture of replacement parts. After 1915, it built motor truck bodies in a factory in Long Island City, N.Y. In 1928, a century after the first Concord was crafted, the firm was dissolved.
      The Concord is gone from the scene now, but it should be remembered not as the dusty, dried-up antique of roadside tourist museums, or as the drab and worn replica in John Ford Westerns. A speeding Concord pulled by a team of eager, spirited horses in the hands of an expert driver was a thing of beauty, as exciting to any landlubber as a clipper ship under full sail was to a lover of the sea. There were no two ways about it: The Concord was indeed the queen of the road.

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