By Bill Virden
“Oh, there it is Look, they’ve moved it inside!” These have become familiar comments in and around the entrance of the Serra Museum since the Concord coach, most popular of the museum’s many exhibits, has moved from its resting place outdoors on the loggia to “center stage” in the main exhibit room. It is to be hoped that this is the last time the coach will roll … that from now on it can bask in the newly restored splendor of its rich red colored cab, black tufted upholstery, and lemon yellow under-carriage and wheels, with red and black striping. Shiny black grill work adorns the top, and freshly applied gold lettering enhances the cab.
Let us look for a moment into the past history of the coach. The story really begins in the year 1813, when Lewis Downing founded one of the great pioneer industries of America. This man, a New Englander, brought to Concord, New Hampshire, his working knowledge acquired in Salem. He opened a business confined principally to the repair of rolling stock. It was not long, however, before he began thinking of improvements on the basic designs of European coaches.
He had visions of building a coach that was better riding, had a finer appearance, and was easier to maintain. From 1813 to about 1825 Lewis Downing devoted himself to building up his business, and in 1825 he started moving forward from the wagon building business to that of designing chassis. To assist him in this new venture he solicited the aid of an expert, J. Stephen Abbot of Salem. Charles Dickens, in Pickwick Papers, referred to travel in the old coaches as “rattling about”; Downing and Abbot changed all this, and came up with a coach which was far more comfortable, and was so distinctive that just to see one immediately told the observer that this was a Concord Coach. Their first contract was to build three coaches. Mr. Abbot and Mr. Downing entered into partnership in January of 1828, and they immediately commenced making coaches a leading factor in their business. This partnership of Downing & Abbot continued until September, 1847, when it was dissolved by mutual consent. Mr. Abbot kept on at the old shops which he purchased from Mr. Downing in 1835; and Mr. Downing took his sons Lewis and Alonzo Downing into a new firm as partners, built and moved into new shops. For the next eighteen years the two firms competed with each other.
In January of 1865, just a year before our coach was built, Mr. Downing permanently retired, and the business was taken over by his sons. That same year they consolidated with the Abbot business, and the firm was incorporated under the name of Abbot, Downing & Co.
In 1865 Abbot, Downing & Co., were doing a thriving business furnishing coaches to leading hotels of the country. The famous Palmer House in Chicago contracted for four 12-passenger coaches in canary yellow. The Lick House in San Francisco asked that its coaches have ornaments on the doors of “some handsome figure,” with the coat of arms of California on the foot-board. Wells, Fargo & Co. soon became a large customer; on April 2, 1867, the firm started with an order for 30 coaches which took one year to complete. From the Concord Daily Monitor of April 15, 1868, we learn the following: “A novel sight was presented in the Concord Railroad Yard at noon Wednesday, in the shape of a special train of fifteen platform cars containing thirty elegant coaches from the world-renowned carriage manufactory of Messrs. Abbot, Downing & Co., and four long box cars, containing 60 four-horse sets of harnesses from James J. Hill & Co.’s celebrated harness manufactory, and spare work for repairing the coaches, such as bolts, hubs, spokes, thorough-braces, 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 thirty 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. Chas. Knowlton, is a 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 fourteen sides of leather were used upon each coach in the boot, thorough braces, etc.”
It was not long before Abbot-Downing began getting orders from foreign sources. For one particular order the instructions read in part: “Ornament up fancy … and put women on door panel.”
Unfortunately, no complete and accurate accounting of the whereabouts of this particular coach from its delivery date to arrival at the Serra Museum is available. This coach, No. 158, was completed and ready for delivery in Concord, New Hampshire on August 17, 1866. The consignee was one Edward Herr of New York City, believed to have been a hotel man. Research has brought no additional information on Herr. Although not verified, it is thought by many that the coach was brought around The Horn. The other school of thought however, is that it may have come overland on a flat car–or on its own four wheels. Although the first transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869, there is no record available as to the number of years during which the coach remained in the New York area.
It is regrettable that we must pass over this twenty year period with no knowledge of the activities of the coach…. Some years prior to 1886 the coach was owned and operated by John Allman, a mail contractor living at Saugus. He operated the coach between Santa Barbara and Newhall, one way each day, with an overnight stop.
Joe Foster and Frank Frary had been operating a stage line in San Diego county for some time by 1886, and in that year Foster journeyed to Santa Barbara for the express purpose of buying the coach and one “mud wagon” to take care of increased business. These two pieces of equipment were brought to San Diego and were immediately placed in service. At the time of purchase the coach was one of several in a warehouse owned by Mr. Allman. The first local run of the coach was from San Diego to El Cajon, with Lakeside and Julian later added to the schedule as the demand for service increased. The coach also provided service from San Diego to the famous Stonewall Mine. The completion of the San Diego, Cuyamaca & Eastern railroad through Lakeside and on to Foster in 1889 ended further use for stage-coaches on that part of the run. The distance on to Julian still had to be covered and passengers leaving the train at Foster boarded the coach and made the balance of the trip. Service continued until 1910, when, with no further use for the coach or the “mud wagon,” old-timers recall that as late as 1913 they were in storage in the stable at Foster.
Concord coaches were, of course, nothing new to San Diego when our own particular one came in from the Santa Barbara mail run. They probably were standard equipment on the coastal run from the earliest days of the American occupation.
By 1872, John G. Capron was advertising stage departures at 7 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for Tucson, A. T., via Arizona City — which briefly was the name of Yuma. Seeley & Wright’s stages were leaving the Horton House daily except Sunday at 5 a.m. for the two-day journey to Los Angeles. Frary & Foster’s predecessor, William Tweed, had stages leaving the Horton House at 6 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday for Julian City. Tweed, however, had competition; as his stages were quitting the Horton House for the dreary day-long ride to Julian, similar vehicles operated by Edward R. Stokes were getting underway from a livery stable at Sixth and J Streets. Concords were operating, as well, on various other county runs, and even in Baja California.
A ride in a Concord, over rough and virtually unimproved mountain roads, was no pink-tea affair. Although those hardy drivers clung to the motto “The mail must go through!” there were times when the weather was far from being co-operative. A “norther” on November 17, 1879, slowed down the Campo stage, whose driver had difficulty in seeing the road, on account of the dust. At Ballena the Julian stage team balked, apparently a bit upset by the sight of three barns blown down. Frank Frary’s own troubles got into The San Diego Union on February 18, 1883:
Frank Frary, who drove the Julian stage in last evening, says that when he started yesterday morning the wind was blowing a perfect hurricane from the east and northeast. The stage swayed so violently in the gale, that fearful that it would capsize, he and the two passengers piled two or three hundred pounds of rocks into the vehicle as ballast, which they carried until the grade had been passed.
Some time around 1913 our Concord was purchased by Arnold Babcock, owner of the Diamond Carriage & Livery Company; Babcock was the son of the famous promoter of Coronado Beach, Elisha S. Babcock. In 1925 he presented the coach to the local Pioneer Society, and for the next five years it was stored in the Industrial Building in Balboa Park. On the first anniversary of the Serra Museum, the Pioneer Society donated the coach to the museum.
The stage left the Industrial Building in Balboa Park at two o’clock on Wednesday, July 16, 1930. Among other passengers, it carried John Davidson, curator of the Serra Museum, and the late Lewis B. Lesley, associate professor of history at San Diego State College. At the Plaza de Panama it proceeded west on Laurel street to Fifth avenue, thence to Broadway and down Broadway to Kettner boulevard. At Second and Broadway, across from the site of the old Diamond Stables, Mrs. Davidson boarded the stage. At Old Town, a stop was made at Casa Bandini, an important stage station in the early days. From there the trip continued to the “brown and windy hill.”
On this auspicious trip, classification of passengers was dispensed with. In stage coach days, when the horses came to a hard pull, the driver usually alighted and shouted to his passengers: “First class passengers, stay where you are; second class passengers, get out and walk and third class passengers, get out and push.” An old trunk was carried on the “boot” of the stage. Tied to this was a banner of the Pioneer Society. Although the coach was equipped with brakes, at no time on the trip to the museum was it necessary to “ride the brakes,” an expression known to those who were familiar with that kind of travel. With the exception of another short journey to the city shops, in 1937 for painting, one might assume that this old battle-scarred coach has been resting peacefully, but nothing could be farther from the truth.
Being located outside on the loggia of the museum, the coach has been partially exposed to the elements; even more damaging was its exposure to the general public. For many years it has been suffering indignities-being climbed on daily, and having assorted initials carved inside and out. Not long ago, arrival of the staff at the museum in the early morning disclosed that the coach had been the setting for a nocturnal party of some magnitude. In addition to other bits of evidence, several beer-cans and empty vodka bottles reposed on the floor and seats of the cab and cigarette-butts littered the area. Time was running out.
The original cost of the coach was approximately $1,250. In recent years, experts have placed its value between $5,000 and $10,000. The outside location was a constant worry to the museum staff for many years, and early in the summer of 1960 the executive committee of the San Diego History Center directed that steps be taken to bring the vehicle into the museum. One of the society’s board of directors took the reins, to bring this about. Contact was made with a local construction firm who agreed to stand the cost of enlarging the main doors of the museum four and a half inches on each side, which required air-hammers and many hours to chip away the solid concrete. Following this, new door frames had to be made and installed. Next came another local contracting firm with experience in handling old vehicles. They dismantled the coach, brought it inside the museum and re-assembled it in the main exhibit room. The final step required the services of a local plastering firm, and the city painters to restore the entrance. This work was completed on August 25, 1960.
At this point, true enough, great strides had been made to overcome the worry of protection to the coach. Now came another problem — that of giving the by now wretched-looking and badly deteriorated coach a face-lifting. Fortunately for the museum, but most unfortunately for those involved, many of the local “hot rod” car clubs were receiving front page newspaper publicity of a most unfavorable nature in San Diego. One of the clubs, not so involved, decided that it was time to contribute something to perhaps offset the bad publicity. They, the “Vi-Counts” by name, volunteered to contribute all the labor required to completely restore the coach. They started work on October 3, armed with old clothes, gallons of paint remover, prodigious amounts of sand-paper and perhaps most important of all, endless patience. They worked after school, and on week-ends. The work resulted in excellent publicity through the local press and television both for the car club and the museum. One of the city’s local paint firms donated all the material required. Through problems of its own, the car club fell by the wayside about the time they finished the sanding on the cab. Several months went by with little or no progress until, at the start of the summer of 1961 the museum was fortunate to obtain the services of a young man, just graduated from high school, who possessed exceptional ability; with the assistance of the Museum staff he gave the cab its just reward; a final red color coat, with appropriate gold leaf lettering and striping.
Now came the “flat on your back” and “standing on your head” method of sanding and painting the undercarriage, wheels, and running gear. While this was being done the interior measurements were taken and templates sent to a carriage-making firm in the East for complete new upholstery. Fortune again smiled on the Society when a local real estate firm came to the rescue with sufficient funds to cover the cost of the new interior for the coach. Today the coach, its restoration completed, reposes in a place of honor, resplendent in its bright new colors, the restored original “El Cajon & Lakeside” above the cab doors, and “U. S. Mail” over a white eagle clutching the green olive branch in one talon and the black arrows of might in the other, enhancing the center panel of each of the cab doors. If for no other reason, the “Ooohs! ” and “Aaahs! ” of little fourth grade moppets, over five thousand each year, and the balance of visitors totaling some 125,000 annually, make this long and arduous task well worth while.
Among those who have watched the work of restoration, there have been some who expressed displeasure with the idea of restoration at all — “Why,” they have said, “was it not left just as it was when it finished its active service?”
The answer simply is this: The painting of the coach, before its restoration, was not original; it dated back only to the 1930s. A photograph of the coach as it looked when it was running to El Cajon and Lakeside, before the completion of the railroad, was the principal guide to the present restoration. Additionally, there were places where repairs were definitely required. Two of the panels, dry-rotted in spots and further damaged by wood-borers, had been patched by covering them with pieces of tin, with a resultant crude and “loving hands at home” appearance. And in at least one place, the borers still were active. Preservation for the future was essential, which meant extensive patching and painting. So long as new paint was needed, it was felt far more desirable to make the vehicle look as it did in its palmy days, rather than the way it had been restored in 1937 — with lettering, for instance, which was not old-fashioned at all, but was typical of 1937. And it had been at least partially “restored” even before that. Through a powerful magnifying-glass, an old photograph shows the lettering around the top of the cab to have been “Diamond Tally-Ho” — which certainly was not appropriate for a coach on a mountain passenger and mail run in San Diego County.
For areas where no pictures were extant, some improvisation had to be made. In this field, our gratitude is due to the experts at the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, Michigan; the New Hampshire Historical Society, and the History Room of the Wells Fargo Bank at San Francisco.
We hope that you approve of the finished job.