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New York, New York / Grace Darling


As most of you know, I am an airline pilot and, in September, I found myself with a trip to New York. Immediately I wrote to Edith Bartley and told her I would "be in town" ! Edith lives, with her husband Bob, in Brooklyn, New York, and I rang her as soon as I got into my Manhattan hotel. After a shower, I threw some clothes into an over-night bag and set off to find the subway. The subway (or underground to the Brits!) is much safer than it used to be and before long I was on a south-bound train to Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, with Edith's directions, I was able to find my way easily to her carriage-house home.

I received a tour of the area and, from the promenade at the edge of Brooklyn Heights, was able to look across to the amazing sights of Manhattan. I watched as the Staten Island ferry passed by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Ellis Island was the first port of call for millions of immigrants wishing to begin a new life in the United States of America. Later we walked back passed the "brownstones", the old houses of this sleepy quarter. Only the cars gave away the decade, among these older style buildings.

Edith had suggested that we go to Long Island tomorrow and, with that in mind, she rang Naomi and asked whether she would like to join us. Sadly, Naomi was busy, but I did get the chance to speak to her on the phone. (Gee, I hate telephones!). We had a very nice chat and resolved to get together when I next get to New York. Bob Bartley works for the Wall Street Journal and soon returned home from a hard day the office. Over drinks, then dinner, we sat and chatted about work, travel and politics. (Bob's trip down the Grand Canyon sounded particularly exciting!). Later, I was shown the beautiful sight of Manhattan at night from the promenade, but then it was time for bed. After all, tomorrow we going to see Grace Darling.......


Grace Darling, as I sure many of you know, was a heroine of Victorian history. Together with her father, a lighthouse-keeper, she assisted in the dramatic rescue of the survivors of a shipwreck off the north-east coast of England in 1838. Grace darling is also the name given to one particular horse-drawn omnibus, built in about 1880. It is now housed at the Carriage Museum, at Stoney Brook, on Long Island, in New York State, and Edith and I were going to see it.

Edith collected her car from the underground parking facility, near her house in Brooklyn, and soon we were heading through the morning rush hour traffic towards the museum. Luckily most of the traffic was heading the other way ! Long Island extends eastward from New York City for over one hundred miles and Stoney Brook lies about half way along its length. In a little under two hours we were passing the university campus, through the small town of Stoney Brook and into the museum car park. The Museums at Stoney Brook consist of a history museum, an art museum and, of course, a carriage museum. Also there are a collection of historic buildings including an old school house, a blacksmith shop and a barn dating back to 1794. We began at the museum shop, checking on what books might be available about the Grace Darling. Then we crossed to the Carriage Museum, itself. The Grace Darling is the centrepiece of the Carriage Museum, commanding the main gallery.

The Grace Darling was commissioned by Simeon P. Huntress, of South Berwick, Maine. He owned a livery company and used the omnibus to transport passengers between the railway stations and the local beaches. It was also used for excursions around the countryside. It was built by the Concord Carriage Company, of Concord, New Hampshire and, in case you have not guessed yet, it was decorated by John Burgum. Large omnibuses like these were sometimes called barges and were drawn by a team of up to six horses. Up to forty-five passengers could be carried on this amazing vehicle. Simeon Huntress continued his livery service until 1904. In 1925 the Grace Darling was acquired by St Paul's School, of Concord, New Hampshire. It was used to transport the pupils to sports events and other school functions.

In 1952 the barge was donated to the Museums of Stoney Brook where, incredibly, it remained in storage for over thirty years! During this time there was much debate as to what should be done with the carriage. Should it be restored, conserved, or disposed of? Restoration involves stripping the carriage, repairing any damage and then repainting it with modern materials. This would have the advantage of showing the carriage roughly how it might have looked when it was made. However, the artistry and the history would be destroyed forever. Sadly, many carriages have met this fate.

Conservation, or preservation, aims to retain the original painted surfaces but remove the build up of grime, oil and varnish that obscures the original surface. Unless a suitable solvent can be found for this process, the carriage would still fail to reveal its original colours. Luckily the Grace Darling was neither restored or disposed of. The conservation process was begun. The name of the carriage, Grace Darling, was written along the side of the body in large block letters. These appeared to be a drab green, on a background of dark brown. The cleaning process revealed the letters to be of gold-leaf and the background to be shades of blue. One corner of the vehicle was decorated with a gold-framed medallion containing a picture of a stag. On the other corners were paintings of flowers, fruit and a falcon. The rear door panel included paintings of a stag, a dog and a huntress. The name of the coach manufacturer had been unknown until the name of the Concord Carriage Company was discovered on the interior wood work. Near the ceiling, above the heads of the passengers, twelve oval landscapes were discovered, each surrounded by an Eastlake-style border. Had the carriage been restored, these paintings would have been lost forever. Without them, we would never have known who had decorated this beautiful carriage. Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages

We had arranged to meet Merri Ferrell, the Curator of the Carriage Museum, and she explained. Merri had gone to the New Hampshire Historical Society, in Concord, in order to research the Abbot-Downing Company for an exhibition on American carriage-makers. There, she discovered the sketch books of Abbot-Downing's chief decorator, the artist John Burgum. One sketch was of a shipwreck on a rocky beach, beside a calm sea. Merri recognised it as one of the twelve paintings set between the roof pillars, inside the carriage above the passengers heads. The composition was identical. Later, Merri was able to confirm that John Burgum was, indeed, the artist. In his diaries, John had described the barge and the figures he had painted upon it.

Having seen a number of John's paintings and sketches myself (many of them on Concord Coaches), there was no doubt in my mind that John had, indeed, painted Grace Darling. Merri Ferrell has promised to supply me with more information and photographs relating to the Grace Darling carriage. I, in turn, will supply her with information about John Burgum. John Burgum worked on the Grace Darling for one hundred and forty-two hours and the result is a hundred and fifteen year old masterpiece. Thanks to conservation I have been privileged to witness the result. Should you ever find yourself near Long Island, I recommend the pilgrimage.........