As many readers probably already know, particularly if they’ve seen the Harvey Girls movie with Judy Garland, Fred Harvey was the prime architect of a company begun in 1875. Harvey ran what were once called eating houses serving passengers and workers along the route of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. [above: staff of the Raton NM eating house, ca. 1900]
Largely due to the movie, Fred Harvey — the man and the company — has been turned into a myth about providing the first good meals for train passengers and, in the process, civilizing the West. The myth was crafted mainly in the 20th century, and has rarely been challenged. As such, the Harvey enterprise has also been hailed as an example of the first restaurant chain.
I have looked carefully at the company’s first 25 to 30 years and have found many ways in which the actual history challenges the myth. Almost certainly the meals provided by Harvey’s eating houses were superior to much of what was available in the West. Yet, this is an exaggeration in that it leaves out how often eating houses on other railroad lines were praised. [menu, Las Vegas NM, 1900]
And, although Harvey’s meals were better than average in the 19th century, “the Harvey system . . . represented a utilitarian approach to meeting the needs of travelers and railroad company employees” (History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway; Bryant, 1974). Some of the early dining spaces were far from elegant, located in simple frame buildings, or even fashioned out of train cars. [Deming NM lunch room, ca. 1900]
Viewed as a model of a successful modern restaurant chain, the Harvey case demands a closer look. Harvey had a close relationship with the vice-president, later president of the Santa Fe line, W. B. Strong, and enjoyed a sweetheart deal with the railroad. Essentially he could not fail, even in the early years when the number of patrons of his eating houses was small. Railroad passengers going West in the early years were of two classes. One was tourists who could afford to travel for enjoyment. The second, people moving West, were classed as “emigrants.” They were of lesser means and carried food with them because they could not afford to buy the meals, which were high priced.
The railroad’s primary business was freight; passenger traffic was light. The 44 Harvey houses then in business each fed an average of only 114 per day in 1891. It is striking to compare this figure to that of an admittedly very busy restaurant in NYC, which often fed 8,000 patrons a day in 1880.
In a number of ways the railroad operated like today’s cruise ships in terms of its relation to the surroundings, stopping briefly to refuel, get water, and let passengers off for meals. Using the railroad to transport food, supplies, and workers from afar by train – all at no cost – was what sustained the Harvey eating house business. Additionally, the beef used by Harvey eating houses was supplied from Harvey’s own ranch, and shipped for free (a practice known as deadheading) to slaughterhouses in Leavenworth KS and Kansas City MO and back to his kitchens. This drew the ire of local butchers and ranchers who had to pay high rates to ship their cattle. As Stephen Fried reported in his thoroughly researched Appetite for America, Harvey co-owned a ranch of 10K cattle with Strong and another railroad executive.
Newspaper editorials in several of the towns where Harvey did business railed against his practices. A paper in Newton KS called him “one of the worst monopolists in the State” because he brought supplies from Kansas City rather than buying from local merchants. Conflict about the same issues in Las Vegas NM was ongoing as the town struggled to prevent Harvey from supplying his own meat. Bitter complaints were made from people in Albuquerque as well, especially when two box cars were delivered and painted yellow to serve as a make-do restaurant. High prices for meals were widely criticized by local patrons.
Employees in the Harvey system included very few local people. Many were immigrants from Europe, especially the cooks, though the waitresses tended to be U.S.-born, and were selected by employment agencies in cities. Myths have celebrated how the “Harvey girls” married ranchers and helped populate the West (indigenous Indians and Mexicans aside). But in fact the servers were semi-indentured, with half their pay held back for 6 months to keep them from leaving the job. Not only was this meant to discourage resignations due to marriage but also to discourage the practice of working for a short time and then requesting a transfer farther west, all in the effort to finance travel through the West. [Photo of dining room server, ca. 1890s]
In terms of pleasing patrons, Harvey’s food was widely praised. But Santa Fe passengers were not really satisfied. What they disliked about the eating houses was basically that they existed at all. As an article in Scribner’s inquired, “Why . . . should a train stop at a station for meals any more than a steamboat should tie up to a wharf for the same purpose?” Passengers would have much preferred to eat on the train rather than to rush through their meal in 20 minutes – or, worse, to have mealtime delayed for hours when trains ran late. But the three largest railroads, including the Santa Fe, had made a pact not to introduce dining cars because they were huge money losers.
The pact began to break down in the late 1880s, but when the Santa Fe decided it wanted to run dining cars on through trains, Harvey got a court injunction preventing it, claiming it would violate his contract. After several years, the injunction was lifted when Harvey was awarded the contract to run the dining cars. [California Limited advertisement, early 20th century]
Despite many of the myth-challenging realities of the favorable circumstances Harvey enjoyed, he did introduce some practices common to modern chain restaurants. His was a top-down organization based upon standardization and strict centralized control. Each eating house was run like every other, with goods, employees, and services selected according to the same methods. In the early years, Fred Harvey personally visited and inspected all restaurants. Later supervision was taken over by managers, accountants, and a chef, who operated from the central office in Kansas City. By contrast, other railroads contracted with individual operators to run their eating houses as they saw fit and sourcing food locally, which produced excellent results in some cases, but limited menus and unappealing food in others.
It’s not surprising that the Harvey myth persists like so much of Western lore. Alas, it is extremely difficult to correct legends. When facts depart from a legend, John Ford, director of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, concluded with resignation, “. . . print the legend.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2021