Fred Harvey: The Man Who Civilized the West

By Elise Warner July 29, 2012
  In 1850, fifteen-year-old Fred Harvey left London for the United States with two pounds of sterling in his pocket. By the 1880’s, he was an American success story. In addition to providing the first “civilized” meals to wary passengers and patrons of The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Harvey changed dining habits from coast to coast. His chain of restaurants and hotels together with the Santa Fe onboard “Meals by Fred Harvey,” set a standard of exc3lllance in travel dining for all who followed in his footsteps.

Railroads, the fastest mode of transport for both freight and passengers travelling long distances, dominated travel in the mid-ninetieth century. But the railroad tracks were often badly laid, and although some coaches were enclosed, soot, drafts, and chill leaked through the poorly framed windows and made the journey a miserable experience. Other rail cars were exposed to the elements, and passengers sometimes shared the ride with domestic animals.

An empty stomach accompanied travelers who hadn’t packed a lunch, unless they braved a shabby trackside eatery where the typical fare included rancid stew, biscuits so heavy they could be used as millstones, and stale “railroad” pies (ancient meat and vegetables concealed between two crusts). Reheated coffee tasted as bitter as wormwood. The grub not choked down during a short train break was often served to the next batch of passengers. Trains waited for no man, and the travel-stained rider often ended his trip with a severe bellyache.

By the latter part of the century, the work ethic and keen business sense of Fred Harvey had transformed depot dining along the Santa Fe line— from Chicago to California—into a dining experience. Travelers enjoyed superior food at a moderate price, served by a staff trained to offer courteous and efficient service.

Refined Tastes
Harvey’s rags-to-riches story began with his first job as a dishwasher, earning two dollars a week, at a cafe in New York City. By 1853, having advanced to waiter, he had saved enough money to try his luck in New Orleans, a city famous for the preparation and presentation of fine food. But that same year, yellow fever swept through the city and left forty thou-sand people dead. Harvey, though infected with the dread disease, survived.

Leaving New Orleans, Harvey made his way up the Missouri River to St. Louis and, by the age of twenty-two, found a business partner and opened a dining hall. The Civil War cancelled the partnership. Harvey’s sympathies lay with the Union; his partner agreed with the Confederates and disappeared along with the dining hall’s assets.

But Harvey rebounded. He was an American citizen now, and his next jobs introduced him to the railroad— first on the Missouri River Packet Line, then as one of the first two mobile postal service clerks to sort the mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Quincy, Illinois. A job with the Hannibal and St. Joseph, nicknamed the “Horrible and Slow Jolting” by passengers familiar with the rail line’s rough tracks, followed. By the end of the Civil War, Harvey was the General Western agent for the North Missouri Railroad and transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas.

Harvey’s work with the railroads required constant travel and exposed him to the same deplorable conditions the ridership encountered. He resolved to transform passenger service and to use the salary he now earned to support his dream of operating fine restaurants for passengers. In 1875, Harvey and a partner opened two dining rooms at stops on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Although the restaurants thrived, Harvey’s high principles became an issue and the partnership was dissolved.

One year later, on the strength of a handshake with Charles Morse, the general superintendent of the fast-growing Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, Harvey took over his first railway lunchroom on the second floor of the Santa Fe depot in Topeka, Kansas. Morse, who also had worked his way up and had eaten at the same greasy spoons frequented by rail travelers, shared Harvey’s appreciation of fine dining.

Harvey transformed the Topeka lunchroom. Linens from Ireland, crystal from Belgium, and silver imported from England graced the tables, and a revised menu offered superior food at a sensible price. A hearty breakfast included steak, eggs, hash browns, buttery pancakes splashed with rich syrup—all served on heated plates—plus apple pie and coffee, for only thirty-five cents.

Over the next two years the Santa Fe’s ridership grew, and in 1878 Harvey signed a formal agreement to operate restaurants at its depots. By 1883, Fred Harvey managed seven-teen establishments, known as Harvey Houses, on the Santa Fe’s main line. The railroad shared building costs and moved Harvey’s food and supplies via the trains.

Harvey’s Rooms and Harvey’s Girls
In Fred Harvey’s main dining rooms, gentlemen wore jackets (dark, alpaca coats were kept on hand for those men who were inappropriately dressed). A second room served the same excellent food in a more informal setting, on highly polished, horseshoe-shaped mahogany lunch counters. Dinner cost sixty cents in the early years; the price climbed to one dollar in 1918. A typical meal included tenderloin or sirloin steak, french fries, broccoli, rolls, and coffee or tea. Since alkali tainted the water in many western states, Santa Fe trains brought untainted water to every Harvey House. Chrome-plated urns held a special blend of coffee (freshly made every two hours and reputed to be the best in town) that attracted locals as well as passengers.

Raising the Hospitality Bar
A respectable appearance and the ability to provide impeccable service k were required of all employees of Fred Harvey’s restaurants. A Harvey Girl dressed for breakfast and lunch in a white blouse with a black ribbon beneath her buttoned-up collar, an ankle-length skirt, and hosiery. She changed to a black skirt and shirtwaist, covered by a starched white apron, to serve dinner. The placement of each diner’s cup was coded: the “drink girl” knew a cup right-side up in the saucer meant coffee, and an upside-down cup meant tea. A cup placed beside a saucer received milk, while an up-side-down, cup tipped against the saucer received iced tea. Crisply dressed Harvey Girls tend the enormous coffee urns at the Casa del Desierto, a Harvey hotel in Barstow, California, which was later made famous in the 1946 film The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland. For his part, the manager of a Harvey House knew how many diners to expect before the passengers arrived at the station. A brakemen took a tally aboard the train, and the information was wired ahead. When the train was a mile away, the engineer blew a whistle to alert the station of the train’s approach. Then an attendant at the restaurant stepped outside to strike a brass gong with a wooden mallet, and the Harvey Girls placed the first course on tables where vases of flowers lent a cheerful air and silver pitchers filled with ice water waited for thirsty passengers. Fred Harvey held his managers to high standards, just as he did his Harvey Girls, and he often made unexpected visits to his establishments. Cracked china and chipped crystal were forbidden, and woe to the manager who served refrigerated orange juice—only juice from a freshly squeezed California orange would do. A white handkerchief was used to sweep dust from shelves and windows, and Harvey House floors were diligently scrubbed of mud tracked in by cowboy boots.

Harvey’s first employees were male, but when an all-night donnybrook in Raton, New Mexico, in 1883 left the entire Harvey House wait staff bloody, hung over, and unfit for work the following morning, they were all fired. A new manager recruited young ladies, whose efficient, sprightly service charmed both passengers and many a lonesome cowpoke in that rough-and-tumble town. Soon the “Harvey Girls” became as well known as the fine food Harvey served. Advertisements, placed in eastern and midwestern newspapers, sought women between eighteen and thirty years of age, of “good character, attractive, and intelligent,” with at least an eighth-grade education.

Harvey Girls traveled to frontier towns along the Santa Fe line in search of adventure, to achieve a degree of independence, and to work a decent job for a decent wage. Their average wage in the late 1800s was $17.50 per month, plus tips, coupled with free room and board. (Harvey Girls slept in dormitories watched over by “House Mothers.”) Many were from poor families and sent a portion of their wages home. Once a year every Harvey Girl was given a free ticket to ride the Santa Fe wherever she chose. Most elected a family visit.

To protect his investment in his new employees, Harvey inserted a special clause into every contract: a Harvey Girl would work seven days a week, travel where needed, and forfeit one-half of her wages if she married before completing the first year of her contract. The clause didn’t stop romance—approximately twenty thousand Harvey Girls married railway men, miners, cowboys, and ranchers. Will Rogers, the homespun humorist and writer, figured that Fred Harvey “kept the West in food and wives.” As Harvey Girls married and babies made their debut, a tradition came into being—the firstborn son would be named Fred; the second would be named Harvey.

Continuing the Tradition
A number of former Harvey Houses still operate as hotels, the best of which are located in the southwestern United States, along the route of-the former Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. El Tovar is situated twenty feet from the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, a site Fred Harvey believed would;, become a national tourist attraction. The hotel opened in; 1905—four years after Harvey’s death—as part of, the Santa Fe’s “destination resort.” Today it is a National Historic Landmark. Visitors can still watch the sun1 set over the canyon from rooms that once hosted such famous guests as President Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.  La Fonda, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was built in 1922 and operated as a Harvey House from 1926 to 1968. Since then, it has been owned locally. La Fonda is renowned as a grand hotel in the old style, from the southwestern arts and crafts that decorate the rooms and hallways to the fine dining offered at the courtyard restaurant, La Plazuela, which uses only ingredients grown in New Mexico.  La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona, was built in 1929 and was considered the masterpiece of architect Mary Colter, who de-signed many buildings^—and one dining car—for the Santa Fe railway. The current owners have restored the hotel to the elegance of the 1930s, and its famous restaurant, the Turquoise Room, combines contemporary southwestern cuisine with the occasional Fred Harvey recipe.

The Empire Expands
During the 1880s, Harvey Houses spread to Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oklahoma, and Texas. Eventually there were eighty-four Harvey restaurants across the West and Great Plains. Local producers supplied quail, prairie chickens (grouse), and vegetables, while milk, butter, and eggs came from Harvey’s own farms. In later years, there were Harvey Houses in all the Santa Fe’s principal railroad terminals, in addition to lunch counters in Santa Fe-owned subsidiary companies.

Harvey opened the first Harvey hotel, called the Clifton House, in Florence, Kansas, in 1878. Here he employed the former head chef of Chicago’s elegant Palmer House as general manager of all the Harvey Houses. Many Harvey hotels offered amenities such as ballrooms, used for dances and social events. The Casa del Desierto, a Harvey hotel in Barstow, California, achieved motion-picture fame in 1946, when it was used as the setting for the Academy Award-winning musical The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland, Angela Lansbury, and, in the uncredited role of a conductor, Byron Harvey Jr., the grandson of Fred Harvey and then vice president of the company. One of the hit songs written for the film was “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”

In 1892, the Santa Fe’s California Limited between Chicago and Los Angeles became the first of the Santa Fe’s trains to feature “Meals by Fred Harvey” in its new dining car. Little-neck clams, red snapper a la Creole, prime roast beef au jus (the choice cuts of beef came from Harvey’s own ranch), roast squab, and pistachio ice cream were some of the succulent items offered. Twice a week, a special refrigerated boxcar transported California fruits and vegetables and seafood to the railroad’s kitchens and supplied Kansas City meat on its return trip.

When Harvey signed his last contract with the Santa Fe on December 6, 1899, there were fifteen Harvey hotels, forty-seven restaurants, and thirty dining cars on the Santa Fe line. In 1901, ill with intestinal cancer, Harvey died; that same year, the first Santa Fe passenger train arrived at the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, long Harvey’s dream location for a resort hotel. Harvey was eulogized with these words: “Fred Harvey simply kept faith with the public.” Every person in his employ would receive a lifetime pension equal to his or her salary at the time of retirement. Harvey’s sons, Ford and Byron, carried on the family tradition of quality, care, and courtesy.

Changing Times
After World War I, the Harvey Company added the automobile to its repertoire by offering packaged tours of Native American villages and the Southwest. Chauffeur-driven “Harvey cars” transported tourists to scenic vistas, and Native American crafts and jewelry were sold in Harvey House gift shops. In the 1920s, Very Important People from the worlds of finance and commerce, as well as sports legends and film stars, were riding the rails between Chicago and Los Angeles on an elegant new train called the Chief, where they could and did relax, forget their diets, and indulge in fine cuisine and choice wines in dining cars run by the Harvey Company.

But the future of transportation changed in 1926, when the Ford Motor Company introduced the Ford Tri-motor airplane, known as the Tin Goose. With its twelve passenger seats and an attendant who served meals to passengers and helped the airsick, the Tri-motor encouraged the airlines to promote the passenger side of their industry, which began to compete with the railroads. Then the Great Depression closed many of Harvey’s restaurants; people could not afford to travel.

World War II gave the Harvey Houses an opportunity to feed military personnel on their way to unidentified destinations, traveling in troop trains without the comforts of the old dining I cars. Retired Harvey employees and townspeople volunteered to serve them, and thousands of men in uniform, who often arrived without notice, received a decent meal.

In 1945, the company’s hotels, depot dining rooms, dining cars, and retail shops took in a combined total of $37 million. But by the 1950s, rail-roads began tightening their belts as their passenger base dwindled. Air travel became less expensive, and, at the same time, the desire to hit the road with a car of one’s own became both widespread and affordable. Passenger service was eliminated on many rail lines, and Harvey Houses closed as fast-food restaurants spread throughout the United States.

Some Harvey Houses survive, reincarnated as museums, gift shops, and, in one case, a dinner theatre. Some of Harvey s finest hotels still operate successfully as resorts, and a few are national landmarks. The family’s management came to an end when Fred Harvey’s grandson, Byron Jr., died, and the Fred Harvey Company was eventually acquired by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which continues to operate Harvey resort properties in the Grand Canyon as well as concessions in Yellowstone Park, Mount Rush-more, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley, and the Petrified Forest. Fred Harvey’s standard of excellence lives on wherever—North, East, South, or West—a proprietor offers the public hospitality, quality dining, and attentive service for a fair price.