The Right Side of the Tracks

Cincinnati NoondayLes McNeill1197 Comments


Nathaniel Hawthorn’s : THE SCARLET LETTER  was published; Los Angeles and San Francisco were incorporated as cities; LOHENGRIN premiered; President Taylordied, and Millard Fillmore  moved into the presidency… and a fifteen year old boy  stepped  off the boat from Liverpool onto the ground of New York City.

Frederick Henry Harvey had about ten dollars in his pocket, ambition, a strong work ethic and tremendous organizational skills in his head.  It was 1850.  Daniel Webster gave a speech endorsing Henry Clay’s Compromise ,that Clay hoped would steer the country away from Civil War.  The country was growing and there were opportunities for employment. You just had to walk across the street and present yourself, which is what young Fred Harvey did. He started work as a “pot walloper”, a dish washer, for two dollars a week in an exclusive restaurant. His hard work and good personality  and attractive appearance….he was tall and slim …with a steady gaze. . .helped him move up to be a waiter. He moved on to New Orleans then farther west to Kansas, always working hard and interested in good food in elegant surroundings.   

He set a goal for himself to someday, sooner rather than later, own his own first -class restaurant.   Fred Harvey took a new job, one that would help him reach his dream; he signed on with the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad as a traveling freight agent.

The Hannibal and St Joseph was affectionately known as the Horrible and Slow Jolting Line by those who had to ride it. The cars were dirty, the food was vile in the railroad station restaurants. In fact, it was down right dangerous to eat on the line. The coffee was made once a week; the leftovers were scraped back into pots and reheated for the next captive group of passengers.  There were tricks to keep profits up and the need for supplies down. Passengers had to pay for their food before being served and then were forced to gulp down what little they could before the whistle sounded the alarm that the train was boarding. It is said that railroad crews and restaurant owners were “in cahoots” and as soon as the food was presented, the engineer would blow the whistle and the conductor would shout the “ALL ABOARD”. That might have been a kindness since the week old coffee was served with greasy doughnuts, less than fluffy biscuits, called sinkers and suspicious stews and pies that often caused food poisoning.

Fred Harvey would stand on the outskirts of the shoving and pushing customers at the lunch stops, shake his head and resolve again to open his own establishment. It would be clean, elegant and serve the highest quality food, fresh and local. He would hire the finest chefs and serve the best coffee that could be brewed. The coffee urns at Harvey Houses were replenished every two hours.  Not just topped up, but completely changed and started fresh.

By 1859,Fred Harvey had become a US citizen and had married Barbara Sarah Mattas, his “Sally,” a seventeen year old , free spirit and excellent cook.  It was a love match that ended in 1901 at Fred’s death. They had four children, all of whom were instrumental in keeping The Harvey Houses, hotels and dining car operations going into the 1950s. (They actually had six children but two had contracted yellow fever and died in early childhood)

Harvey and a partner, Jepp Rice were running two restaurants on the Kansas Pacific Line by 1875. But the two men had very different tolerances for cutting expenses and corners.  The rift was insurmountable and they sold both restaurants and went their separate ways. Harvey was not about to let his dream die. The officials he approached at the Burlington Railroad laughed at his high- minded notions, but the officials at the upstart Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe listened. Charles F. Morse, the superintendent of the company had himself been a traveling railroad agent and understood the dangers of bad rail depot cafes. He also shared Harvey’s fascination with fine food and was willing to take a chance on the potential profit of the scheme presented to him. Harvey was a clever deal maker; his terms were: “the railroad would provide the building for the restaurant, free freighting of food, ice, coal, water and free transportation for employees.  Fred Harvey would supply equipment, workers and food. And he would provide half price food coupons to train crews.” The deal was sealed with a handshake.

Fred bought a tired, dingy lunch counter at the Topeka depot, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. The restaurant opened to raves. There were white Irish linen tablecloths, shiny silverware, sparkling crystal and fresh food and provisions delivered every day. Breakfast for the princely sum of thirty-five cents consisted of: steak, eggs, crisp home fries, a stack of pancakes with maple syrup and the soon-to-be a famous Harvey House signature…. that wonderful, fresh coffee.  The citizens of Topeka could hardly believe their good fortune. Little did they know they were the

first community to experience franchised, fast food.

Now there is fast food and fast food…………..

From the start, the food at Harvey Houses was amazing.  The dinner menu included:

Blue Point Oysters, Fillet of Whitefish, Young Capon, Prairie Chicken, Pork with Applesauce, Veal Pie, Salmi of Duck, Lobster Salad, Pickled Lamb’s Tongue. Those were just some of the protein dishes. The vegetables were: Beets, Celery, Mashed White Potatoes, Boiled Sweet Potatoes, Asparagus in Cream Sauce, Elgin Sweet Corn, and there were appropriate sauces for each dish. Now, on to dessert offerings: Apple Pie, Mince Pie, Cold Chantilly Cream, New York Ice Cream (made in Fred Harvey’s own plant) Assorted Cakes, Fresh Fruit in Season, Cheeses and of course the famous hot, fresh Fred Harvey Coffee. People lined up to eat at a Harvey House.

The second Harvey House was established in Florence, Kansas and soon a third was added. As the railroad expanded, so did Fred Harvey’s growing empire. Because the food was such a draw, ridership on the Santa Fe trains increased; in fact travelers arranged their trips so they could eat at Harvey Houses.  By 1884 there were seventeen Harvey Houses along the line. The Santa Fe managers were well aware of the financial impact Harvey’s restaurants had and in 1889 had formalized their agreement with a written contract giving Harvey “ first choice of all hotel/restaurant sites on the railroad’s owned or leased lines.”

One of Fred Harvey’s most devoted followers was the” Sage of Emporia Kansas”, William Allen White.  In singing the praises of the Harvey system and service, White said: “ The table service of the Santa Fe route is furnished by the Fred Harvey system. It is the best in America. The Harvey system is in a class by itself. The service is better, quicker, cheaper, cleaner, more intelligent.  And intelligence is the secret of good cooking as well as any other of the fine arts. And the head of the Harvey system has now and has had from the beginning, intelligence and nerve. That combination, by the way, is the essence of good luck. Many people, indeed most people, are smart enough— Fred Harvey ….was a great man because he dared to force his theories of good service into reality.“

Well, heaven knows, if you demand good or even great service you have to have  reliable, well trained help. Up until 1883 that had been a constant source of concern. Harvey made surprise visits to all of his establishments and would fire managers on the spot if he found sloppy service, skimpy portions or lack luster performance.  It was on one of these visits to his restaurant in Raton, New Mexico that he walked into total chaos. Some of the waiters had gotten drunk, started a knife fight and general brawling. They had smashed the furniture and crystal and cut each other so badly they could not work. Those who were not cut were passed out on the floor and a few had staggered across the street to the saloon.  Harvey was furious and fired everyone including the manager, closed the door and locked it. Out of chaos a wonderful, transformative idea was born. A new arrival in town, Tom Gable, was approached to take over as manager. He agreed on one condition…that they hire waitresses. “Women do not get drunk and start fistfights the way men do” he said and he had heard of women working as servers in restaurants in the East.  The thought of clean, fresh faced, well- groomed women was very appealing. The trick was where to find them. There were not many women in the West at that time . A census from 1870 listed 172,00 women to 385,000 men from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Harriet Beecher’s sister, Catherine wrote a book encouraging women to go west to “ civilize and Christianize “ the title of which was: THE DUTY OF AMERICAN WOMEN TO THEIR COUNTRY (Now, I do not know if SHE ever went West)  It was a significant enough problem that an editor wrote: “ To supply the bachelors of the west with wives, to furnish the pining maidens of the east with husbands, and to better equalize the present disposition of the sexes on these two sections of our country, has been one of the difficulties of our age…”

Tom Gable’s idea and Fred Harvey’s willingness to try it would change the West forever.  He headed back to Topeka wondering how to recruit respectable, hard working women from the East.  The day after he returned home, he took action and sent a telegram to eastern and Midwestern newspapers with the following ad: “ WANTED—young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey eating Houses on the Santa Fe Railroad in the West.  Wages $17.50 per month with room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. Write Fred Harvey, Union Depot, Kansas City, Missouri.”

The naysayers of the community warned that only the wrong kind of woman would leave a secure home in the east to come to the Wild West. Harvey kept sending ads and waited.  He was so sure his scheme would work that he set up an employment agency in Chicago.

Thousands of women responded and were put through the rigors of answering some very pointed questions, the verbal equivalent of a gynecological exam. And each young woman had to sign a statement confirming her “ good moral character”.

One former Harvey girl said that it was easier to enlist in the Army, than it was to enlist as a Harvey Girl.  Every once in awhile, a girl of questionable moral character slipped into the Harvey Girl uniform. The best known was “Silver City Millie” who had tried to make ends meet by working two jobs to help pay medical expenses for her sister who had TB.  Millie started turning tricks to supplement her income and found it lucrative. She gave up her uniform, moved with her sister to New Mexico and set up her own “house”. There is that entrepreneurial spirit.

The reasons for becoming a Harvey Girl were many: career opportunities that scarcely existed for young women; the hope of meeting eligible western men; the chance to make good money in salary and tips that could be used for education, travel, to help financially strapped families back home; a way to escape abusive relationships and homes; and the chance to see the world or at least places in this country they could only have dreamed about. Imagine what the desert of Arizona must have looked like to a young woman from Oklahoma or Missouri.  Most Harvey Girls were from the mid-west but some came from the east or other parts of the country. A few were from northern and western Europe. The majority of Harvey Girls were single, at least for a little while. One account states that a pretty Harvey Girl would receive at least one marriage proposal on her first day of work and the ugly ones would have a proposal by the third day on the job. Twenty thousand of the one hundred thousand Harvey girls married and stayed out west. They married railroad men, railroad engineers were particularly prized, regular customers, miners, ranchers and business men. One railroad baron is reputed to have said:“ The Harvey House was not only a good place to eat; it was the cupid of the rails.” The Harvey Girls did not just populate the West, they were instrumental in civilizing it.  They demanded schools and churches, an end to rough and tumble behavior in towns, they had practiced high moral standards and set a new tone in the communities they settled into.

After being hired the young women boarded Santa Fe trains heading west for six weeks of rigorous training.  They signed contracts for six, nine or twelve months. The trip, paid for by the Company was first -class all the way…no crowded coach cars, but the luxury of a Pullman car.

Pullman was just a few years older than Fred Harvey and like Harvey’s experience on the railroad with vile food, his idea for the luxurious Pullman- Sleeper was born out of the misery of a crowded, coffin-like car that stacked three bunks, one on top of the other, in an unventilated space. He had connections with an executive at the Chicago, Alton and St Louis Railroad who let him tinker with an old, unused sleeper. George Mortimer Pullman introduced his first sleeper car after the Civil War and it was an immediate success.  Eventually he and Harvey struck a business deal and The Fred Harvey Company ran the meal service on the Pullman dining cars. Pullman’s story is one for another Noonday paper.

Back to the training; the six week training was carefully prescribed and when it was completed the new “girl” was usually assigned to one of the smaller Harvey Houses.

Here are a few of the rules taken from THE HARVEY GIRL TRAINING MANUAL:

When setting the table, always place forks to the left, spoons and knives to the right; “sparkling bright” glasses without chips or cracks are placed above the blade of the knife; all food is served from the left; all beverages from the right; compliment children…my addition, that is the way to insure the parents will come back; if possible, never chat with each other in front of customers; never argue with a guest; SMILE- it is an essential part of your uniform.

The uniform was a black dress with an “Elsie” collar with a perky black bow at the center of the collar covered by a pristine, starched white bib and apron which had to be changed if any spot or bit of soil was seen… a big white hair bow and black, opaque stockings and sensible, comfortable black shoes completed the uniform. My student nurses’ uniform in 1961 was a lot like the Harvey Girl uniform. The Harvey Girl uniform bore no resemblance to the colorful, low cut, tight and flamboyant costumes of the dance hall floozies in saloons in town.   The girls had to have neat and clean hairstyles, clean fingernails, no makeup, but well scrubbed faces. The standards were high, but the young women learned to be confident, efficient and proud of their work. They were not like the usual “waitresses “who were often thought to be women of ill repute.

They lived in dormitories above or adjacent to the hotels or restaurants. This arrangement helped them make lasting friendships, alleviate homesickness, and created a sense of family. The hours were long and hard and often required working split shifts because of train schedules.  But in spite of that, they had a good time and took advantage of time off to explore the countryside, hike, go on picnics and play practical jokes on each other. Regular customers were also not above playing practical jokes on the girls. Lesley Poling-Kemps in her well researched and informative book: HARVEY GIRLS recounts a famous or infamous story about a customer who put live frogs, little ones that we always called croakers, in several coffee cups. When the famous, hot coffee was poured into the cups the frogs started jumping out everywhere and caused pandemonium.  

Fred Harvey was a man obsessed with order and set up complex systems to make things run smoothly.  He can hardly be faulted for trying to maintain standards. The world he lived in was populated with mismatched rail gauges, no standards of hygiene or medical care and amazingly, twenty years after the end of the Civil War, no standard time. Because the country was so vast, each city and town set it’s own time according to when the sun rose and set in that particular spot. America had fifty different time zones, all of them controlled by the railroad that serviced that area!!! How are you going to run a railroad like that!!!

By the early 1880s, England had established a standard time based on the meridian that goes through Greenwich.  William F. Allen, the editor of the TRAVELERS’ OFFICIAL RAILWAY GUIDE proposed a system, not dictated by the government, but by the true powers at the time, the railroads, that would divide the country into four zones based on the 75th, 90th, 105th and 120th meridians. The “Day of Two Noons” took place on November18th, 1883 across the country.

Time was standardized; the country was booming, the Harvey Girls were trained. How are you going to serve thousands of passengers a fine meal in thirty minutes…the time it took for the trains to refuel, get water, change crews and be ready for the next leg of the trip west? Again, systems!  The crew on the train would poll the passengers and ask who planned to eat at the Harvey House and what they had decided to request. About a mile out of town, the driver would blow the whistle to alert the kitchen staff and the Harvey Girls so they would be prepared for the new diners. As the hungry passengers disembarked…is that a great word, or what…DISEMBARKED, really… As time went on the statistics were somewhat predictable: 90% of passengers for breakfast, 40% for lunch and 60% for dinner.  Passengers would also be asked their preferences for meat, salad, vegetables and desert. When they arrived, it seemed like magic. There was a special “code” for requested drinks…the cup upright and in place meant the guest wanted plain coffee;

the cup turned upside down on the saucer meant hot tea; the cup upside down and off to the side meant a glass of milk and the cup upside down and leaning against the saucer meant iced tea. Some passengers thought it was Voodoo, but it was just a well developed, and practiced Harvey system.  And even with the extensive menu, mentioned at the start of this paper, customers followed predictable patterns. The swish of the Harvey Girls’ skirts was just as important as the food .

This poem was written by a love struck man from New Mexico……’Harvey Houses, don’t you savvy; clean across the old Mojave…On the Santa Fe they’ve strung’em like a string of Indian beads. We all couldn’t eat without ‘em, but the slickest thing about ‘em, is the Harvey skirts that hustle up the feeds.”

People wanted to see the west , particularly the west that had been romanticized in Helen Hunt Jackson’s book: RAMONA, which was published in 1884. The train system brought them and special tours were given of the supposed sites of Ramona’s birth, marriage and ranch home. As an aside, RAMONA  was considered one of the most ethical novels of the 19th century. The characters were portrayed with compassion and understanding and the mistreatment of the Native Americans was chronicled with honesty.

It may have been these first ventures away from the railroad depots that planted the seeds for “ cultural tourism”.  The Harvey Company took advantage of Native American arts and crafts when it began building free- standing hotels and resorts at destinations miles away from the train tracks.  Fred Harvey died in 1901 of, ironically…stomach cancer. By then there were 47 Harvey House restaurants, 15 resort hotels and thirty dining cars operating on the Santa Fe lines. Harvey had trained his son’s Ford and Byron to take over the company and they did it seamlessly.

Train travel was changing and fewer stops were made at the depots. New technology allowed trains to go faster and farther between stops and some of the Harvey Houses were closed, but the ever ethical and protective Harvey system moved employees to other locations whenever possible.  Generations of family members stayed loyal to the company that treated them right.

The ability to adapt kept the company strong, and after the First World War they relied less and less on rail passengers. They began running motor tours of the Southwest and were particularly famous for the tours that allowed customers to witness Native American cultures and to explore the magnificence of natural wonders like the Grand Canyon.  Ford was not satisfied with tours of the Canyon; he wanted to build a hotel/ resort on the rim of the Canyon that would maintain the integrity of its natural beauty while allowing visitors to enjoy fine food, service and nature’s wonders.

He enlisted the help of the famous, headstrong, brilliant architect Mary Colter. She would eventually oversee the design and construction of twenty-two Harvey Houses. At the Grand Canyon, Bright Angel Lodge, Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon, Hopi House and the Lookout Tower are her designs. El Tovar the signature hotel on the rim of the canyon opened in January of 1905 and has been a success from the start.  Reservations are taken thirteen months in advance.

Colter was a stickler for authenticity and detail. Her work incorporated local landscapes, culture and art. She designed everything from the outside to the interiors, the lighting and even the china that would be used. Mary Colter copied Native American drawings from the Mimbres tribe on the cups and saucers used on the Super Chief, the first all diesel service from Chicago and California. The outstanding dining car on the “Chief” was a favorite of wealthy business people and Hollywood stars who were still skeptical of air travel.  

Train travel continued to wane and even though troop movements during the Second World War pumped new life into the system requiring retired Harvey Girls to come back to work, more and more Harvey Houses closed.

The mystique of the Harvey Girls was still very much alive and in 1945, MGM started the film: THE HARVEY GIRLS starring a very young, sweet and pretty Judy Garland. It also starred Angela Lansbury in her fourth movie role, Cyd Charisse in her first credited film role and Judy Garland’s pal, Ray Bolger from the WIZARD of OZ.   The film was finally released in 1946 in the Capitol Theatre on Broadway just a few blocks from the first Howard Johnson’s in Manhattan.

Byron Harvey, Fred’s son had insisted that the film open with the following, serious forward:

When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants further and further West along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known—The Harvey Girls.

These winsome waitresses conquered the West as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons—not with a powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.

To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.  The film was a huge success and the Johnny Mercer tune “ On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe won the Oscar for best original song.

No matter how much publicity and energy the film generated, the changing mores and expectations of America no longer supported the Harvey system. The Grand Canyon operations were the only profitable ones in the Company.  The railroads were worn out by the massive demands of the Second World War and the U.S. Government was giving subsidies to the fledgling automobile and airline companies. By the 1950s, passenger service was dwindling and stations were closing.  The Hawaii-based company AMFAC bought the Harvey Company in 1968 and later sold it to Xanterra, the nations largest parks based hotel operator. Xanterra is still dedicated to the Fred Harvey legacy of ecologically sound resorts that honor their natural surroundings.


There may no longer be any Harvey Girls and train service may be miserable again, but if you put your ear up to the wall under the magnificent arch at Cincinnati’s Union Terminal you may just hear: “that whistle down the line….I figure it’s engine number forty-nine….She’s the only one that’ll sound that way… On the Atchison, Topeka and The Santa Fe”


Leslie McNeill

March 3, 2012





Apparently, Ms. Steele rarely made a mistake when judging character. There was one notable exception.  Millie Clark grew up a headstrong orphan in Kansas City, she got into minor trouble and appeared before a judge named Harry S Truman and hired Alice Steele to interview applicants


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