Let's go back in time to the heyday of railroad travel. When First Class Pullman cars, filled with cattle barons and gold speculators, boasted silver cutlery, fine crystal and finer wines... and everyone from Second Class to the boxcars had twenty minutes to jump out, dash for the nearest cafe or saloon, and pray the food did not run out before they got there. This wasn't much of an issue in the east or midwest, with plentiful stops and eateries. But the further one traveled west, the slimmer those stops - and a chance to eat - became.
Distances - and stomach growling - grew exponentially once a train crossed the Mississippi and chugged its way across the vast plains and skirted the Rockies into a barely habitable desert (see How to Survive Cactus for more info on the demonic desert). The next meal could be nothing more than a cold half sandwich and a slug of whiskey.
Enter a man with a vision: Fred Harvey.
Harvey had experience as a mail clerk on the Hannibal and St. Joseph railroad line, and as a ticket agent on the Burlington line. In addition, he had restaurant experience, having co-owned a restaurant in St. Louis. So, he was sensitive to the plight of the hungry traveler, watching them stumble out into the sunshine with a smile and drag themselves back on with a grimace.
Food. The people needed food, and they needed them at decent intervals. He ran to his bosses at Burlington to lay out his plan: building cafes at regular stops along the long tracks west. But the bosses didn't bite, so he took the plan to the heads of the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe line. Decent food, he said, decent prices.
The ATSF folks jumped right in. Build them, they said. On May 1, 1889 they gave him a contract to manage and operate a string of eateries/hotels along the Santa Fe Railway line.
It was a resounding success. The food couldn't be beat. The architecture at each station rivalled the one before it. The waiters were...drunk or hungover. Which would not do at all. Get women, Harvey was urged. And so he did.
Enter the Harvey Girls. Twenty-thousand women applied to the advertisement for work. They were young, and looking for adventure in a west that was still wild in the 1900s. In the blink of an eye (and after rigorous training), the girls were dispatched to a Harvey House, given a good wage of $17.50 a month, room and board included. They were expected to maintain good cheer and run a well-organized and spotless restaurant. They were also expected to maintain good moral character, remain unmarried throughout their 6- to 9- month contract, and hold their heads high as a Harvey Girl.
They were called the Angels of the West, the refining figures to tame the miners and cowboys who ambled in (sometimes six or more times a day) to have a bite, a cup of coffee and a chance to talk to one of the few women in the west. They were meant to lift the spirits of the travel-weary who might be regretting this foray into the wilderness.
Harvey created a telegraph system that alerted the girls as to a train's arrival. No more running out of food or not having seating for the crowd. No - at a Harvey House, both food and smiles were ample, and the Harvey Houses became legendary.
Soon, people travelled just to stay at the hotels and experience the service. It didn't hurt that some hotels were in supremely amazing places, such as the Grand Canyon, but even La Junta and Barstow held allure, if only to stay at a Harvey House and brag about it to friends. Now, you are able to catch a glimpse of some of the hotels, as Route 66 parallels the Santa Fe line. Some are still open, such as the El Tovar and Bright Angel at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Some are just shells of their glorious past, such as El Garces in Needles, California.
Or the El Vaquero in Dodge City, Kansas.
The railroad's heyday has passed. Automobiles put a damper on it in the 1930s. The freeway system ended it for good. Now we stop at fast food restaurants, or skip stretching our legs, and zip through a drive through. No longer will we meet a Harvey Girl and be handed a menu and her bright smile. How I wish for its return.
Her award-winning historical suspense and young adult historical fiction, written under the pen name Kim Taylor Blakemore, has been awarded a Silver Falchion Award, Tucson Festival of Book Literary Award, and a WILLA Award for Best YA Fiction.
In addition to writing, she runs the Novelitics ranch, which provides developmental editing and workshops to novelists. She teaches editing and craft workshops to writing groups around the United States and Canada.
She has hung her hat in California, Colorado, and currently the Pacific Northwest. The rain does not deter her research whether it be train timetables from 1905 or the best way to catch a loose horse.
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