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Purveyor To The West

July 2024
15min read

To a culinary wilderness Fred Harvey brought civilized cooking—and pretty girls to serve it.

A not inconsiderable number of agencies have been credited with bringing what passed for civilization to the Old West. First and foremost is the United States Cavalry, with the assistance of Sam Colt’s single-action frontier model pacifier and the Winchester magazine rifle. The peace officers and city marshals of the Kansas cow towns, again with an assist from Colt and Winchester, also rank high in popular esteem as agents of sweetness and light. So does the princely banking and express firm of Wells, Fargo & Company, aboard whose Abbot & Downing Concord coaches, routed and administered from Montgomery Street, San Francisco, the amenities of urban life—strolling players, clergymen, prostitutes, forty-rod whiskey, and frontier newspaper editors—reached mining outposts like the Comstock, the Coeur d’Alêne country, and the diggings at Treasure Hill.

Still another claimant as a vehicle of lux et veritas was the iron horse. In its trailing palace cars rode the frock coats and gold-headed walking canes of lordly finance; it brought to the frontier grand opera troupes, and English commentators whose patrician snarls in print and condescending approval were received with local raptures in Cherry Creek and the adobes of Santa Fe. Finally, it brought the refining influence of civilized dining to an area where burnt cow and rifle whiskey had hitherto constituted the height of gastronomic ambition. Its agent in this last endeavor was a young Englishman named Fred Harvey.

There was little about Harvey to suggest a Roman proconsul bringing the enlightened authority of the Empire to the farthest reaches of Gaul or Asia Minor. Nor, except for a common English ancestry and background, was there much about the mild-mannered man of pots and sauces to suggest the shapers of the British reign who for three abundant centuries gave Britannia dominion over palm and pine. And yet on a scale and to a degree of perfection that has become part of the folklore of the trans-Mississippi West, Harvey imposed a rule of culinary benevolence over a region larger than any Roman province and richer than any single British dominion save India.

Where the grunt and growl of frontier barbarism had held sway, Fred Harvey endorsed a law of “please” and “thank you.” Where the inhabitants had rooted about in a beans-and-bacon wilderness, he made the desert bloom with vintage claret and quail in aspic. It was quite an achievement.

In 1876 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe was fairly small punkins as railroads went in the West. Starting at the Topeka of its corporate title, it had barely reached Pueblo, Colorado. It had yet to engage in its epic struggle with the narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Western for possession of Raton Pass, which was to give it access to the high plains of New Mexico and, eventually, to all the great Southwest. It was nowhere near the Santa Fe of its title, and, in fact never did include that city in the main line, though the line was to run all the way from the shores of Lake Michigan to Los Angeles.

The Santa Fe was, like all railroads of the time, full of optimism. When its founder, side-whiskered Cyrus K. Holliday, turned the first spadeful of earth at Topeka in 1868 and, in his inaugural speech, mentioned going to the Pacific coast, the townsfolk smiled tolerantly. Any railroad with pretensions to respectability in those days included the word Pacific in its title, but, as everybody knew, the Union Pacific, when it was completed the following year, would be all the railroad connection needed by California for the next couple of years.

In 1876, Frederick Henry Harvey, the future César Ritz of the false fronts, was just forty-one years old. Born within sound of Bow bells in London in 1835, he had emigrated at the age of fifteen and gained his first experience as a restaurateur in New York. He was a pot-walloper at Smith & McNeill’s chophouse and ordinary at 229 Washington Street for $2 a week and found. A few years later, fulfilling the universal ambition of all restaurant workers, he opened his own business in St. Louis. But the coming of war in 1861 made chaos of most private enterprise in that turbulent, half-southern river town; in the early sixties Harvey got a job as a mail clerk on the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, whose western terminus was the jumping-off place for the Far West. The Hannibal & St. Joe, known to its early passengers as the Horrible & Slow Jolting, was the first carrier of a railway post office in which mail was sorted en route, and Harvey was the first mobile mail clerk. Some of the letters he sorted may well have gone overland by the immortal Pony Express.

Subsequently he worked for other railroads and for a time sold advertising space in the Leavenworth Times and Conservative, making, according to James Marshall, annalist of the Santa Fe, as much as $3,000 a year. This, in the minted gold of the time, was real money, the equivalent of perhaps five times as much today.

We next encounter Fred Harvey in the capacity of western freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad; it was one up on the Santa Fe because it actually served all three elements of its corporate title. The Burlington was a granger railroad; it was going places in a hurry, and Harvey was known as a hustler. But then he came down with a stomach complaint that today would probably be diagnosed as ulcers. It may have been the result of too much railroad food.

At this juncture, it may be well to insert a footnote on the gastronomy of travel in the years before clever George Mortimer Pullman placed in service the first dining car on the Chicago & Alton. Depot restaurants were spotted along the right of way at appropriate intervals, and three times a day the cars were hand-braked to a smoking halt; their occupants then engaged in a pitched battle with the management to get fed in the conventional twenty minutes allowed at each stop. No favorable commentary on the depot fare of the Southwest has survived, although contemporary reports indicate that things weren’t nearly so bad on the Union Pacific a few hundred miles to the north. Without exception the depot-lunch proprietors of Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado were descendants of the Borgia family. To their talents as poisoners, some of them added those of brigands. They would bribe the train crew to sound the “all aboard” whistle before the prescribed twenty minutes had elapsed. The passengers had paid in advance; nevertheless, what they left on their plates was sold again to the next trainload of arrivals. The food was simply terrible.

There were, to be sure, two alternatives to risking one’s health in such establishments. One was to go without food at all and subsist solely on bottled nourishment. The other was the shoe-box lunch.

“Many years ago when you went for a trip on the cars,” said the Kansas City Star in 1915, “somebody at home kindly put up a fried chicken in a shoe-box for you. It was accompanied by a healthy piece of cheese and a varied assortment of hard-boiled eggs and some cake. When everybody in the car got out their lunch baskets with the paper cover and the red-bordered napkins, it was an interesting sight. … The bouquet from those lunches hung around the car all day, and the flies wired ahead for their friends to meet them at each station.”

In this extremity it occurred to Fred Harvey that perhaps a railroad restaurant which offered reasonably edible fare and honest treatment of the customers might attract favorable attention and even make money for its altruistic proprietor. Its very novelty would occasion comment.

The Burlington management had other things on its mind when he brought the idea to its attention. But the management of the Santa Fe—in the person of Charles F. Morse, a general superintendent with a taste for unsalted butter and underdone steak—saw eyetooth to eyetooth with Harvey, and in 1876 the first Harvey restaurant came into being in the railroad’s Topeka depot and office building.

The impact was sensational. Word that “an eating house with a conscience” was in operation, serving tastefully prepared food in clean and well-ordered surroundings, spread far and wide, nowhere more swiftly than among the drummers or commercial travellers who formed a ponderable part of the railroad patronage in those days and who began planning their itineraries so as to be in Topeka at mealtimes, just as a later generation of continental travellers took pains to stay only in cities where they knew there was a Ritz Hotel.

“For a few months it looked as though civilization were going to stop short in her onward march at the capital of Kansas,” wrote a contemporary, “and that the westward course of empire … would end at the same spot. Travellers positively declined to go further once they had eaten with Fred Harvey. Traffic backed up, and it became necessary for the Santa Fe to open similar houses at other points along its right of way in order that the West might not be settled in just one spot.”

The next stop in the westward progress of gastronomy was at Florence, Kansas, where Harvey, using the profits from his venture at Topeka, purchased an entire hotel. Here was the first Harvey House that offered sleeping accommodations. At Topeka Harvey had merely operated a depot restaurant, but at Florence he maintained not only a formal dining room but bedrooms for his guests as well.

It was an overnight success, and the Santa Fe at once made a gentleman’s agreement with Harvey providing that in future the railroad should furnish the premises and equipment, and Harvey the food and service. A handshake between Fred Harvey and Superintendent Morse was all that bound the two companies for some time, until their operations reached a degree of complexity that indicated written contracts.

At Dodge City, when Fred Harvey arrived in the eighties, the gunsmoke of frontier times had not yet blown from the scene, and it was still a rough, tough cow town. In the absence of more formal accommodations, two primeval boxcars were taken off their trucks and set on the ground, one to serve as kitchen and the other as dining room. The waddies were amazed at the amenities of dining that prevailed in this impromptu setting. Across the range the word spread: “They make you take off your hat and put on a coat there in an old boxcar, but the grub is strictly A-No. 1.”

As the Harvey system expanded its operations to include Newton and Hutchinson in Kansas, La Junta in Colorado, Las Vegas, Lamy, and Albuquerque in New Mexico, Winslow and Williams in Arizona, and Needles and Barstow in California, it was only natural that Harvey and all the details of his benevolent autocracy should enter into the folklore of the region. It may reasonably be supposed that Harvey himself encouraged a certain amount of embellishment, for he was well versed in the uses of publicity, but the ascertainable facts were fairly sensational.

It was a source of great pride to the owner, for example, that some of the Harvey Houses lost money for a time on their initial operations. Harvey made no secret of the fact that he was giving more in food and service than he was taking in in currency. At one depot hotel there had been a steady loss of $1,000 a month until an ambitious manager came along and, with an eye to gaining the good graces of his employer, cut portions and corners until the loss had been pared to a mere $500. Outraged, Harvey fired him at once, and started looking around for a manager who would promise to lose the original sum.

The railroad co-operated handsomely to supply Harvey with the best of everything. His menus began to teem with luxuries unheard-of on the Great Plains in a day innocent of deepfreezing and with nothing but the most primitive refrigeration. Fresh whitefish from the Great Lakes began appearing in the high deserts of New Mexico. It was an age when game was still plentiful everywhere in America, and Harvey specialized in sage-fed Mexican quail and antelope fillets. The antelope originated “on line” and made its way east and west as the steamcars moved between points on the Harvey map. The Harvey chef at Florence had been lured away from Potter Palmer’s ineffable hotel in Chicago and made $5,000 a year, more than the president of the Florence bank. He paid local lads $1.50 a dozen for prairie chicken, seventy-five cents a dozen for quail, ten cents a pound for creamery butter, and was generally regarded as an easy mark.

Next to the food itself and the impeccable conduct of the Harvey Houses, the aspect of their operation which aroused the widest admiration was what came to be known as the Harvey Girls. The personal appearance and moral character of every applicant for work as a waitress was inspected by Mrs. Harvey. No Gold-Tooth Tessies or Fat Maggies were hired, and the character, intelligence, and good sense of Harvey personnel became legendary. Quite literally thousands of them made good marriages to ranchers, railroad men, prospectors, and businessmen of the Old West on the basis of acquaintances struck up over the service of apple pie and coffee; Elbert Hubbard claimed that 4,000 babies were christened Fred or Harvey, or both, by parents with sentimental recollections of a lunchcounter courtship. Fred Harvey himself was in great demand to give away his waitresses as brides; he probably appeared at more weddings than any member of Ward McAllister’s celebrated Four Hundred back in New York and Newport. Humorist Will Rogers said of him: “He kept the West in food and wives.”

In contrast to the shabby devisings of his predecessors on the ptomaine circuit, Fred Harvey’s railroad restaurants bestowed upon the business of refreshing the inner man not only the best steaks and chops available, but a method and organization that functioned with fine precision where only chaos had existed before. The routine began at the last telegraph stop the train made before arriving at a Harvey depot. The conductor filed a wire specifying the number of customers who would be arriving and indicating any special requests for food or service that might seem reasonable. At the yard limits the engineer blew his whistle to warn the chef and, when the cars were braked to a stop at the station platform, they were greeted by a whitecoated porter smiting loudly on a big brass gong and directing the customers toward the dining room.

The pretty Harvey girls taking orders from customers, who were usually seated eight to a table, arranged the cups and glasses according to a code and were followed by the “drink girl,” who poured tea, coffee, or milk. Soup or fish having been served, the stage was set for the big moment when the manager of the premises made a grand entrance from the kitchen bearing an enormous platter, piled high with steaks or a partly carved roast that was expeditiously portioned out to the waitresses and arrived at its destination still smoking hot. The business of what the French call présentation was much admired and widely reported by the awed customers. It was also a direct link with an older tradition of innkeeping that was still observed in the United States until the early nineteenth century; under its terms meals in all public dining rooms of consequence were served by the proprietor in person. Fred Harvey insisted that his managers fill the ancient function; they were never allowed to delegate it to an underling.

To counteract the legacy of suspicion derived from an earlier time, the patrons were reassured at intervals during the meal that the train would on no account leave without them and that there was plenty of time for leisurely enjoyment of the Harvey bounty. Nobody had to run for the cars with a wedge of pie in his hand.

A loyal partisan of Fred Harvey was William Allen White, “the Sage of Emporia,” who categorically stated in the editorial columns of the Emporia Gazette that Harvey food was head and shoulders above all the competition. “It is the best in America,” White testified. “Deponent has in the past six months eaten meals on ten of the great railway systems of the country. Harvey meals are so much better than the meals of other railroads, east, west, north and south, that the comparison seems trite.”

In the opening years of the last decade of the nineteenth century, it was becoming apparent that the universal meal-stop along main-line railroads was becoming a thing of the past. Faster schedules and limited trains caused operating departments to take a dim view of three half-hour stops a day in addition to the operational and switching stops dictated by absolute necessity. The introduction of dining cars on the faster and more luxurious trains was the solution of the problem. In the beginning, because of the limited tractive force of locomotives, diners were more frequently cut into trains at division points and carried only long enough for the service of a single meal, or perhaps breakfast and lunch, before being switched to a siding and then cut into a following train, or one bound in the opposite direction, for dinner. It was an intricate and vexatious process, but even the pauses required to pick up and set out diners once or twice a day didn’t add up to the delay involved in three full meal-stops.

In 1892, the Santa Fe placed in service the first of the great trains that were to make its operations the transportational glory of the West. The California Limited, a name radiant in the lexicon of the Old Southwest and one that ornamented the Santa Fe timecards until well after the Second World War, carried a luxurious innovation in the form of a through diner that rode with the Pullmans all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Thus a new pattern of de luxe travel made its appearance, and from that day until comparatively recently much of the best food served in the United States was served on flanged wheels.

For Fred Harvey to take over the operation of the Santa Fe’s dining cars was little more than an extension of an already well-established and elaborately routined service operation. The same organization that purchased Texas steers on the hoof at Kansas City, supplied California citrus to Chicago terminal restaurants, and distributed game, seafood, and dairy products at strategic points over half a continent, lent itself with a minimum of strain to the operation of mobile eating establishments that rolled night and day over the same huge territory.

To the dining cars Harvey brought the same decorum and the elevated amenities of food and service that had been the hallmark of his wayside operation. Irish table linen from Belfast and Sheffield silver as heavy as that in the best private clubs were the rule. There was a variety and quality of food in keeping with the opulent Harvey tradition of frontier generosity. The diners of the California Limited set the standard; those of the Colorado Express, the Missionary, the San Francisco Limited, the Grand Canyon, the Navajo, and eventually the Chief and Super Chief, followed in its footsteps. The best of everything was none too good for the Santa Fe’s patrons, and until his death Fred Harvey saw that that rule was enforced on thirty-odd Santa Fe dining cars.

Although other western carriers like the Great Northern might advertise the luxury of eating aboard their crack name-trains, it was the Santa Fe which travellers always used as the standard of culinary excellence. “Real railroading begins west of Chicago” has long been an American aphorism, and by “real railroading” most passengers mean the quantity and quality of the food available to them. Other railroads have had dining-car stewards of national celebrity, such as Wild Bill Kurthy aboard the Union Pacific-Southern Pacific’s Forty-Niner and Dan Healey on the Milwaukee’s Pioneer Limited. But the Harvey organization has eschewed spectacular personalities in favor of an urbane worldliness and savoir-faire that would have pleased the legendary and monocled Olivier of the Paris Ritz.

The high-water mark in Santa Fe sumptuousness was to be found aboard a once-a-week, all-Pullman, extra-fare limited between Chicago and Los Angeles inaugurated in 1911 under the name De-Luxe. Aboard it a strictly limited sixty passengers were carried in upholstered surroundings never before experienced in public travel. They slept in private staterooms in individual brass beds instead of berths. Valets and ladies’ maids and barbers crouched in the shadow of potted palms ready to spring at any unwary passenger who tried to do anything for himself. Gentlemen passengers received pigskin billfolds as souvenirs of their trip, and at the California border uniformed messengers came aboard with corsages for each lady traveller. For such service a surcharge of twenty-five dollars was exacted—the equivalent in the hard-gold currency of the time of, say, one hundred dollars today. And, of course, the food in the diner was Fred Harvey’s.

Nothing like it has ever been seen before or since, not even the yard-long menu on the first Super Chief when that pleasure barge was inaugurated in 1936 with fresh beluga caviar at $1.50 and larded tenderloin of beef for 95 cents. Passengers on the De-Luxe didn’t dress for dinner, as they are reported to have done aboard the Blue Train to Monte Carlo at the turn of the century, or on the Simplon-Orient Express, but this was the only touch of grandeur that was lacking.

A footnote to the style in which Harvey operated in the mid-thirties, both on wheels and when grounded, can be discovered in the fact that for a decade or so the most socially and gastronomically acceptable restaurant in Kansas City was the Harvey Restaurant in Union Station. Here the most lavish dinner parties of the season were given by local magnificoes.

In those days the carding of the Chief westbound brought it to Kansas City shortly after nine in the evening for an operational stop that often lasted thirty minutes, and knowing regulars aboard the cars were met by friends and spent the interval profitably in the Harvey bar downstairs. Film celebrities occasionally were overserved and had to be helped aboard, while impatient locomotives panted to be on their way.

Until the spring of last year, when some of the stock was sold to the public, the ownership as well as the management and administration of the Harvey system was always a family affair. Upon Fred Harvey’s death in 1901 at the age of sixty-six, the business provided service for fifteen hotels, forty-seven restaurants, thirty dining cars, and a ferryboat crossing San Francisco Bay. The company passed intact to Harvey’s oldest son, Ford, who headed the organization until he died in 1928, when Fred’s younger son, the late Byron Harvey, Sr., took over. The late Byron, Jr., succeeded him, and at the present time two more of the founder’s grandsons, Daggett and Stewart Harvey, are still active in the company’s management.

In general terms the operation has been kept fluid, to accommodate itself to the changes of national habit, taste, and travel patterns that have been the direct result of the motor-car age. Most of the earlier on-line hotel operations that were integrated into the Santa Fe’s passenger traffic have been closed or modified. Mobile restaurants aboard dining cars and buffets have been geared to the class of patronage of the trains themselves—ranging from the epicureanism of the Super Chief to lunch-counter cars on the shorter runs in Texas and Kansas.

The original intention of Fred Harvey was to provide a Harvey facility approximately every 100 miles along the Santa Fe main line between the Great Lakes and California, but the trend in recent years has been away from on-line services and in the direction of operations entirely disassociated from the Santa Fe, such as inns, hotels, and restaurants, away from the railroad’s tracks and terminals. And the company has recently undertaken the merchandising of a number of proprietary-brand food products, including the special blend of coffee that has been sold at Harvey Houses everywhere since the firm was founded.

The original Fred Harvey with his well-bred English notions of the proprieties, the Harvey who tamed the western frontier of gastronomy, might not recognize the many diversifications of his company in the second half of the twentieth century. He would, however, recognize its guiding principle—no compromise with mediocrity, and only the best of everything for Harvey patrons—which served so well in the cow towns of the Old West.

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