Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Belen New Mexico Harvey House

belen new mexico harvey house
Belen Harvey House Museum
Western Trips found a great addition to your New Mexico travel planner. The Harvey House in Belen New Mexico, one of the eighty-four Harvey Houses in the nation, served meals to Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad passengers from 1910 to 1940. The railroad built down to Belen in 1880 and the town  had been a very busy railroad town and today still is. When the Belen Harvey House was operating for the railroad, the entire area around the depot and the dining room was an active depot district. The Harvey House, in addition to being a dining room and residence for the Harvey Girl workers, was also a center of civic activity. Fred Harvey had a good arrangement with the railroad. The story is that the railroad would split the building costs for any new construction with Harvey. The AT & SF would also set aside space on their trains for the free transportation of meat, seafood, produce and supplies and equipment needed to operate a dining room. This no doubt allowed Harvey to gain the reputation of quality dining he attained.

In the book The Train Stops Here; New Mexico's Railroad Legacy by author Marci L. Riskin, the author points out that the exact date of the dining room's construction is unknown but most likely 1910 due to the fact that this was the time of substantial traffic increase in Belen because of the building of the Belen Cut-Off. Fred Harvey had already built the large Alvarado Harvey House in 1902. The Belen Cut-Off ran almost straight east-west between belen and Clovis New Mexico on the Texas border. The cut-off, which only cut six miles from the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles, became the preferred way to ship freight. The grades encountered on this route were much less than the Santa Fe's mainline passenger route that crossed over Raton Pass on the New Mexico-Colorado border and over Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe.

belen new mexico railroad museum
South side of old Belen Harvey House facing depot
The two-story Belen Harvey House was built in the Mission Revival style which you will see in many of the surviving structures around the state.This Harvey House was constructed with a basement which came in handy for storage. This was one of the few structures in Belen with a basement since the water table was high. Reportedly, the Belen Harvey House did have some problems with water entering the basement. The dining room could seat over 60 diners and included a U-shaped counter that was seen in some other Harvey dining rooms such as the one in Slaton Texas. The bricks for the platform in front of both the depot and Harvey House were constructed using Coffeyville and Trinidad bricks. There was also a beautiful lawn on both the north and south side of the building. This was something very unique and welcomed by Belen which has a general high desert landscape. Today, the old Harvey House operates as a museum, and a very well appointed one. The address is 104 North First Street.

belen new mexico model railroad display
The museum is filled with artifacts, photos and posters depicting the passenger railroad era of Belen. The exhibits are both railroad and town related. You will also be treated to a magnificent model train display which has been created in several rooms in the rear of the museum. The unique model railroad display shows the layout of buildings and the rail yards during the early 1900's. All of this was created by the Belen Model Railroad Club and it's definitely worth a visit. Another fine exhibit on the first floor of the museum is a replica of a Harvey Girl bedroom exactly the way it would have appeared in the 1920's. Among the many railroad exhibits inside the Harvey House museum is an authentic Santa Fe Switching Panel of the era shown below. You'll be able see old time tables of the AT & SF trains, a conductor uniform, a Harvey Girl uniform, telegraph equipment, residence rooms on the second floor and a host of other very interesting and authentic exhibits.

railroad switching panel
AT & SF Switching Panel
The Fred Harvey Company stopped operating the dining room in 1935. When they departed, local citizens continued to run the dining room until about 1940. Activity picked up during World War Two with the transportation of soldiers and the old Harvey House was opened to make box lunches for troops passing through on the railroad.

After the war, the AT & SF converted the building into a book reading room and card room for railroad employees and a place for them to just socialize. The building was vacant for many years until 1982 when the Valencia County Historical Society saved the structure from the wrecking ball. As an example, the old elegant and large Alvadado Harvey House in Albuquerque was unfortunately demolished in 1970.  After the society took over the building they restored the interior and set it up as an excellent museum. If your travels take you anywhere near Belen New Mexico, this truly is a must stop.

Three related Harvey House articles we've published are The Slaton Texas Harvey House, the La Castaneda Harvey House and the La Posada in Winslow Arizona.

Belen remains a very active rail yard for the BNSF Railroad today. Belen is a major maintenance and  refueling point for freight trains traveling between Los Angeles and Texas. It's estimated that some one hundred trains move through the Belen rail yard each day picking up cars, switching and refueling. It's a very busy place. Today's Amtrak Southwest Chief that travels between Chicago and Los Angeles over the old Raton Pass AT & SF main line cuts off to the west shortly before reaching Belen. Long distance passenger service no longer passes through Belen but there is a great short distance alternative with the New Mexico Rail Runner. The Rail Runner offers commuter train service from Belen in the south all the way up to Santa Fe in the north.

See our article on the historic Doodlebug locomotive on display in Belen.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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