I love it when different interests that I have overlap. When it happens, I feel like marking the occasion in some way. That’s why there’s a chapter in my most recent book What an Honor entitled, “Where Food and Fells Meet.” I’ve just had not two but three interests overlap, and I knew the instant it happened I’d be writing about it, too!
Number 1 was a family business trip that took me to my birthplace of Portland, Oregon. Number 2 was a stagecoach. I’ve been researching stage lines and stagecoaches for several months in preparation for an article (I hope) in Rural Heritage magazine. I’ve been surprised how interesting I’ve found the topic. I shouldn’t be, though, because in itself it combines two interests: landscapes and working equines. The book that sparked my interest, Knights of the Whip, overlapped stagecoaches with Number 1 above because it was about a landscape that had lots of meaning for me and my family.
It doesn’t take much study of stagecoaches to learn about the Concord Coach of Abbot-Downing Company. “Abbot-Downing was perhaps best known for its custom-built stagecoaches, especially the ‘Concord Coach,’ first developed in 1827. The body of the Concord Coach was designed as an aerodynamic flat-topped oval. The company’s artisans skillfully combined oak, ash, and other woods to make it both light and durable. By placing the baggage compartments under the driver’s feet and at the back of the coach, they kept it from being top-heavy, and thus minimized the side draft, or side-to-side motion, that increased the work of the horses.” (1) In their day, Concord Coaches were so well thought of that they were exported to places as far away as Australia and Japan.
Because of my interest in working equines, I was especially interested in the suspension since some authors have asserted it makes the vehicle easier to pull. “Instead of using iron springs (or, like some coaches, no springs at all) the Concord Coach was suspended on two leather devices called thoroughbraces. Each thoroughbrace consisted of six or more long straps of leather stacked vertically and bound together. These were attached to the front and the back of the coach frame and ran under the coach body on each side, suspending the coach body in a leather sling. The coach body had no direct attachment to the frame or the wheels, and the thoroughbraces let it move freely, providing a much less jolting ride for passengers.” (2) A similar suspension system was used in the reconstruction of the Wetwang Chariot, about which I’ve written for Driving Digest magazine and The Partnered Pony™ Inquirer.
It’s one thing to read about thoroughbraces but something else entirely to visualize how they work, at least for me. I needed to see to understand, so I began researching where I could go look at a stagecoach. I learned the nearest ones are three and four hours away, in locations I rarely visit. I put my stagecoach research on a shelf while I pursued other lines of inquiry.
Shortly after I arrived in Portland, my brother was taking me by car from one place to another, and we passed the Wells Fargo building downtown. Wells Fargo is of course the most common modern face of the stagecoach, and I mentioned my desire to see one. My brother immediately responded that there was one on display in the lobby of the building we’d just passed, so we went around the block and found parking. I spent the next fifteen minutes, because that’s all the time there was on the parking meter, feasting my eyes on a genuine Concord Coach. (I had become separated from my camera, so I’m grateful to my brother for snapping numerous photographs.)
The museum manager lit up when I expressed educated interest in the coach, and it didn’t take long for the third overlap to manifest. It turned out that this particular Concord Coach, #306, had never been used by Wells Fargo. Built in 1854, it had instead been used on a mail route in Canada prior to 1890 and purchased much later and restored by Wells Fargo for this exhibit. When it was still in Canada, it had been at a mini stampede in Calgary, and in 1951 Princess Elizabeth had ridden in it. Now Queen Elizabeth II, Her Majesty is of course patron of the Fell Pony Society. I was wearing a Fell Pony Society jacket and pointed out the logo and the connection to the museum manager. Wells Fargo has a blog post about this event with photos; click here to read it. To see a video of Princess Elizabeth alighting from the coach, click here and go to 4:13.
The fifteen minutes flew by as I looked at all the features of the Concord that I’d been learning about. For a brief few seconds, the museum manager pushed on the suspension, engaging the thoroughbraces. I realize now that I didn’t study the movement of the coach on its cradle as I’d hoped to. I still don’t feel I have a full appreciation of how the design helped the horses. Another visit to a Concord is necessary! I’ve just learned of the location of yet another here in Colorado (also four hours away). I look forward to my next opportunity, and it’s nice to know that I can overlap family business, stagecoach research, and Fell Ponies in Portland when I next travel there!
- Greene, Ann Norton. Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 61.
- Same as #1.
I am grateful to my colleagues Eddie McDonough in England, Rob Johnson in Australia, and Bernie Samson in the United States for encouraging my stagecoach research.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2015