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The Concord Coach was the luxury vehicle of its time

Ordered from as far away as Australia and South Africa

Courtesy Sandwich Historical Society. (click for larger version)
August 27, 2009
"THE MAKING OF THE CON-cord Coach" was the subject of a slide show/lecture sponsored by the Friends of the Conway Public Library and presented at the library.

Guest speaker William Copeley, New Hampshire Historical Society librarian at the Tuck Library in Concord, reviewed the history of what is possibly the most famous man-made product ever to come out of New Hampshire — a product which gained renown nationwide and worldwide for its superior quality and durability.

Made by the Abbot-Downing company for more than 100 years (1813-1928), Concord coaches (and other quality vehicles) were ordered from as far away as Australia and Kimberly, South Africa.

"It was quite a tribute that they came to New Hampshire to get the best quality vehicles for their purposes," Copeley said. "In South Africa, they were used in diamond mining operations, in Australia to carry people from East to West across a vast, still-uncharted wilderness."

Actually, Copeley explained, during the period of their manufacture Concord coaches were made by not one but four different companies.

The story begins, he said, with Lewis Downing, who was born in Lexington, Mass., in 1792 and came to Concord in 1813, where he set up as a wheelwright, a trade he had learned in Massachusetts as his father's apprentice.

"He realized that Concord was becoming the state's transportation capital and that there might be business opportunities for a young fellow," Copeley noted. "So, as well as making repairs to small horse-drawn vehicles, which is what wheelwrights did, he began building some. He was a hard worker and did well, and orders began to come in for larger passenger vehicles. As there weren't many stagecoaches in New Hampshire, he determined to start building some, even though he'd never done that before."

Downing's expertise was in undercarriage work, but with large bodies to build he needed someone experienced in that line, so he brought in J. Stephen Abbot, a younger man by 12 years.

Together they built their first stagecoach in 1827 and in 1828 named the business Downing & Abbot. After that they worked together for about 20 years.

"Then, I don't know why," Copeley said, "they separated and formed two different companies, just down the road from each other."

Downing's company was renamed Lewis Downing and Sons and by 1850 was situated directly opposite the Phenix Hotel, two blocks south of the State House.

Abbot's business was renamed J.S. and E.A. Abbot and was located on South Main Street, where some of the old factory buildings still stand.

"The two companies made very similar products," Copeley said. "They made classic Concord coaches as well as other vehicles. Although more of the coaches were used in the East, they were probably more famous in the West, because there was still no transcontinental railroad out there."

SEVERAL FEATURES DISTIN-guished Concord coaches from others made elsewhere in the country.

First, they were distinctly more passenger-friendly, as their suspension system featured eight layers of leather on which the coach body rested. Where other coaches with steel springs tended to produce a more jolting ride, Concord coaches rocked like cradles.

They were also noted for the superior quality of their painting, their lettering and fancy scroll work. Since all were custom-made to individual specifications, customers could order vehicles in any color they wanted with any lettering, device or images they chose.

Coaches came in six-, nine- and 12-passenger models, every one an individual product, with individual specifications taking shape in the company's body, blacksmith, leather and other shops. The fact of each coach being custom-made further enhanced their good reputation.

Many orders for coaches were placed by hotels, which used them as taxicabs and shuttles are used today, to transport guests from train station to hotel and take them on day trips around the countryside [during the gilded era of White Mountain grand hotels, they figured prominently in local coaching parades].

The wait for each Concord coach was usually about four months from start to finish and the cost averaged between $1000 and $1500.

"Their price was like that of a luxury car today, far beyond the reach of the average person," Copeley said, adding that probably 99 percent of them were paid for in cash in accordance with the way most businesses was transacted in the mid-1800s.

"After nearly another 20 years," Copeley said, "after the Civil War the two families merged back together again on July 1, 1865. The company then became known as Abbot-Downing and Company and moved back to its original location, where it covered about six acres of land.

"This was the period of biggest expansion for the company," Copeley explained, "when the two were no longer competing with each other."

Records show that by 1880 the company had opened branches, including one in New York City on South Fifth Avenue at the corner of Prince Street. However, all coaches continued to be manufactured in New Hampshire where, at this time, approximately 40 different styles of vehicles were being made, including omnibuses, Yellowstone Park touring surreys, American Express delivery wagons, Standard Oil tank trucks, street sweepers, etc.

In its heyday, Copeley said, the company may have employed more workers than any other business in Concord, with the possible exception of the railroad. In any case, its economic impact was beneficial to the city which gave the coaches their name.

By 1920, however, Abbot-Downing and Company were no longer making coaches. The company's decline began as soon as railroads started transporting people and delivering cargo faster than coaches and wagons could. In the 1880s to 1890s, the number of orders began dropping off until the last coach was made in 1902.

Nonetheless, the company continued to exist for some years after that, still making repairs and building other types of wagons. In 1909, it went bankrupt and, since Abbot and Downing family descendants were no longer interested, it was purchased by a group of local businessmen.

Reorganized in 1912 as Abbot-Downing Truck and Body Company, the company began custom-making motorized vehicles, but it had gone into the market too late. Although the vehicles' quality was high, by the 1920s Ford was making cars faster and more cheaply. Thus, the company experienced its second period of decline, and the last Concord truck was made around 1925. Wells-Fargo then purchased the company and its name, which can still be used on any of its products.

Today, Concord coaches and other Downing-Abbot vehicles no longer rattle along city streets and country lanes. But the memory of them lingers in programs like Copeley's, and models of them remain in museums like the New Hampshire Historical Society and in private collections like Sut Marshall's right here in Conway, which attendees toured at the end of the program.

Copeley believes that, of about 600 Concord coaches originally made, between 100 and 150 currently survive worldwide, of which 10 to 20 may still be found in New Hampshire — the state they made famous around the globe.

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