Western Trips

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Atchison Topeka and Fred Harvey Civilize the Southwest

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and The Fred Harvey Company did more than any other entity in opening the American southwest to tourism. The great thing about their story is that they not only promoted the southwest but they did it in a way that essentially upgraded the travel experience. Many would say that they "civilized" the way people traveled.

needles hotel
Old Harvey House, Needles, CA
In the early days of the railroad it was quite rare to have dining cars. To allow passengers to have meals the train would stop every 80-100 miles. Trains, trying to stay on a schedule would allow the passenger perhaps one hour to eat. Hopefully the dining room was at the train station. If not you would have to search around town for an eating establishment. Finding a restaurant, ordering your meal, paying for it and making it back aboard the train all had to be accomplished in one hour. Hopefully you found a decent restaurant and hopefully you made it back to the train on time. If you didn't, the train didn't wait. The problem of missing trains while out looking for a place to eat became a big problem nationally. Friends and relatives would be waiting at a station and when the passenger didn't arrive there was no accurate way to find out what had happened. The train manifests were such that it was impossible to find out if someone was just lost or if something bad had happened during their journey.

Fred Harvey turned out to be the right man at the right time. Harvey had a background in the restaurant business going back to the time he emigrated from Scotland. Eventually he found a position as a railroad freight agent which required him to travel extensively. He knew as well as anybody the difficulty of finding decent restaurants along the rail routes. Fred Harvey had an idea.

picture of fred harvey
Frederick Henry Harvey
Harvey's current employer turned down his idea of establishing quality eating places along it's routes. In a chance encounter with Charles Morse, superintendent of the AT&SF, he explained his idea to him. Morse liked the idea. This started what many refer to as America's first fast food restaurant chain. Harvey's agreement with the AT&SF was that they would share the building costs and the railroad gave Harvey space on their trains for transporting his food and equipment. The Harvey House goal was to increase AT&SF ridership by offering it's passengers high quality food at reasonable prices. Harvey Houses typically offered tables with tablecloths and silverware. Something quite rare in the west at that time.

Harvey lunchrooms eventually could be found Kansas to California, all along the AT&SF route. By the late 1880's, there was a Harvey dining location every one hundred miles along the Santa Fe line. Harvey's food quality was aided in part by the AT&SF refrigerated cars which transported the freshest food available in all the southwest.

The AT$SF pressed Harvey into operating their new dining cars. Although he was reluctant to try to prepare quality meals on a rolling train, he did agree to and this added another positive marketing point for the AT&SF.

el tovar hotel
El Tovar, early 1900's
At it's zenith, the Harvey Houses numbered 84 and not all were on the AT&SF rail line. States with Harvey Houses included Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, New Mexico, Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma. The two most popular tourist hotels/restaurants that The Fred Harvey Company operated were considered by many to be the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon and the La Fonda Hotel on the Santa Fe New Mexico plaza. While neither one of these were directly on the AT&SF line, they were connected to it by spur lines. The traveling public associated a Harvey Hotel with quality.

The former Harvey House in Waynoka Oklahoma makes an excellent side trip. The building now houses the Waynoka History Museum on the second floor and a restaurant and gift shop on the ground floor. What's very interesting is that Waynoka and this Harvey House was part of the transcontinental airplane/train system. Started in 1929, this arrangement allowed a traveler to go between New York City and Los Angeles in 48 hours. An unheard travel time in that year. A passenger traveling westbound would take a Pennsylvania Railroad train from New York to Columbus Ohio. Then he/she would take a Ford Tri-Motor airplane from Columbus to Waynoka Oklahoma. After spending the night at the Harvey House in Waynoka the traveler would board an AT&SF train to Clovis New Mexico. From Clovis the passenger would fly to Los Angeles.

la fonda hotel in santa fe
La Fonda Hotel, 2011
Harvey could be said to be the inventor of cultural tourism.. His "Indian Detours" was a motorcoach tour company which operated out of Santa Fe New Mexico.Typically the tour began from La Fonda Hotel Santa Fe on the plaza and would usher tourists to the nearby Indian pueblos and other scenic attractions so plentiful in New Mexico. Guides would mostly be knowledgeable young women who often times might give historical lectures at the hotel prior to a tour. This began around 1925 when the AT&SF Railroad purchased the La Fonda from local investors and installed The Fred Harvey Company to manage the hotel. The AT&SF and Fred Harvey became a big part of Santa Fe history. Fred Harvey also had great success with his motor tours in the Grand Canyon area largely with tourists arriving via the AT&SF.

The "Harvey Girls" of course was synonymous with Harvey's operations. In 1883, Harvey decided to advertise in midwest and eastern papers for smart attractive and well mannered young women who would essentially be waitresses at his Harvey Houses. His motivation for this had to do with the type of clientele often seen in western restaurants and hotels in the late 1800's. That is very unsophisticated and rather rowdy individuals. The thought was that his "Harvey Girls" would lend a degree of civilized sophistication to the premises. The pay offered was really excellent for the era. It was $17.50 a month, plus tips. The women who were hired were transported west free of charge and given room and board. The Harvey Girls were nothing short of a spectacular success and are well remembered over a century later. The Harvey Girl was characterized by her starched, black-and-white uniforms, were overseen by a house mother and were on duty six or seven days a week. Below is a display of a Harvey uniform courtesy of Jot Powers. The Harvey Girls popularity was such that there was a 1946 musical filmed by MGM regarding the Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland. The Harvey Girls movie won an Academy Award for Best Song, "On the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe".

harvey girls uniform
After Fred Harvey's death in 1901 his family continued on with the business until 1968 when they sold it to the AmFac Corporation.. When Fred Harvey passed away there were 47 Harvey House restaurants, 15 hotels, and 30 dining cars operating on the AT&SF. The Harvey property chain was an amazing achievement. In Arizona alone Harvey had locations in Ash Fork, Flagstaff, Seligman, Williams, Winslow and the El Tovar on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.The Grand canyon Railway train station in Williams Arizona is a good reminder of the presence of Harvey Houses. Thousands of visitors see the train depot every year waiting to take the train north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The depot was once the Fray Marcos Hotel, a Harvey House and today a museum and gift shop. Williams is on Interstate-40 about a 30 minute drive west of Flagstaff.  In 1984 Williams entire downtown district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Railroads in the late 1800's did much to promote tourism throughout the west. They tapped into the curiosity of the easterner and promoted their scenic destinations heavily. Another example similar to what the AT&SF did for the American southwest was what the Northern Pacific Railroad did for the beautiful Glacier National Park.