Western Trips

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Harvey House / La Castaneda

Fred Harvey was credited for establishing both America's first true restaurant chain as well as building some of the most popular hotels during the nation's booming railroad era. The Harvey House chain gained world fame. Together with the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Fred Harvey made the railroad trip west a much more comfortable adventure.  

Harvey partnered himself with the AT& SF Railroad. Trains in the late 1800's lacked refrigeration systems and dining cars, so Harvey built a restaurant every 200 miles along the Santa Fe's tracks. It worked marvelously and attracted additional passengers to the line. What these dining rooms added was a high degree of quality that travelers could count on.

las vegas new mexico plaza
Historic buildings around the Las Vegas NM Plaza
Las Vegas New Mexico

During the railroad era Las Vegas boomed and became one of the largest cities in the American southwest. At the same time it was realized that suitable hotels and hospitality were greatly needed. High quality railroad hotels and dining rooms were quite popular with the traveling public. 

The Fred Harvey Company as well as the AT& SF built the La Casteneda Harvey House in Las Vegas New Mexico, about 55 miles east of Santa Fe. The AT& SF also built another magnificent hotel in Las Vegas NM called  Montezuma's Castle. This was a 400 room, 90,000 square foot building that operated beginning in 1886. Prior to that there were two earlier buildings on the site in 1881 and 1885. When the railroad constructed the hotel they were taking advantage of the natural hot springs adjacent to it. This was quite a tourist draw and even today you can relax in one of the outdoor hot water tubs. In it's day it was a nationally popular resort in Las Vegas NM.

The Historic La Castaneda

la castenada in las vegas new mexico
Left wing of La Castaneda Hotel
La Castaneda was built as a 50,000 square foot railroad hotel in 1898. This Harvey House was considered an absolute jewel in the Fred Harvey chain and was built as a luxury resort reached by passengers from the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad whose tracks ran directly in front.

La Castaneda is one of the earliest Harvey Houses to be built in the Mission Revival style. The architects of this grand hotel and resort were Frederick Roehrig and A. ReinschThe Rawlings Building which is across the street from the hotel and the Las Vegas train station was used during the period to house the Harvey Girls who staffed the La Castaneda. The Harvey Girls and their history is a unique part of the Fred Harvey tradition. Harvey Girls were held to extremely high standards and did much for the reputation of the Harvey Houses.

When you walk around the depot area today you'll see several turn of the century buildings. The railroad district is about one and one-half miles east of the plaza. La Castaneda was a sister hotel to Albuquerque's Alvarado Hotel, which was unfortunately demolished in 1970.

Refrigerator Cars Brought in Fresh Food

To add to the quality of food that Fred Harvey was so noted for, the AT& SF Railroad brought in fresh meat to the Harvey House with their new refrigerator rail cars. Food could virtually be brought in from anywhere in the country. There was also a dairy facility in Las Vegas that made it possible to consistently offer fresh milk to customers. As many people know, Fred Harvey was able to offer good food portions at reasonable prices and this plus The Fred Harvey Company's well known quality made the Harvey Houses a big hit with the traveling public. When the AT& SF Railroad finally added dining cars to their routes, Fred Harvey was asked to mange these as well.

la castenada harvey house
Right wing of old Harvey House in Las Vegas, NM
Another thing that Fred Harvey was well noted for was his automobile tours of the surrounding area. He established the tours in several locations including from the La Castaneda, the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe and from the El Tovar at the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

All of these hotels were a Harvey House. Visitors to a Harvey House in New Mexico would also be offered authentic Indian products such as jewelry and pottery. Because the railroad and Fred Harvey were at the very forefront of American southwest travel, their names became a real part of the southwest.

Two additional related articles of ours you'll find interesting are Fred Harvey and the AT& SF Civilize the Southwest and the Harvey House in Slaton Texas which today operates as a very unique B & B.

Other Interesting Harvey Houses in the West

There are many old Harvey Houses spread west of the Mississippi River and into California. Each has had their own destiny. Some have been demolished such as the old Alvarado in Albuquerque which is unfortunate. Others have been turned into museums and in the case of the Slaton Texas, into a B & B. These old structures, although outdated and many in need of drastic restoration, truly do stand as monuments to a time when the railroad was king and western expansion and tourism was growing rapidly.

harvey house in las vegas nm
View of La Castaneda wrap around porch
Today, the old La Castaneda Hotel is in the hands of private owners. The hotel today is essentially the way it was originally built. It is closed up except for a small bar that opens in the late afternoon. It's unclear what the future holds for this historic landmark.

Passengers traveling on today's Amtrak Southwest Chief which runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles get a real good glimpse of the former Harvey House hotel as they stop at the train station directly next door. People passing by Las Vegas New Mexico on Interstate 25 can also see the old La Castaneda about two blocks off the Interstate along the train tracks.

If your western road trip takes you through this part of New Mexico on the Interstate, I would highly recommend a stop at the Las Vegas railroad district. Visiting Las Vegas New Mexico and the old Fred Harvey La Castaneda is a fine addition to your western road trip vacation planner.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

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