Fred Harvey: Civilizing the West

Fred Harvey brought civilization, community and industry to the Wild West. His businesses eventually included restaurants, hotels, newsstands and railroad dining cars. His partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad introduced many new tourists to the American Southwest by making rail travel comfortable and adventurous. Employing many Native American artists, the Fred Harvey Company also collected indigenous examples of basketry, beadwork, Kachina dolls, pottery and textiles.

At the time of his death in 1901, Fred Harvey's business had generated 15 hotels, 47 restaurants and 30 dining car operations along the Santa Fe line. From 1901 through 1935, the Harvey Company built 23 hotels, of which only these are still in operation: El Tovar and the Bright Angel Lodge in the Grand Canyon, AZ and La Fonda in Santa Fe, NM.

Before Harvey, the only hotels out West were shacks or public rooms with cots. In 1870, Harvey built the Clifton Hotel in Florence, KS. It resembled a fine English home with fountains and candelabra in the surrounding garden and luxurious guest accommodations inside including an elegant dining room. At the turn of the century, other Harvey Houses of equal beauty included the Bisonte Hotel in Hutchinson, KS, the Sequoyah in Syracuse and El Vaquero in Dodge City, all built in Spanish Mission style. The first Harvey House hotel, in Emporia, KS served such celebrities as Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, Jackie Cooper and Gloria Swanson.

As the Santa Fe Railway moved across Kansas to Colorado and to New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, Harvey Houses opened every hundred miles or so. New Mexico was home to 16, five of them among the most beautiful in the system: the Montezuma and Castaneda in Las Vegas, La Fonda in Santa Fe, the Alvarado in Albuquerque, El Navajo in Gallup and El Ortiz in Lamy.

The most distinctive may have been the long-forgotten Montezuma in Las Vegas, NM. An enormous castle-like structure, built adjacent to hot mineral springs, it was the largest wood frame building in the country, with 270 rooms and an eight-story tower. Its connected spa-bathhouses served 500 a day and competed with the finest health resorts in the United States and Europe. After it burned to the ground in 1884, Harvey and the Santa Fe immediately rebuilt the million-dollar hotel. This second structure also suffered a serious fire and was again replaced in 1899. After Harvey's El Tovar opened at the Grand Canyon, the Montezuma closed in 1903.

Harvey arrived in the United States from his native England in 1850 at age 15. His first job was as “pot walloper”, or dishwasher, in a New York City café. While the Civil War was bad for restaurants, it was good for the railroad business, so Harvey made a career change and worked for railroads, enjoying travel all over the United States and developing an idea for a better railroad depot restaurant. After the Burlington Railroad turned that down, he struck a handshake deal with Santa Fe Railroad President Charles Morse, launching an unparalleled partnership.

Travelers of that era moved through Chicago on a slow journey westward on hard board seats in overcrowded crude coaches. At a time when most railroad food was poor and even inedible, Harvey provided appetizing and affordable meals in comfortable dining quarters. He opened his first railroad restaurant in Topeka in 1876.

The Santa Fe Railway provided the buildings for the Harvey restaurants, where all passenger trains would stop twice daily for meals. The railroad carried all the produce and supplies the restaurants needed. Harvey hired, trained and supervised all personnel and provided for food and service. His policy was “maintenance of standard, regardless of cost.” He believed profits would grow if service was excellent. “Meals by Fred Harvey” became the Santa Fe slogan. To maintain excellence, he hired and trained girls of the finest character, the famous Harvey Girls.


Harvey placed ads in Eastern and Midwestern newspapers that read: “Wanted, young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30.” Harvey Girls, trained to high standards of prompt and courteous service, were key to serving hundreds of passengers in about 20 minutes. Only whites were hired. There were no black women and only a few Hispanic and Indian women ever served as waitresses. European immigrant women were apparently acceptable. Minority workers, male and female, worked in the Harvey kitchens and hotels as maids, dishwashers and pantry girls. Harvey had no shortage of applicants.

Harvey Girls wore uniforms befitting a nun: a long-sleeved black dress with an“Elsie” collar, black shoes, black stockings and hairnets. The company furnished a full white wrap-around apron so stiffly starched it had to be pinned to a corset. Harvey Girls wore no jewelry or makeup and didn't chew gum. They worked hard, with eight-hour shifts often split to conform to train schedules. They were told what to wear, where to live, whom to date and when to go to bed. In the early years, they were asked not to marry for at least a year.

Harvey House workers were able to handle large numbers of passengers in a short time because the brakeman on the train would get their menu preferences and teletype that information ahead to Harvey House cooks. When the train pulled in and the passengers began to get off, a Harvey House staffer would strike a brass gong outside the entrance to the restaurant. This let passengers know instantly where to come, and the Harvey Girls were ready to serve them.

Harvey operations at Union Stations in Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles included newsstands, gift shops featuring Indian jewelry and weavings, barber shops, liquor stores, private dining rooms, restaurants, coffee shops, cafeteria, haberdashery, candy and fruit stands, miniature department stores, cocktail lounges and soda fountains. Harvey was among the first to market its own name-brand “designer” goods: Fred Harvey hats, shirts, shaving cream, candy, playing cards, even Harvey Special Blend whiskey. Except for the Prohibition years, Harvey sold exclusively a Scotch distilled by Ainslie & Heilbron in Glasgow. As a forerunner to Starbucks, Harvey packaged its own coffee for public sale in 1948. Already famous among Santa Fe travelers, Harvey sold 7,000 pounds in the first two weeks.

One diligent manager of a late-1940s Harvey House restaurant said, “When I want more business, I serve roast beef that is twice as thick as a boy's hand and half as broad as his chest. That brings them in.” That was a reflection of Fred Harvey's instruction, “Don't cut the ham too thin.”

After Fred Harvey's death, the Santa Fe Railway and Harvey company realized the extraordinary potential of the Old West as a source of income. Tourism became an industry as excursion trains with Pullman cars made stopovers at new hotels located in national parks like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest. The Harvey company built luxurious resort hotels with authentic southwestern building design and decoration. Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1889-1958) was Harvey's prime architect and interior designer from 1902 to 1948. She designed hotels, train stations, restaurants and gift shops with a brilliant use of Native American and Hispanic motifs.

Harvey and the Santa Fe included the Indian motif in all their brochures and advertising. In the 1930s, Colter designed an exclusive line of china for the Super Chief featuring designs based on ancient New Mexico pottery. Today, such pieces are highly collectible.

From 1901 through 1935, the Harvey Company built 23 hotels. Only these are still in operation: El Tovar and the Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon and La Fonda in Santa Fe, NM. The southwestern theme and the Harvey Girls may be Harvey's most lasting legacies.

In 1944, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made a movie called “The Harvey Girls” based on a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The musical featured Judy Garland, Preston Foster, Angela Lansbury and Cyd Charisse. It had songs such as “The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” “Wishing on a Loan of Hay” and “In the Valley Where the Evening Sun Goes Down.” While it idealized the Harvey Girls, it also stressed the civilizing influence of the Harvey Houses and the Santa Fe Railroad.

This article by hotel consultant Stanley Turkel is excerpted from his upcoming book, “Great Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry,” to be published in 2006 by McFarland & Company, Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640. Call Turkel at 917-628-8549 or e-mail

Will Rogers wrote of the Harvey Girls…

“In the early days, the traveler fed on the buffalo. For doing so, the buffalo got his picture on the nickel. Well, Fred Harvey should have his picture on one side of the dime and one of his waitresses with her arms full of delicious ham and eggs on the other side, ‘cause they have kept the West supplied with food and wives.”

Reprints and Licensing
© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

Acceptable Use Policy
blog comments powered by Disqus

Most Recent

More Recent Articles

Career Center

Quick Job Search
Enter Keyword(s):
Enter a City:

Select a State:

Select a Category:
Franchise Fact File Top Brands
Brand Company Basics Top Management Companies
Owners & Operators Industry Consultants
Industry Associations Industry Events
Design Firms Purchasing Companies
Top Ownership Groups

Click here to view all of the Lodging Hospitality Photo Galleries

Accor Best Western
Carlson Rezidor Choice
Hilton Hyatt
IHG La Quinta
Marriott Starwood
Vantage Wyndham

Free Product Information
News and Trends for the Hotel, Motel, and Hospitality Markets.

Lodging Hospitality eReport
Lodging Hospitality electronic newsletters are FREE to requested subscribers.

Lodging Hospitality Resource Center
The Lodging Hospitality Resource Center is the ultimate resource to find products and services to build, equip, and renovate hotels, motels and resorts.

Subscribe / Renew
Visit our subscription center to subscribe or renew your subscription to Lodging Hospitality.

Visit our webinars page to view all our upcoming and on demand webinars.

Visit our White Papers page to view all our current White Papers.