The Concord Coach might have been called the Lexington Wagon had Lewis Downing decided against visiting his fiancee in New Hampshire.
A wheelwright from Lexington, Mass., he came north to spend time with his future wife, who had family in New Hampshire. He saw Concord in 1813, and saw it as something of a transportation hub. He decided the town had possibilities for a man skilled in repairing and building wagons.
With a net worth of $150, he settled in taking the first steps toward launching the iconic brand that would one day conquer the American West – the Concord Coach.
When you see a Concord Coach today, it’s usually in a Western movie under siege by flaming arrows or hot lead. Passenger comfort of the passengers is hardly the feature that first comes to mind.
The Comfy Concord Coach
But the idea of comfort launched the Concord Coach. Instead of being mounted directly to the axles, the Concord Coach’s passenger compartment was suspended on leather straps hung on posts supported by the axle.
This seemingly unusual arrangement meant that the passengers would swing and sway. But they wouldn't experience the teeth-rattling jolts they had in older carriage designs.
The swaying of the compartment also helped the coach build momentum if it got stuck in a rut. As horses pulled and the coach rocked, the weight of the suspended cabin swinging forward helped spring the coach free.
Downing started his company in Concord as a wheelwright, repairing and building wagons. In 1826, he expanded, adding blacksmithing, painting and upholstery facilities. That cleared the way for him to build the Concord Coach. He hired J. Stephens Abbot, an apprentice coach builder from Salem, Mass., and soon after the two became partners in Downing & Abbot.
From the beginning the Concord Coach was a hit. Available in 6-, 9- and 12-passenger models, Downing & Abbot almost always had back orders. Downing's exacting standards kept the coaches popular. When he found a detail of a coach in the works that didn’t satisfy him, he smashed it on the spot.
And having control over all the coaches components meant everything met his standards. Though he could have sold more coaches, Downing refused to let the company grow out of control.
“My practice has ever been to do no more business than I could see to personally,” Downing said.
In 1847, about a third of the way through its run, Downing & Abbot amicably split. Each formed his own company in order to join with his son. And together two companies, rather than one, turned out the famous coaches, one at each end of Main Street in Concord.
In 1865, however, the firm came back together, when Downing retired. His son, Lewis Downing, Jr., served as president of the new company. Joseph Abbot was vice president of Abbot, Downing and Co., which later became simply Abbot-Downing.
In the years that followed, the company expanded internationally, with offices in Boston, New York, Melbourne and South Africa. I
t produced as many as 40 different kinds of wagons, though it was best known for the Concord Coach.
The coaches were comfortably appointed. Options included glass windows, a variety of fabrics and some eye-popping paint schemes. It was the American West, however, where the Concord Coach gained its lasting fame.
‘A Great Swinging and Swaying Stage’
The Concord Coach found a customer base among fine hotels that used it to carry their patrons to and from the rail station. Wealthy individuals also liked to have their own.
But stagecoach lines were the company's largest customers. They used the Concord Coach for traveling great distances, carrying mail and money as well as passengers.
Mark Twain sang the praises of the Concord Coach in his book, Roughing It, describing his travels across the country: “Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description—an imposing cradle on wheels.”
And he described his journey as “bowling along smoothly over the road—so smoothly that our cradle only rocked in a gentle, lulling way, that was gradually soothing us to sleep.”
Such praise helped the company gain an unparalleled following. Even when it was backlogged with orders, loyal customers preferred to wait for their Concord Coach.
And when a Concord Coach shipped west, it was headed for adventure. In the rough and tumble western states, the coaches encountered rough terrain and dustups with the Native Americans and robbers who wanted the mail or the gold the coaches carried.
Some fabled names such as Wild Bill Hickock and Wyatt Earp were coach drivers and guards, looking after gold that the mines hired the delivery coaches to ship. These men were paid handsomely to put their lives on the line guarding gold shipments. It was good, dangerous money.
King of the Stagecoaches
Perhaps the biggest fan of the Concord Coach was Ben Holladay, king of the stagecoaches. He acquired 110 in building his Overland Stage Company, which carried freight throughout the west. Holladay had homes in New York, Oregon and Washington, D.C., his base for lobbying Congress to keep his lucrative mail contracts.
Holladay bought the Pony Express after it lost its government contracts. He maintained the largest inventory of forts and freight offices in the country until he ultimately sold the company to Wells Fargo. Holladay, a braggart and a wild man, was also an innovator. His was likely the first business to introduce the Concord Coach to the West.
What Holladay started, Wells Fargo continued. Just around the time it bought Holladay out in 1866, Wells Fargo ordered an astounding 30 Concord coaches. Each had its own unique custom paint and cost between $1,000 and $2,000. The enormous order stretched the Abbot-Downing factory’s capacity, even with its 14-hour days.
No tally is available of all the notables who used Concord Coaches, but one stagecoach rose to fame beyond all the others: The Deadwood Stage. Buffalo Bill Cody incorporated it into his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” a travelling show of western cowboy acts launched in 1883.
By the late 1800s, railroads began to curtail the need for stagecoaches for long journeys. Stagecoaches then traveled in and out of less-accessible regions, cities and towns. But the public had a strong appetite for stories about cowboy lore, and Buffalo Bill served it up with his traveling show.
The Deadwood Stage
One mainstay of the show was the Deadwood Stage, a Concord Coach that made the run from South Dakota to Cheyenne, Wyo. Built in 1867, the 9-passenger mail and treasure carrier had been attacked and burned. Buffalo Bill recovered it, reconditioned it and worked it into his show from 1883 until he retired it in 1901. (He replaced it with a new Abbot-Downing model, custom made to squeak and rattle like the original.)
In the show, the stagecoach circled the arena and a band of Lakota actors attacked it. That set the stage for Buffalo Bill to charge in and rescue the passengers. You can view a recording of the act here.
At many stops, Buffalo Bill offered dignitaries the chance to ride in the stage during the show. A host of notables took him up on the offer. In one 1887 show for Queen Victoria, the coach carried the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium and Saxony along with the Prince of Wales.
Like its coaches, the Abbot-Downing Company was also doomed to extinction. In 1909, with sales dwindling, the company declared bankruptcy. It reorganized as the Abbot-Downing Truck and Body Company, but it did not last long. The last Concord Coach was made about 1915. The last wagon was made in December 1919. The company finally dissolved in 1925.
You can find examples of Concord Coaches in museums throughout the country. Not much remains of the plant, which once covered six acres of downtown Concord. One remaining vestige is a building from around 1860 that housed the blacksmith shop. Today it is the American Legion at 7 Perley St. in Concord.
And longtime customer Wells Fargo acquired the name Abbot-Downing in 1945, and launched wealth management products for the ultra-rich in 2012.
This story about the Concord Coach was updated in 2018.