Though the famous Harvey House lunch rooms, restaurants, and hotels pre-dated Route 66 there were many decades where the two happily co-existed. But, change is inevitable and ironically, Route 66, was in part, responsible for the death of this famous chain. As the roads got better and automobiles more affordable, passenger service on the many trains across America began a gradual decline. Overland trucking was also on the rise, reducing the amount of cargo shipped along the rails.
Many of the old towns that sprouted up because of the railroad and later survived primarily because of the many travelers of Route 66, died when they were bypassed by the Interstate highways.
Fred Harvey was just 15 years old when he emigrated to the United States from Liverpool, England. He first worked as a dishwasher in New York for just $2 per day. Saving his money he soon moved on to New Orleans where he worked again in the restaurant business learning the trade from the ground up.
In 1853, he moved on once again, this time to St. Louis, Missouri. Six years later, he and a partner opened a restaurant in St. Louis. Alas, it was just the day before the Civil War broke out. His partner soon joined the Confederacy and with no patrons coming through the door, Harvey was broke.
During this time, the young entrepreneur noticed that the lunchrooms serving rail passengers were deplorable and most trains did not have dining cars, even on extended trips. The custom at the time was typical to make dining stops every 100 miles or so. Sometimes there would be a restaurant at the station, but more often than not, there was nothing to feed the famished travelers. The dining stops were also short, no longer than an hour, and the passengers were expected to find a restaurant, order their meal, and get served in this short amount of time. Remember, in those days, there were no fast-food restaurants.
When the train was ready to go, it left, often leaving passengers stranded at the station. Seeing all this, Fred Harvey drew on his prior restaurant experience and came up with a new idea. However, when he approached his manager with the concept of building a network of restaurants along the AT&SF railroad line, it was refused. This changed in a chance meeting with Charles Morse, superintendent of the AT&SF. Again, Harvey pitched his idea. Morse, who was a gourmet, loved the concept and fully supported Harvey.
Before long, the first Harvey House Restaurant opened in the Topeka, Kansas Santa Fe Depot Station in 1876. Leasing the lunch counter at the depot, Harvey’s business focused on cleanliness, service, reasonable prices, and good food. It was an immediate success. Impressed with his work, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe soon turned over control of food service along the rail line. The Harvey Houses became the first chain restaurants, with the Topeka depot becoming the training base for the new chain along the Santa Fe Route.
Soon Harvey lunchrooms extended from Kansas to California. By the late 1880s, there was a Harvey establishment every one hundred miles along the Santa Fe line. Setting high standards for efficiency and cleanliness, the food was always served on china and customers were required to wear coats.
Harvey found that the men he hired to work in his restaurants were as wild as the west was. Coming up with yet another new concept, he began hiring women at a time when the only jobs for respectable females were as domestics or teachers. Harvey began to recruit them in newspaper ads across the nation. In order to qualify as one of the “Harvey Girls,” the women had to have at least an eighth-grade education, good moral character, good manners, and be neat and articulate. Harvey paid good wages, as much as $17.50 per month with free room, board, and uniforms. In return for employment, the Harvey Girls would agree to a six-month contract, agree not to marry, and abide by all company rules during the term of employment. In no time, these became much sought after jobs. When they were hired, they were given a free rail pass to their chosen destination.
In the 1890s, the Santa Fe Railway began including dining cars on some of its trains with Harvey getting the contract for the foodservice.
In the southwest, Fred Harvey hired architect Mary Colter to design influential landmark hotels in Santa Fe, and Gallup, New Mexico, Winslow, Arizona, at the South Rim and at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The rugged, landscape-integrated design principles of Colter’s work influenced a generation of subsequent western American architecture.
Mr. Harvey continued to improve his service until his death in 1901, at which time his sons took over the company. When the last of them died in the 1930s, the company left Harvey control but continued to operate.
After World War I when people began to travel in automobiles, the company began a gradual decline. However, once again they adapted, moving away from full reliance on train passengers. Soon they began to package motor trips of the southwest, including tours of Indian villages and Grand Canyon.
During the depression, the Harvey Company suffered along with the rest of the nation, as no one could afford to travel. However, the trend was reversed with the commencement of World War II. Suddenly the trains were filled with troops and the Harvey Houses began to feed.
At its peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses. They continued to be built and operated into the 1930s and 1940s, long after Fred Harvey’s death.
By the 1950s, the railroads were cutting back as newer and better highways were being built across the nation and people began to travel more by air. Passenger trains were declining quickly and railroads gradually began to eliminate passenger service.
In 1968, the Hawaii-based Amfac Corporation bought the Harvey Company, applying its high standards to Amfac’s list of hotel and resort properties around the world. The Fred Harvey Company ceased to exist, ending yet another era of the American West.
A Fred Harvey Museum is located in the former Harvey residence in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Listed below are the locations along Route 66 that once were called home to the Harvey House Chain.
Ashfork – Built in 1905, the Escalante Hotel replaced an 1895 vintage Harvey House Hotel and Restaurant. It closed in 1948. In the 1950s, the Santa Fe realigned the railroad through the area, and the city suffered a major economic setback – compounded when Route 66 was replaced by I-40, which bypassed Ashfork entirely. Today, there are no remains of the Escalante.
Kingman – In 1901 a Harvey House Restaurant opened in Kingman. A one-story stucco depot still stands across from its location.
Peach Springs – This building that once housed a Harvey House Restaurant continues to stand but is utilized by the Water Treatment Plant.
Seligman – As railroad traffic increased in Seligman, Arizona the Havasu Fred Harvey House was built. Opening in 1905, the hotel included 60,000 square feet, housing numerous hotel rooms, a large kitchen, a lunchroom, and a newsstand. Abandoned by the railroad years ago, the building continued to stand for years but, by 2007 was in danger of being demolished. According to federal regulations, any occupied building must be a safe distance from active railroad tracks, which the building was not deemed to be, and the owner, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, made plans to demolish the building in 2008.
Though locals and Route 66 preservationists actively worked to save the building, the “Save the Seligman Harvey House” campaign lost the fight and the building was demolished in May 2008.
Williams – The Frey Marcos Hotel was built in the early 20th century. The landmark still stands as a depot for the many passengers headed to the Grand Canyon. Inside, the old building also houses a museum.
Winslow – On May 15, 1930, the famous La Posada Harvey House Hotel opened its doors for business. The last one built in the famous Harvey hotel and restaurant chain, Winslow was chosen for the site, as it was the headquarters for the Santa Fe Railway. Designed by Mary Colter, the famed Grand Canyon architect, she paid careful detail to blend the aspects of both the Native American and Spanish cultures of the area into the hotel. In 1957, the beautiful La Posada Hotel was closed. Two years later, all of its museum-quality furnishings were auctioned off. In the early 1960s, much of the building was gutted and transformed into offices for the Santa Fe Railroad.
When the railroad announced plans to move out of Winslow for good in 1994, and the La Posada was scheduled for demolition, the town gathered up and went to work. Today, the La Posada has been fully restored and stands as an oasis in the desert, catering to a new generation of Route 66 adventurers. It is the only original Harvey Hotel on Route 66 that continues to operate as it was first intended. Another original Harvey House Hotel still in business, but not on the Mother Road, is the El Tovar Hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Bagdad – At the Bagdad Depot, there was once a small Harvey House lunchroom that was primarily utilized by Santa Fe employees.
Barstow – In 1911 the Fred Harvey Company opened up the Casa Del Desierto Harvey House. Hotel. After the hotel and restaurant were closed, the building was used mainly for a machine shop, with a cafeteria and a small Amtrak ticket office. Before long, the Casa Del Desierto was abandoned altogether. In the late ’80s, Santa Fe Railway decided to tear down the old Harvey House until an outcry was raised by local citizens and historians of Barstow. The old building was saved by the City of Barstow and restoration began. The Casa Del Desierto was re-dedicated in 1999 and is now home to the Greyhound and Amtrak stations, several arts groups, the Mother Road Route 66 Museum, and now the Western America Railroad Museum.
Los Angeles – In 1893 Santa Fe’s Moorish-style La Grande Station opened, between 1st and 2nd streets on Santa Fe Avenue in Los Angeles, California. Six years later, the Harvey House Restaurant opened, serving up the railroad travelers in style. At that time, the railroad tracks ran right down Alameda, co-existing with trolleys and cars. After years of wrangling and numerous fatal accidents, it was finally decided that a new station needed to be built. Though the voters approved the new station in 1926, it would be more than ten years before it was finally built. With the cooperation of the region’s three principal railroads, the Union Pacific Railroad, the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, the new station opened on May 3, 1939, with some 500,000 people attending its grand opening. Constructed in Spanish Colonial, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne style, with Moorish architectural details, the interior walls were covered with marble and acoustical tiles and enclosed garden patios adorned either side of the waiting room. The new station also boasted a new and improved Havey House restaurant and adjoining bar.
The decade after the new station opened, it saw the heyday of the railroad era as thousands of people arrived in Los Angeles via the railroad. During World War II, the Harvey House Restaurant boasted it could feed 800 people an hour. However, as competition from cars and airlines increased, the railroad era was coming to an end. In 1967 the grand Harvey House restaurant closed and four years later, in 1971, Amtrak took over passenger operations.
Today, Los Angeles’ Union Station is home to the Metrolink that serves thousands of commuters daily. The at the Union Station is mainly used today for special events.
Attached to the main building to the south the old Harvey House Restaurant. The mostly empty room was the last of the Harvey House establishments designed by southwestern architect Mary Colter, as well as the last to be built. The room still boasts its rounded central counter, streamlined booths, and inlaid floor patterns and is today used primarily for special events and as an occasional filming location.
Needles – When the original depot was destroyed by fire; it was replaced by the El Garces Harvey House and Train Depot which was completed in 1908. The building was named “El Garces” in honor of Father Francisco Garces, a missionary who visited the area in 1776. The El Garces was considered one of the “Crown Jewels” of the entire chain and was remembered for the real linen and silver, distinctive china and fresh flowers provided for its guests daily. The lunchroom had two horseshoe-shaped counters and could serve many people. Community members also utilized the facilities for elegant private dinners, banquets, and special occasions. The El Garces closed as a Harvey House in the fall of 1949, at which time the building was partitioned and used as Santa Fe Railway offices.
In 1988, the Santa Fe Railroad moved their offices out of the El Garces to another facility and the building was closed. Sitting abandoned, the historic building was threatened with destruction until the Friends of El Garces was formed in 1993. Through their efforts, the City of Needles was petitioned to purchase the station, which occurred in 1999.
The restoration and reconstruction of the historic building began in March 2007. Plans were made to sell the facility to a buyer who planned to open an upscale hotel and restaurant. However, those plans fell through when the Federal Transit Administration determined that because it had granted $4.8 million in public funding for construction, ownership had to remain with the city. Restoration continued and the exterior was completed in 2014. However, initial hopes for the building apparently have not been achieved as today it remains vacant and is for lease.
San Bernardino – In the late 19th century, San Bernardino was chosen as the headquarters for the Santa Fe Railroad’s massive Pacific Coast Locomotive Works, a transportation center serving rail passengers and the Railroad’s administrative offices. An original wooden depot burned to the ground in 1916 and was replaced by the magnificent depot that stands today. Designed in the Mission Revival style with Moorish influences, the grandiose structure was intended to befit the city image as the “gateway to southern California.” For the first half of the 20th century, the depot flourished; many travelers and business people used the depot and many were entertained at the depot’s famous Harvey House Restaurant. At its heyday, approximately 85 percent of the townspeople were dependent on the railroad for their livelihood.
Unfortunately, the depot’s great success did not protect it from the decline of the railroad industry in the latter half of the century, and it fell into disrepair. For years the old depot sat abandoned until finally in the mid-1990s the City of San Bernardino began to the work to bring the depot back to life. Some $15 million later, the restoration work, including historically accurate renovations of the interior and exterior and installation of utilities, the depot held its grand re-opening in June 2004. Today the renovated depot serves Metrolink, a commuter rail service, as well as Amtrak.
Chicago Union Station – During Union Station’s boom years in the 1940s, more than 300 trains arrived or departed daily and 100,000 passengers passed through the terminal. It was then that the historic station also housed one of the famous Harvey House restaurants. Today, Chicago’s Union Station continues to function as some 50,000 passengers pass through a day.
Joplin – The Frisco building that continues to stand in Joplin once served as Joplin’s train depot and one of the famous Harvey House Restaurants. Today, it has been refurbished into an apartment building.
Springfield – The original Springfield depot was built in 1882 when the Gulf line built a large two-story depot at the corner of Mill and Main Streets. It included a lunchroom built by the Fred Harvey Company on the west end of the depot. In 1901 the Frisco took over the Gulf line.
In the early to mid-1920s several newspaper articles speculated that a new depot would be built, but instead, the Frisco hired architect R.C. Stevens to completely remodel and expand the building in the California mission style. There was still a Harvey House Restaurant, now on the east side. As railroad travel declined in the 1950s the depot saw fewer travelers. The popular Harvey House Restaurant was closed down in 1955, the last to close on the Frisco line. On December 9, 1967, the last passenger train left the station. There was talk in Springfield of turning the station into a shopping mall, but this never happened. The building immediately began to decline, as it was not secured from the public. Although placed on the Historic Sites Register of Springfield in 1975 in an effort to preserve it, the building was demolished on March 5, 1977.
St. Louis Union Station – On September 1st, 1894, St. Louis Union Station opened as the largest, most beautiful terminal in the United States. This enormous project was built at a cost of $6.5 million. The piece de resistance of this new station was the Grand Hall, which featured a 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with gold leaf, Romanesque arches and stained glass windows — the most magnificent of these being the Allegorical Window, which is majestically framed by the famous “Whispering Arch”. The end walls were decorated with low relief tracery emerging from female figures.
In its heyday in the mid-1940s, the station served over 100,000 passengers a day. During the 1950s, people began choosing other forms of transportation and with the decline in rail traffic, the station languished for a number of years until, in October 1978, the last train pulled out, marking the end of an era.
In March of 1979, Oppenheimer Properties purchased the station for $5.5 million. In August of 1985, after two years of extensive restoration and new construction costing $174 million, St. Louis Union Station celebrated its grand reopening as a specialty retail, restaurant, entertainment, and hotel complex, making it the largest adaptive reuse project in the United States.
Albuquerque – The Alvarado Hotel, designed by Mary Jane Colter, opened in 1902. It also housed the Indian Building where Native American pottery and jewelry was displayed. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Fred Harvey Company began to popularize and develop markets for Indian craftsmanship. Many such artifacts were actually created in the Indian Building. On February 13, 1970, the wrecking ball smashed into what was one of Albuquerque’s most famous historical landmarks. For years the site sat empty as a parking lot. However, in 2002, a “new” Alvarado opened to the public.
Belen – While not actually on Route 66, it’s very nearby. This early 1900s depot housed one of the original Harvey House Restaurants in 1910 and today, is called home to the Harvey House Museum. The museum is located just ten miles south of Route 66 from Los Lunas, New Mexico. Take US-85/NM-314 to get to Belen.
Gallup – The El Navaho Hotel was built in 1918. Though the hotel was torn down, the historic railroad station continues to stand housing the new Gallup Cultural Center.
Santa Fe – The La Fonda Hotel Hotel was built in 1922. In 1925 it was acquired by the Atchison, Topeka Santa Fe Railroad which leased it to Fred Harvey. For more than 40 years, from 1926 to 1968, the La Fonda was one of the famous Harvey Houses. Since 1968, La Fonda has been locally owned and operated and has continued a tradition of warm hospitality, excellent service, and modern amenities while maintaining its historic integrity and architectural authenticity.
Afton – The Fred Harvey Company operated a newsstand at the Afton Depot.
Miami – The Fred Harvey Company operated a newsstand at the Miami Depot.
Oklahoma City – The art-deco station continues to stand in Oklahoma City but is in poor repair. This was one of only a handful of Santa Fe depots built with a high ceiling waiting room. The two-story concrete depot is currently undergoing restoration.
Sapulpa – Opened in the late 1800s, a Harvey House Restaurant was housed in the Frisco Station. Though the Sapulpa Harvey House was torn down in 1963, the residence used by several of the Harvey girls continues to stand as the Sapulpa Historical Museum.
Tulsa – This art deco style station was designed by R.C. Stephens and completed in 1931. The Depot serviced as many as thirty-six trains a day in its prime. Though the station never housed a Fred Harvey restaurant, it was home to one of their many newsstands. The station ceased operation in 1967 and standing vacant and neglected for years, looter took everything they could reach, from marble to chandeliers and etched glass. Then in 1982, the Williams Companies began to renovate the deteriorating structure for use as office space. The walls, moldings, and medallions on the ceiling were restored to their original colors.
Vinita – The old depot in Vinita once included both a Harvey House Restaurant and newsstand. Unfortunately, there is no sign of the Harvey House today.
Amarillo – The two-story stucco depot opened in 1910 with a Harvey House Restaurant. It closed in 1940 and in the 1970s, the railroad sold the building. Continuing to stand today, it now houses a large antique store.
Another interesting resource is New Mexico Harvey House Roll Call, a database of Fred Harvey employees in New Mexico.
The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound is a new documentary film from Katrina Parks that tells the story of how over 100,000 railroad station waitresses opened up the doors of the American West and the workplace to women and changed history. It was a finalist for a James Beard Award, has been broadcast on over a dozen PBS stations and is currently touring museums across the country.