The Legend of the Stagecoach
A handful of devoted people, from drivers to craftsmen, do their part to uphold the legacy and tradition of the Concord stagecoach.
Story and photography by Katie Frank
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine why a horse-drawn coach—a vehicle without air-conditioning or cruise control—would matter in the modern world. But standing in front of a Concord stagecoach, it’s easy to see the fascination some have with the iconic vehicle.
Enormous wooden wheels and thick leather straps support the carriage, and handmade ironwork reinforces the design. Each hinge and buckle has a function, and the coach’s design is so ideal it hasn’t been drastically modified since originally constructed almost two centuries ago.
The Concord stagecoach was developed by J. Stephen Abbot and Lewis Downing in 1827 in Concord, New Hampshire. It wasn’t the first stagecoach ever made. Up and down the East Coast, horse-drawn vehicles were used to carry passengers to and from hotels and other destinations. But the eastern coaches traveled only short distances, down maintained roadways.
The Concord stagecoach was built for use in rugged terrain and on long-distance hauls. It was designed to carry a growing nation to new, exciting beginnings and expansion. To some, it is as much a symbol of the Old West as the cowboy.
Today, keeping the history of the stagecoach alive is an ongoing labor of love for a handful of carriage enthusiasts. Their connections to these vehicles, like the spokes on a wheel, trace back to the same point: a desire to preserve and promote the stagecoach of the Old West, and what it represents.
Lessons of the Line
“To me, nothing says ‘West’ more than the stagecoach,” says driver Tommy Harris. “Not the cowboy, Indian or teepee. Not the six-shooter or the Western hat.”
Early one morning in Paso Robles, California, Harris and his wife, Debby, hitch a four-up team of black crossbred horses. Their home is in the heart of stagecoach country, where old lines used to weave through the grasslands. When Harris guides his coach on a trail behind the house, it’s like a snapshot from the past.
He and Debby started Harris Stage Lines in 1983 after several years of riding and training horses for other outfits. Today, their main focus is giving lessons and offering clinics on how to hitch up and drive horse-drawn vehicles, but they also make appearances at rodeos, parades and other events.
Harris Stage Lines carried mail for the United States Postal Service through Paso Robles for the city’s 125th anniversary in 2014, its coaches were driven in the Rose Bowl Parade representing Yosemite National Park, and hauled passengers such as actors Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and trick rider and actor Montie Montana.
Harris’ experience stems from doing stunts with wagons and chariots for rodeo companies and movie productions. He got his main start with stagecoaches from Flying U Rodeo Company in Marysville, California.
“I helped run the ranch [at Flying U Rodeo] and then became the wagon guy, tipping them over on purpose,” he says of the performances he used to do. “I loved it. Through the rodeo company I was able to be around a lot of guys that were in the movie business that tipped wagons, and learned from [stunt driver] Yakima Canute driving bug really set sail with me.”
His passion for stagecoaches is palpable, and he’s proud of the Concord coach he and Debby own.