The Story of the Fred Harvey Company
Created | Updated Sep 27, 2010
At the turn of the 20th Century travelling by rail in the US was in its prime. Tracks went left and right, up and down, and wherever the trains went there were passengers to go with them. The early days of travelling by train promised much in the way of excitement and adventure, but not so much in the way of comforts and amenities. Trips to the 'Wild West' took days as the distance was great and the trains had to stop regularly for water and services.
Most passenger trains had no sleeping cars and none had food service; riders might have had up to an hour during a stop to find the nearest roadhouse to the tracks and hope for the best. The food was mediocre when it was edible at all, and many a passenger ended up stranded at the station when the train left before their meal was finished.
In the late 1800s passenger service improved as entrepreneur Fred Harvey introduced an unprecedented level of amenities and service in his Harvey Houses across the southwest United States. For the first time travellers could experience an exceptional meal and comfortable bed on their western trek.
Frederick Henry Harvey was born in 1835 in Liverpool, England. In 1850, at the age of 15, Mr Harvey left England for New York where he went to work in the restaurant business almost immediately. He learned more of the business as he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, and then to St Louis, Missouri, in 1855. He opened his first restaurant in St Louis with the help of a partner. The very next day, in April of 1861, the American Civil War broke out.
The Civil War was bad news for the restaurant industry, but good news for the rail industry. Mr Harvey's business partner left to join the Confederacy and the restaurant closed. Mr Harvey moved on to St Joseph, Missouri, where he went to work for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (commonly known as the 'Burlington').
Over the course of the next several years Harvey would move up in the railroad industry, eventually becoming a freight agent. He travelled often in his job, and in 1865 relocated to Leavenworth, Kansas. During his travels he experienced first-hand the amenities, or lack thereof, available to rail passengers and felt they left much to be desired. Having much experience in the restaurant industry, Harvey approached the manager of the Burlington with an idea to provide quality food service for passengers. Burlington didn't feel the idea had merit.
The Fred Harvey Company
Confident that there was a better way to serve rail passengers, Mr Harvey took his idea to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (the 'Santa Fe'). Manager Charlie Morse, a gourmet himself, loved the idea and decided to give Harvey a chance. In 1876, Fred Harvey opened his first lunch counter inside the Topeka, Kansas, train station on the Santa Fe line.
Mr Harvey's focus was on providing excellent food served promptly in an environment intent on cleanliness and friendliness, tailored to the specific needs of rail passengers. The overwhelming success of this venture led to a verbal contract between Harvey and the Santa Fe to provide food service to the rail-travelling public, and the Fred Harvey Company was born.
For the next 60 years the Fred Harvey name would be synonymous with excellent quality, great value and first-class service. Lunch counters and dining rooms were established at stops along the entire Santa Fe line, some inside the depots and some in adjacent buildings. Hotels to house overnight travellers and Harvey employees were included at some stops, and Fred Harvey newsstands were built as well, even in some locations that had no restaurant or hotel. When dining cars were introduced on Santa Fe trains in the 1890s the Harvey Company held the contract to operate them as well. Harvey's efficiency was such that a Harvey dining car could serve an entire train full of passengers in 30 minutes.
At the time of Fred Harvey's death in 1901, the company owned 47 restaurants, 15 hotels and 30 dining cars on the Santa Fe line. At its peak the Harvey Company operated more than 80 Harvey Houses. The restaurants and hotels made up the first 'chain' business in the world.
Building an Empire
The contract with Santa Fe provided for the railroad to split building costs with the Harvey Company for new construction. The railroad would also designate space on the trains for free transport of fresh produce, meat and seafood, as well as equipment and other supplies.
Mr Harvey was very particular about the establishments he created. Dining rooms were spotless and immaculately set with imported linens. Meals were prepared from the best ingredients and served efficiently and hot on real china plates with silver utensils and crystal glassware. Portions were larger than the standard; a slice of pie would be 1/4 pie instead of 1/6 or 1/8. To maintain the atmosphere, men dining were required to wear a coat and tie; if a diner didn't have them the house would provide them for him.
In order to serve a meal to an entire train of diners in the allotted time, a system was developed requiring all employees to perform specific roles to maximise efficiency.
- The menu would be limited to just two main dish offerings with the same side dishes1. This way, when a train was expected, the meals could be set up in advance of its arrival.
- A crew member on the train was responsible for wiring ahead to alert the restaurant to the number of diners it would be expecting, and possibly their meal choices as well.
- A spotter at the Harvey House would wait on the tracks for first sight of the train and bang a gong to alert the rest of the staff when it had been sighted.
- When the employees heard the train whistle at the station they were prepared to receive the diners. An employee would stand at the entrance to the door and bang the gong again to draw the passengers' attention to the location of the dining room.
- As diners were seated, Harvey Girls went in pairs to take drink orders. The first girl asked the diner what their choice was and set the glass at the table in such a way that told the second girl what beverage to pour. Meals were served immediately.
Following this system, a Harvey House could serve up to eight trains a day.
As the Harvey properties spread ever-further west with the railroad, Mr Harvey became increasingly dissatisfied with the local men applying for positions on his all-male staff2. They tended to be rowdy and argumentative, unrefined and 'as wild as the west'. In the early 1880s Mr Harvey released all of his waiters and hosts, and replaced them with waitresses and hostesses - the Harvey Girls.
Harvey Girls had to be between the ages of 18 and 30, single, attractive, friendly, intelligent and adept conversationalists. The company advertised for girls in the east and midwest US to bring a bit of refinement and charm to the untamed west. For this Fred Harvey is credited with 'civilising the American Southwest'.
In exchange for employment, girls were required to sign a contract agreeing not to marry for the duration of their employment. They received wages of $17.50 a month plus tips, room and board as well as uniforms. The uniform consisted of a long black dress that fell no more than eight inches from the floor with a full white apron, black stockings and black shoes. Their hair had to be pulled back with a regulation white ribbon and they were forbidden to wear make-up. They became the darlings of the west and many young ranchers and farmers hoped to catch the eye of a local Harvey Girl. The girls became the company's most recognisable icon.
Harvey House Hotels
At major stops along the Santa Fe route, the Harvey Company commissioned landmark Harvey Houses. The standard house included luxurious guest rooms as well as staff quarters, a restaurant that featured a large formal dining room and sometimes a lunch counter as well, and usually a newsstand or gift shop. Many Harvey Houses also had a ballroom for hosting local social events and dances.
Harvey Houses appeared in dozens of towns, averaging one for every 100 miles of the Santa Fe line from Kansas to Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Renowned 'Wild West' towns like Dodge City, Kansas, or Las Vegas, New Mexico3, featured Harvey House Hotels, as well as Slaten, Texas, Needles, California and several at the Grand Canyon. Each building was unique to its location; no two Harvey Houses were alike.
Fred Harvey was well-known for promoting Native American crafts to the travelling public. He sold many original Native American pieces as souvenirs to his guests, and through his promotion practically created the market for Native American goods. He would often invite the artisans to demonstrate their crafts at his shops. A few Harvey Houses even included a building specifically for the artisans to work in, producing their wares on-site. The artefacts were exotic and popular with travellers, reflecting the natural beauty of the 'new frontier' and serving to draw more tourist attention out west. A few examples of Native American crafts from Harvey Houses are on display in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
The End of an Era
Although the Harvey Company's strongest association is with the Santa Fe Railroad, by the 1920s they were establishing locations on other prominent railroads including the Kansas Pacific and the St Louis-San Francisco. There were Harvey dining rooms in major stations such as St Louis Union Station4, Chicago Union Station and La Grand Station in Los Angeles.
The Great Depression during the 1930s was hard on the Harvey Company as many people couldn't afford to travel for pleasure, and those who were travelling certainly couldn't afford his brand of amenities. A few Harvey Houses closed during this time, but many managed to survive only to fall victim to the post-war automotive boom over the following twenty years.
When Fred Harvey died in 1901 the company was taken over by his sons and a few partners. When the last of his sons passed away in the late 1930s the company left Harvey control for the first time. After World War II, more Americans favoured the rapidly expanding national highway system for cross-country travel, and the passenger rail service declined. As ridership dwindled, the railroads ran fewer trains and eliminated smaller stops along the line. The Harvey Houses, which were owned by the railroad, were sometimes converted to office or storage space for the railroad or sometimes simply abandoned or demolished.
In an effort to maintain its livelihood, the company moved away from the rails, becoming concessionaires for many state and national parks. It provided only a temporary reprieve however, and the company was purchased by Hawaii-based Amfac in 1968. Amfac dissolved the Harvey Company and created the Fred Harvey Trading Company, a division in its operations specifically for operating the shops in national parks and spas that it held contracts with. In 2002 Amfac became Xanterra, and it continues to trade on the Harvey name though its only ties to the Harvey Company are the hotels at the Grand Canyon which were originally Harvey Houses.
Although a very few Harvey Houses remain in business, the legacy of Fred Harvey with his impossibly high standards of excellence and service and his iconic Harvey Girls was lost in the 1960s as the original company dwindled.
Pieces of the Legend
The Harvey Houses met many fates throughout the remainder of the 20th Century. Most of them were torn down by the railroad, or sold to buyers who tore them down. Approximately one-third of the buildings remain and several of them have been abandoned and left to ruin. There is a growing interest in saving and restoring the buildings that are left.
Some cities recognised the value of the magnificent buildings that were left behind. They've been refurbished as office buildings or given over to community use. One is now a library, one an antique shop and one a city hall; a few continue to be depots for the railroad or Greyhound national buses. Many now host museums.
Since Route 66 closely followed the path of the Santa Fe Railroad, several towns on the highway had Harvey Houses. The locations along Route 66 have probably fared the best; the popularity of westward travel on the Main Street of America meant that the buildings were still in sight and not forgotten. Several still serve as hotels, including La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico, La Posada in Winslow, Arizona (the last Harvey House built), and the Frey Marcos, which is now the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, Arizona. Several locations are in various states of restoration like the Havasu in Seligman, Arizona, and El Garces in Needles, California. Albuquerque realised its mistake too late and built the new Alvarado Hotel on the site of the original which was demolished in favour of a carpark in 1970.
The Harvey family home in Leavenworth, purchased by Fred Harvey in 1883, is now owned by the Leavenworth Historical Museum and operated as the Fred Harvey Museum. The very first Harvey Hotel, the Clifton House built in 1878 in Florence, Kansas, is now a museum and restaurant featuring Harvey Girl waitresses and tour guides and original Harvey House recipes. Tours are only available to groups by reservation.