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Stagecoach! - The Abbot-Downing Story

First published in "The Western Horseman" June 1962.

While there were other firms that made stagecoaches in America, Abbot-Downing & Company was the pioneer and certainly the maker of the best examples of the coach-building art in America. To fully appreciate the days of staging and the varied equipment that helped settle the west, you should know at least something about the men who designed and built the vehicles that are so symbolic of our pioneer heritage.

Lewis Downing was 21 when he moved from Lexington, Massachusetts, to Concord, New Hampshire. He had his wheelwright tools and about $60 he’d saved from his pay while working in his father’s blacksmith shop. The year was 1813 and a most useless war was still waged between the United States and England. This was hardly a year to begin a new business in conservative New England, but Lewis Downing was there and set up shop to repair the vehicles of the staid Concord townspeople.

Business was slow, so a rather unusual ad for the times was placed in a Concord newspaper by the young wheelwright:
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.

Having a ring of sincerity to it, this ad resulted in Downing securing more than a hundred chaise owners as customers in the first two years. by the fall of that first year, young Downing must have decided to build some complete vehicles himself, for ash and oak timber was purchased and arrangements were made with the New Hampshire Prison to do all the iron parts and wagon tires for several vehicles.

This was a start. By 1816 he had built a small business shop on the outskirts of Concord where he manufactured his Concord wagons. It was sometime during this early period that he experimented with springs of different kinds. His first one was of wood, then the first of the leather thoroughbraces was used and, later, several styles of side steel springs.

In 1825 Downing enlarged his shops and the next year he began experimenting with the more intricate chaises. But this didn’t turn out as well as he expected, so he sent for an expert to supervise the building of three coaches. This expert was a young Stephan Abbot, a journeyman coach builder from Salem. It was a logical move, for Concord was certainly a coaching town as was almost every large town in New England during that period. In 1829 there were 77 stagecoach lines from Boston alone. It was against this kind of a background that Lewis downing began manufacturing stagecoaches – a business that was to last almost throughout the rest of the century, and result in the manufacture of more than 3,000 stages with the trademark Concord Coach.

The late Edwin G. Burgum, son of John Burgum, the coachmaster decorator at Lewis Downing, wrote about the first coach factory in his monograph on The Concord Coach. “The first factory,” he wrote, “employed some 10 0r 12 m3n. The work day was 12 to 14 hours, working before breakfast and after supper until 9 o’clock every evening except Saturday, which the men had to themselves. From the 20th of September until the 20th of March they had to light up with small oil lamps.”

“There was no machinery, except one or two saws driven by horsepower and used to get out felloes for wheels. The upright bandsaw was used to get our smaller parts from the plank. The broad axe, jack plane, and the jointer were used to bring the part to its proper shape and size. The making of the curved panels of the coach was rather a slow process. They were basswood and were placed upon a form with clamps around the edges and were put in front of an open fire, intermittently moistened, and the clamps adjusted until the form was reached on all edges. In this day of quantity production it may be difficult to imagine four men putting the thead on the end of an axle. The axle was fixed in a perpendicular position and four levers were attached to the die with a man at each lever who walked around the axle until the thread was made.”

“In all the branches of the trade the work was equally primitive, but as time went on they were fitted with the latest and best machinery and were quite self-sufficient in the manner of production. The material was always of the best. The lumber was never used until properly seasoned. The white ash and white oak were blazed in the forest and where possible in the open. The logs were brought to the yard and, in the case of the white oak, was sawed to the proper length, slit for spokes, and piled cob-house in the yard until such a time as it was ready for use. The elm hubs were turned in the rough, ends painted, and piled on racks in the attics. Apprentices were required to serve six years and the father of the boy had to guarantee faithful performance of his duties and continuance until he reached his majority.”

The first coach was finished in this new shop after it had been worked on all winter and spring. When it was painted and suitably decorated with scrolls and a landscape, it was shipped to John Shepherd, who was starting in the staging business up the Newburyport-White River turnpike. Except for being the owner of the first Concord coach ever made, Shepherd has no historical significance. Abbot and Downing entered into their original partnership January 1, 1828 and from the start the building of coaches was their major occupation until they dissolved their partnership in September 1847. Abbot bought the old shops and continued in business there, while Downing, along with his con, Lewis Junior, and Alonzo, built new shops where they carried on their business separately, and with much rivalry, for 18 years.

Burgum note, “L. Downing & Sons commenced with four forges and 30 men, which number in a few years they increased to 11 forges and 80 men. Mr Abbot, at first employed 75 men, which number was increased in a few years to 200. After a while he had 24 forges in operation. In the winter of 1849 the abbot shops were entirely destroyed by fire, but were quickly replaced. In 1852, Stephan Abbot took his son, Edward A. Abbot, into partnership. In January 1865, Lewis Downing, then in his 73rd year, permanently retired from the business, turning it over to his sons who on that date consolidated with the Abbots under the corporate name of Abbot-Downing & Co.”

It was evidently Lewis Downing’s firm that made the most significant vehicles, especially after the dissolution of the partnership with Abbot, for there are records that the Downing firm built ambulances, baggage wagons, quartermaster wagons, and gun carriages for the Federal armies during The War of the States [1]. And, during the peace years there were orders for buggies, wagons, circus wagons, express wagons for Adams & Co., and innumerable hotel coaches for the New England hostelries of the times.

In June of 1850 the first Concord coach was unloaded from a ship that had brought it around the Horn to California, marking the beginning of a coaching era that was to last until the railroads took over the last of the overland business around the turn of the century. Both Abbot and Downing turned out the light hotel type coaches at first. Built along the same lines as the more familiar heavy mail coaches, these hotel vehicles were designed for the smoother roads of the east.

Overland express coaches were made for many of the western stage lines, and the peak of the overland express business was reached in 1868 when an order came in from Wells Fargo & Co. at Omaha for 30 “elegant” coaches. Work was started on this order April 20th, 1867, and it took all but five days of a full year to complete the order. The following if from an editorial in the Concord Daily Monitor (April 15, 1868).

“A novel sight was presented in the Concord railway Yard at noon Wednesday, in the shape of a special train of 15 long platform cars, containing 30 elegant coaches from the world-renowned carriage manufactory of Messers. Abbot-Downing & Co., and four long box cars, containing 60 four-horse sets of harnesses from the James J. Hill and Co’s celebrated harness manufactory, and spare work for repairing the coaches, such as bolts, hubs, spokes, thoroughbraces, etc., all consigned to Wells Fargo & Co., Omaha and Salt Lake City, the whole valued at $45,000 perhaps. It is the largest lot of coaches ever sent from one manufactory at one time, probably. The coaches are finished in a superior manner, the bodies red and the running part yellow. Each door has a handsome picture, mostly landscapes, and no two of the 30 are alike. They are gems of beauty and would afford study for hours. They were painted by Mr. J Burgum. “

“The scroll work, executed by Mr Charles Knowlton, is very handsome, and varied on each coach. They are built in some particulars much stronger than are many coaches, especially the iron work. They are designed for nine persons inside, and eight or ten outside. The average weight of the coaches is 2,250 pounds and the best part of 14 sides of leather were used upon each coach in the boot, thoroughbraces, etc. Mr Samuel Parker goes out as special messenger with the train to Omaha, where the company proposes to harness their horse to the coaches, and drive the remaining distance. They will ply between the eastern and western division of the Pacific Railroad. It is expected the coaches will go to Omaha without change of cars, unless some accident befall the train.”

This large Wells Fargo order was the significant beginning of the extensive business in overland coaches that was to establish Abbot-Downing’s reputation throughout the world. As early as 1859 orders were received from a firm in Melbourne, Australia, for two coaches. Then orders started coming in from all over the world, from Bolivia, Mexico, New South Wales, and Kimberley, South Africa.

The large mail coaches were certainly not the only style made in Concord. In 1859 The Pioneer Stage Coach Mail Line of California began ordering bhack wagons and mud wagons, 32 in all. Ben Holliday ordered 20 mud wagons in 1864 and 12 more the next year. The western Stage Co., of Des Moines, Iowa, had eight, Butterfield’s Overland Dispatch had 12, and the El Paso, Texas Mail Lines had 23.

Progress and new types of power gradually replaced the horse and the colourful wheeled vehicles of the old days. The Abbot-Downing plant had no formal closing, but they ceased operations towards the end of the century. One of the last, if not the very last of the Abbot-Downing Concords to be made in their New Hampshire factory was a light hotel-type coach for the owner of a cotton plantation in the south. Today, in brand new condition, it is part of a marvellous private collection of coaches in California.

In 1945 Wells Fargo bought the corporate name of Abbot-Downing & Company to perpetuate the name in history.

[1] “The War of the States” was another name for the American Civil War (1861-1865), principally used by the Confederacy.