Fred Harvey revisited

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


Filed under chain restaurants, lunch rooms, proprietors & careers, waiters/waitresses/servers

23 responses to “Fred Harvey revisited

  1. Mary Stephenson

    Thanks for the interesting article. We lived in Sybil Harvey’s house for 20 years. It’s across the street from the family home. I did quite a bit of research while there. Stephen’s book is excellent. The Fredhead weekends are also fun in New Mexico. This is very interesting history. I have quite a few menu’s and Sybil’s spoon. I’m hoping they will get the family home open for a museum.

    • Seth H. Bramson

      For a number of years, Mary, Fred Harvey also operated the eating houses, and, I think, the dining cars on the Frisco Railroad. For a number of years they had restaurants in the Chicago area and possibly in other places. The Golden Lion, in Chicago Union Station, was spectacularly excellent. We collect all F H and Santa Fe dining car memorabilia.

      • Holly

        Seth, I have a dinner plate that my boss procured for me when the Fred Harvey restaurant in Chicago closed. Must have been 1979 or so.
        I paid what was a lot back then, for a young waitress for that plate. I was working at the Airport Marina (Fred Harvey) in Albuquerque up next to the airport before it became an “AMFAC”. I still have that plate; it is Syracuse with 92 B marked on the back. 10 1/2″ diameter with a black wide rim and gold on both sides of that border. There is a stylized, sort of “round” H in the center in gold as well.
        Do I truly have a Fred Harvey plate? I haven’t been able to find an image of a matching Syracuse pattern anywhere.
        Thank you,

  2. David Curtis

    In Stephen Fried’s excellent book, Appetite for America, he mentions my great uncle Abner Hitchcock. Abner was Harvey’s friend and mentor when Harvey worked at the Butterfield House In St. Louis, MO. Abner also served as a witness when Harvey applied for U.S. citizenship in 1858. Thank you Mr. Fried for information about my uncle that I never would have found without your book.

  3. Stephen Wagner

    This is such an interesting story! Thanks to Jan and all of the people who sent comments!

  4. Kathleen L. Howard

    Since the article has no footnotes, I would be interested in knowing where you did your research. Did you review Fred Harvey’s day books which are kept in Kansas. Many primary sources cannot be accessed on line and one must physically travel to distant locations to go through boxes of material containing information inaccessible any other way.

  5. Jan, thanks for your kind words about my Fred Harvey book, much appreciated. Your readers might also be interested to know that we run an annual Fred Harvey History Weekend in New Mexico every fall–based at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe and La Fonda, but now since the restoration of the Castaneda, it extends to Las Vegas as well. For for information check out Stephen Fried

  6. Seth H. Bramson

    Leslie, I believe the F H Cookbook can be purchased on

    • Leslie

      I was hoping that someone had seen it and could tell me whether it’s worth buying. It’s hard to tell when you can’t pick it up and look through it ahead of time!

  7. Leslie

    I notice that there’s a book called Inventing the Southwest: The Fred Harvey Company and Native American Art, by Kathleen L. Howard and Diana F. Pardue; one called Great Southwest of the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad; Weigle, Marta and Barbara Babcock, editors. I wonder if either of those could be what you seek.

  8. Seth H. Bramson

    Thanks again, Jan, but the books I refer to were not History Press, although, yes, they really do a fine bob and–if you don’t mind my mentioning–they have published about 22 or my 33 or 34 books. Now, on and in regard to the comment by Leslie, above, viz, “But the three largest railroads, including the Santa Fe, had made a pact not to introduce dining cars because they were huge money losers.” Might I ask what the provenance of that statement was or is. I have only been collecting US railroad and trolley, airline, bus and boat, Miami memorabilia and Floridiana for now 63 years come May, and I have never heard anything like the first part of said comment. What pact was that? When? And at that time, which three railroads? I really would appreciate more information about that.

    • The pact is mentioned in two university press books published in the 2000s. One is Union Pacific, vol. 2, by Maury Klein (page 207). The other is Trains and Technology, Vol. 2, by Anthony Bianculli (page 70), in which he writes: “. . . in 1881 three of the largest railroads, the Union Pacific, the Burlington, and the Santa Fe, agreed not to provide dining cars on their lines to Denver. Without the spur of competition, travelers on those routes continued to eat their meals at wayside restaurants, until, in 1887, the Northern Pacific added dining car service to its Portland-bound trains. Next, the Rock Island entertained the idea of dining cars from Chicago to Denver. These actions precipitated the ‘Great Dining Car War of 1888-89′ during which the roads added more and better dining facilities, each trying to outmatch the others.”

      Let me know if you remember the title of the book you were thinking of.

      • Seth H. Bramson

        That is terrific, Leslie, and thank you. Very much appreciated. As I tell my students, “with the coming of the internet (other than Wikipedia and blogs) I find something new and I learn something new every day.” I know of Mr. Klein, of course (I’ve only written five histories of the Florida East Coast Railway as well as the history of Florida railroads in postcards for Arcadia, so he may not know who I am, although I do write the “Railroadiana” column for the Quarterly News Letter of the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society (100 years old this year) and I am “number one in a field of one,” the only person in the country who bears the official title of Company Historian with an American railroad) and I found the statement to be quite interesting, particularly since all three railroads went on to offer some of the finest on-board dining car experiences in the country, Of course, for many years, no few railroads vied to provide superior and superb on-board food and beverage experiences. I will, in coming Newsletters, once I finish the current series on passenger timetables, be writing about dining car memorabilia on the various railroads and traction (electric railway) lines throughout the country, everything from china, silver, menus and linens to accouterments such as marked champagne buckets, ash tray stands and other such today quite rare items, not the last of which were several of the dining car china patterns used on and by the Santa Fe. Thanks again. Please stay safe.

      • Leslie

        Seth, I can’t claim credit – I only quoted Jan Whitaker and then replied to her, and she wrote the reply to which you answered, as well.

        Does anybody know anything about the Harvey House Cookbook I’ve seen online? It could be fun, but I don’t know if the recipes and menus and such are accurate.

  9. Leslie

    “High prices for meals were widely criticized by local patrons.”

    That seems an odd thing to complain about. If a restaurant is too expensive, don’t eat there. It’s not as if the locals were forced to eat there.

    “But the three largest railroads, including the Santa Fe, had made a pact not to introduce dining cars because they were huge money losers.”

    Understandable that they wouldn’t want to introduce huge money losers.

    • The pact is understandable, but consumers won out because having dining cars was a big attraction for passengers. Not having any put the Santa Fe, which already had financial woes, in jeopardy. So it’s remarkable that Harvey sued, preventing the Santa Fe from adding dining cars for years. It’s surprising that he was able to obtain that injunction, but he had friends in high places.

  10. Kathleen

    I have examples of various eating houses restaurant china. Brown News, Union News Co, John Murphy, etc. Would be neat to see more info on places like this. Great article. Thank you

  11. Seth H. Bramson

    As always, Jan, with great thanks. There have been two–and possibly three–histories of the F. H. Co., and I am wondering how the info you have provided jives with what is in the books. Perhaps our members have read one or more of them. As a railroad buff I am, of course, very familiar with the F. H. Co. and at some point, and for several years, it operated the dining cars and eating houses on the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway, also. Many years later, circa late 1950s and into the early 70s the company also operated restaurants in railroad stations (including one of the best I have ever eaten in, the Gold Lion in Chicago Union Station, circa 1961 or ’62) as well as free standing operations in suburban Chi and possibly other places. Fred Harvey issued memorabilia is, in many cases, highly valuable and I have collected same for years, mostly menus but occasionally booklets and brochures. And remember, they also ran a number of fine hotels along the Santa Fe. Again, thanks for starting this thread.

    • Hi Seth, I remember eating in the Fred Harvey restaurant in St. Louis’ former train station as a child. It was elegant.

      My research has focused on the years when Harvey was living. He played hard ball, no doubt about it; holding back pay for 6 months and keeping it if a waitress quit would be illegal now, and I’m not sure what the status of deadheading is. I think I’ve at least looked at all the books, but the best researched by far is Fried’s Appetite for America. Most accounts tend to be celebrational, and based on the 20th century. A review of Meals by Fred Harvey (1969) in the Journal of American History said “. . . the history of the company . . . at times reads as though it were written by a publicist for the Fred Harvey Department of Promotion and Public Relations.”

      • Seth H. Bramson

        Thanks, Jan. Indeed, that may have been the case, but the two histories which I can think of were either late last century or early this century and both are true histories. I imagine you can google something such as “Fred Harvey history” or “Harvey House History” and they should come up. One of them was written by two women who are either or both Harvey House and/or railroad buffs and I met them several times at the various railroad memorabilia shows with I did all over the country.

      • I see that there are a number of books by History Press, though I didn’t find any written by two women. The use of the term Harvey House or Harvey girl strongly suggests a 20th-century orientation to me — when most of the hotels were built. For my post, which started as a conference paper, I looked at 19th-century newspapers to get local perspectives, and censuses to see who was hired, etc.

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