The Story of the Fred Harvey Company
At the turn of the 20th Century
traveling 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 traveling 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
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 travelers
could experience an exceptional meal and comfortable bed on their
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 traveled
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-traveling 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 travelers 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
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 comprised the first 'chain' business in the
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 maximize 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
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
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 'civilizing 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 recognizable 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
Fred Harvey was well-known for promoting Native American crafts to the
traveling 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 artifacts were exotic and popular with
travelers, 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
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
traveling 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 favored 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
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
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 recognized 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 realized its mistake too late
and built the new Alvarado Hotel on the site of the original which was
demolished in favor of a car park 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.
The Harvey Girls brought a civilizing influence to many communities with their good manners and social poise.
The stipulation that girls be of high moral character indicated explicitly the conduct that Harvey required of his female employees. Harvey Girls were paid a salary of $17.50 per month plus room and board—and gratuities. They lived in dormitories that were always near their work and were chaperoned by a matron who enforced their ten o’clock curfew.
James Henderson in his book "Meals by Fred Harvey"
Harvey Girl Training - Waitress
Harvey Girl Training - Hostess
Belen's Historic Harvey House Museum
104 North 1st Street
Belen New Mexico
Once part of the old Harvey House restaurant chain established along the Santa Fe Railway, the building now holds historical artifacts from the region, with many items related to the Fred Harvey Organization and the Santa Fe Railway.
If you like watching freight trains, the museum is located on the west side of the Belen Railyard, which sometimes sees nearly 100 trains a day.