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Fred Harvey arrived in the United States in 1850 as a teenage immigrant from Britain. He immediately worked his way up in the restaurant industry, from waiter to manager. He had a successful business in St. Louis only to see it destroyed financially by the Civil War and a business partner loyal to the South. By the time he came to establish his first railroad restaurant in 1876, he had half a dozen careers behind him. But he knew the hospitality business, at least, better than railway owners.

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In 1875, having spent many hours contemplating the services he had been experiencing while traveling by rail as a freight agent and businessman, Harvey partnered with J. P. Rice to provide eating houses at two stops along the Kansas Pacific Railroad. He then approached the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway with a proposal to run dining establishments for passengers on the route of their Western services. The Santa Fe had already started providing some meal services (they were “adequate but not exceptional,” writes James D. Henderson in his 1966 history of Harvey’s career). But Harvey went all-out, offering a high-quality menu when he opened his first restaurant for the Santa Fe in January 1876.

“A typical breakfast consisted of steak with eggs, hash brown potatoes, a stack of six pan-sized wheat cakes with maple syrup, and apple pie with coffee for dessert,” Henderson notes.

Harvey soon expanded the number of restaurants, which would come to be known as Harvey Houses. Passengers were amazed when they arrived at some dusty depot and found food that matched that in quality restaurants back east. On top of this, Harvey also proposed turning boxcars into dining rooms, providing passengers with clean facilities, efficient service, and remarkable menus even when in motion.

“When dining car service on the Santa Fe line was initiated in 1883, the menu featured Blue Points [oysters] on shell, salmi of duck, stuffed turkey, and Kansas City fillet,” writes Henderson.

“Meals by Fred Harvey” became part of the railway’s marketing, which meant Harvey needed to maintain high standards. He realized that running a chain (his Harvey Houses were hundreds of miles of rail track apart) meant staying on top of all that was going on. This included dropping in unannounced, to check on things.

“The surprise visit was a device brought to perfection by Harvey,” explains Henderson. “In 1881, while on one of his whirlwind tours, he devastated the staffs of several Houses,” firing managers that didn’t meet his expectations in dramatic fashion. (Henderson shares a legend that had Harvey tossing the manager and dining room equipment of the Las Vegas Harvey House out onto the platform during one such visit.)

While the Harvey House was celebrated for its food, it would also become famous for its “Harvey Girls,” the white-uniformed waitresses staffing the restaurants, all trained to follow precise rules on how to fill a glass and place silverware on the table.

Harvey didn’t start out employing women, however. Initially the waitstaff were male, and it wasn’t Harvey himself but one of his managers who struck on the idea of hiring young women instead—after an issue with absent male staff thanks to damage from fistfights the previous evening. But on this, too, Harvey went all-in to promote high standards.

Dorms were set up for the waitresses, with dorm mothers or matrons to supervise and curfews enforced. Harvey emphasized that his waitresses were respectable young women of “good character,” so that kind of supervision was expected. It also reassured young women (and their families) who might be considering heading west to take a job and wanted to know they would be safe.

Alison Owings interviewed former “Harvey Girl” Verna Welsh for Gastronomica in 2003. Welsh was twenty years old when she began working at La Posada, the last Harvey House to be built, in the late 1930s. Designed by architect Mary Colter, La Posada sprawled across eight acres next to the Santa Fe tracks in Winslow, Arizona. Welsh thought she’d be working at the front desk, but the only job available when she arrived was waiting tables. She’d worked as a waitress before, but the Harvey House was different.

“As a Harvey Girl, we worked shifts, and the shifts were round-the-clock; six a.m. to two, and then two to ten, and then ten to six,” she remembers. “We rotated. I preferred the two to ten. Then I could sleep late. I didn’t care for the night shift.”

Meal orders were sent ahead from the train so the Harvey House staff could be ready, but they still had to work quickly. The train stopped at mealtimes, and both the crew and passengers had to be served within a limited window of time. As she recalls,

The passenger trains that came through stopped for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the preparations were made [by the kitchen] before the train arrived…so they had food they could get out in a hurry. Usually they would tell them they had thirty minutes to eat, [but] it went a little bit longer than that. If people were still eating or if there were more people and they couldn’t get waited on in that particular amount of time…the train wouldn’t go off and leave them, is what I’m trying to say.”

No matter the rush, she notes, they had to do it “properly,” which meant “serving from the left, picking up the dirty dishes from the right. We were to anticipate any extra needs.
If people needed more water, more coffee, more bread or butter, we were to serve that without them having to ask.”

Although Welsh couldn’t have known it, she was working at the tail end of the Harvey House phenomenon. The outbreak of World War II saw the rails and restaurants serving troops instead, and with postwar growth, the interstate highway, and air travel, the Harvey Houses would finally close altogether in 1957.

But as Henderson writes, “Fred Harvey’s amalgamation of cuisine, service, and feminine charm made an impression on the Wild West that the region has not forgotten.”

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Arizona and the West, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Winter 1966), pp. 305–322
Journal of the Southwest
Gastronomica, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter 2003), pp. 103–106
University of California Press