Fred Harvey Brings Fine Dining to the Old West

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Frederick Henry Harvey

Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girl waitresses created a unique dining experience in the 1800s. Many of Fred Harvey’s restaurants are still in operation to this day.

Frederick Henry Harvey (June 27, 1835 – February 9, 1901) was 15 years old when he left his home in Liverpool, England and headed for the United States to make his fortune. He worked various jobs in restaurants and eventually opened his own dining establishment. He worked for a few different railroad companies, as well. In the early days of rail travel, many restaurants at railroad stops served little more than beans and bread, and some restaurant owners bribed conductors to pull the whistle early before customers could receive food they already paid for. Fred Harvey quickly recognized a need for fast food, good food, and good service along the railroad lines.

Fred Morse and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad

In 1870, Fred Morse, president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, offered Harvey a management position with the Topeka, Kansas depot restaurant on the Santa Fe line. Harvey’s wise business decisions and practices soon earned him the position of overseeing all meals served on the Santa Fe Railroad lines. He was reluctant when the railroad suggested adding dining cars to their trains, but took on this project with his usual fervor and made it work. He also supervised the lunch counters added to the ferries that connected the railroad with San Francisco. Harvey founded a restaurant and hotel empire from his position as railroad concessionaire with 47 depot diners and restaurants, 15 railroad hotels, and 30 dining cars.

Fred Harvey Set his Sights on Raising Industry Standards

The popularity of the Fred Harvey enterprises was accomplished by treating all customers equally, as long as they were dressed for the occasion and behaved with proper manners. Harvey kept jackets on hand for the coatless. He escorted rowdy customers out the door, but allowed them to return when their behavior was more appropriate. The table settings in the Harvey dining halls were impeccable, the food was delicious and served in exceptionally large portions, and the service was flawless. Harvey hired architect Mary Jane Colter to design many of the buildings for The Fred Harvey Company in a way that would reflect a natural setting and highlight Native American architecture styles, including the LaFonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico and La Posada in Winslow, Arizona. Harvey’s approach was a novel one for the American Old West, but his customers appreciated his high standards.

The Harvey Girls

Harvey soon discovered that male waiters did not always mix well in towns filled with rowdy cowboys so he reformed his policy to a female-only serving staff. He placed advertisements in search of single, well-mannered women between the ages of 18 and 30 with the additional suggestion that they should be both attractive and intelligent. The women were given conservative black and white uniforms with black stockings and black shoes. They were supervised by house mothers and had strict 10 p.m. curfews. They were paid $17.50 per month plus tips, room and board. It is estimated that over 5000 Harvey Girls found husbands through their employment. The popularity of the Harvey Girls grew even stronger when Judy Garland starred in the film version of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel The Harvey Girls in 1946.

The Blue Plate Special

A “blue plate special” is a term used by restaurants, diners and cafes referring to a daily meal offered at a lower than usual price and generally served on a blue plate that was manufactured with sections to separate the meat entrée from three vegetable side dishes. The phrase was a common one in diners from the 1920s to the 1950s and word detective Michael Quinion and his investigators have traced the origin of the term to an 1892 Fred Harvey Company Restaurant menu, as explained on Quinion’s popular website World Wide Words.

The Fred Harvey Legacy Lives On

After his death in 1901, the Fred Harvey legacy was carried on by his sons, Ford and Byron. Eventually, the Fred Harvey Company restaurants could be found in train and bus stations, as well as airport terminals, and even on the Illinois Tollway. In 1968, Amfac Corporation purchased the Fred Harvey Company. The corporation was renamed Xanterra Parks & Resorts. By that time, some of the hotels were demolished or closed, but a few remain open to this day. The Casa del Desierto in Barstow, California was refurbished in 1999 into museums and city offices; the El Garces in Needles, California is currently undergoing restoration; the La Posada in Winslow, Arizona was reopened as a historic hotel; the Fray Marcos in Williams, Arizona was reopened as a hotel and train depot for the Grand Canyon Railway; and the El Tovar of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the LaFonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico are both still in operation. On their official website, Xanterra Parks & Resorts credits their legacy of hospitality leadership to Fred Harvey.

Resources and Suggested Reading:

  1. Duke, Donald. Santa Fe: The Railroad Gateway to the American West. Golden West Books: California, 1997.
  2. Foster, George H. and Weiglin, Peter C. The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining Along the Santa Fe Railroad. Longstreet Press: Atlanta, 1992.
  3. Henderson, James David. Meals by Fred Harvey. Texas Christian University Press. Fort Worth, 1969.
  4. Morris, Juddi. The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West. Walker Publishing, 1994.
  5. Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls, Women Who Opened the West. Paragon House: New York, 1989.
  6. Quinion, Michael. “Blue Plate Special.” World Wide Words.
  7. The Harvey Girls. Dir. George Sidney. MGM, 1946.
  8. Wheeler, Keith. “Fred Harvey’s gallant girls and fine food.” The Old West: The Railroaders. Time Life Books. Canada: 1973.