Fred Harvey & The Harvey Girls
In 1901 the first Santa Fe passenger train arrived at the South Rim.
Until 1968, the principal concessioner and provider of Grand Canyon visitor services was the Fred Harvey Company. Founded in 1876, the Fred Harvey Company became the “civilizer of the West” and the company that “made the desert blossom with beefsteak and pretty girls.”
Fred Harvey left London at the age of 15 to later become an entrepreneur seeing an opportunity to provide better dining facilities along the route of the Santa Fe Railroad. Using modern technology – the telegraph – and employing bright, young and congenial employees, Harvey provided significantly better dining facilities and services than were previously available to western travelers. The first Harvey House opened in Topeka, Kansas in 1876 and expansion reached a high of 100 Harvey Houses by 1917.
Harvey struck a deal with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to operate a system of eateries along its rail lines.
Always innovating, Harvey devised a way to stay in touch with the railroad workers by telegraph so that he could provide quality meals in a timely fashion. If the train was running late, each Harvey House would be alerted to prepare for extra-hungry travelers. The foundation for his hospitality empire had been laid.
Rivaling the good food and modern accoutrements that Fred Harvey brought to the West were his comely, well-trained waitresses – his “Harvey Girls.” Most of the girls were recruited from good homes in the East and had no little part in taming the West. To the frontier outposts of the West, where stampeding buffalo herds were as common as attacking Indians, train robberies and horse thieving, the Harvey Girls brought culture, refinement and romance. The same pioneering spirit that sent restless young men into the West drew the Harvey Girls. Young, intelligent, and well-turned out in their crisp white aprons and bows over well-fitted black shirtwaists, the girls were a sight to the eyes of lonesome western males. They were housed in dormitories presided over by sensible, mature housemothers. They were looked after as carefully as boarding school students in “female seminaries” in the East.
Although Fred Harvey died in 1901, he envisioned Grand Canyon as a major tourist attraction and convinced the Santa Fe Railroad to run a line from Williams, Arizona to this natural wonder. With his sons and grandsons carrying on the business, the company kept pace with service and facility needs as Grand Canyon visitation steadily increased during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1905 the El Tovar Hotel opened at the South Rim, at the end of the railroad line.
It was the Fred Harvey Company that hired the gifted female architect Mary E. J. Colter. A perfectionist in a male-dominated profession, Colter’s talent and perseverance were realized in a succession of unique Grand Canyon designs that reflected her vision of natural constructions, often modeled after Native American themes. Among her South Rim Grand Canyon works are the Hopi House in 1905; Lookout Studio and Hermits Rest in 1914; Phantom Ranch in 1922; the Desert View Watchtower in 1932; and in 1935, Bright Angel Lodge. Today all of these buildings, along with the El Tovar, are still in use and are nationally recognized historic landmarks.
In addition to creating America’s first hotel and restaurant chain, Harvey was a pioneer of cultural tourism. In the early 1900s, the Fred Harvey Company created an “Indian Department,” which commissioned artists and photographers to document the exoticism of Indian culture in the Southwest. Images were printed on menus and brochures to promote the mystique of Indian Country and, not incidentally, Harvey’s tourist enterprises.
The company also employed American Indians to demonstrate rug weaving, pottery, jewelry making and other crafts at his Southwest hotels. The sales of those items in Harvey’s stores influenced the design of native arts.
Taking the winning approach further, in 1926, the Harvey Company began offering “Indian Detours,” chauffeured interpretive tours in which guests at his Southwest hotels were ferried in comfortable Harvey Cars for one- to three-day excursions into Indian settlements in New Mexico and Arizona. )
During the latter half of the 1900s, as annual park visitation began being measured in the millions, the Fred Harvey Company continued to expand visitor facilities at Grand Canyon. Yavapai Lodge – a modern motel complex – opened in 1958, with Maswik Lodge and the Kachina and Thunderbird guest rooms constructed a few years later.
In 1968, Xanterra purchased the Fred Harvey Company. Xanterra Parks & Resorts is the largest parks management company in the country. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, Xanterra has national park concession operations at the South Rims of Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Glacier, Crater Lake, Zion, Death Valley, Rocky Mountain and Petrified Forest.
Today, as five million people a year visit Grand Canyon, the genius and spirit of Fred Harvey and Mary E. J. Colter live on. The train arrives every day, the view from the El Tovar dining room is as it was in 1905 and the hospitality of the modern-day Harvey Girls still beckons.
The Harvey Girls
THE NEWSPAPER ADVERTISEMENT, CIRCA 1880, READ:
Wanted: Single women, between the ages of 18 and 30. Must be of good moral character, well mannered, attractive and intelligent, with at least an eighth grade education. And, must be willing to move West.
Thousands of courageous young women answered the call and would soon become known as Harvey Girls. Hired to bring civility and charm to the new frontier, they would work as waitresses in Harvey House restaurants, recently opened along the Santa Fe rail lines. In exchange, they received room, board, a monthly stipend and the promise of adventure.
Little did these women know that their pioneering spirit would help transform travel in their own time and that they would eventually become the subject of a film starring Judy Garland as one of their own.
The Harvey Girls, outfitted for restaurant service in a long black dress (no more than 8 inches above the floor) overlaid with a starched white apron, black opaque stockings and black shoes, were a signature component of Harvey’s success and would become one of his most enduring legacies. Not only were they “reliable and effective employees,” providing stability during the early years of Harvey’s enterprise, but their good company was also often in demand. Young, single women were few and far between in a largely unsettled land.
The “girls” signed yearlong contracts and lived next to or in the Harvey Houses, under the close supervision of a senior Harvey Girl. If they left before the year was up — most often to marry — they forfeited a portion of their base pay.
To the frontier outposts of the West, where stampeding buffalo herds were as common as attacking Indians, train robberies and horse thieving, the Harvey Girls brought refinement and romance.
Though most of the original Harvey Houses and hotels are gone, a few still survive today. Most notable are the El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. One of the jewels of the National Park Lodges, El Tovar opened as a Harvey House in 1905. The Fray Marcos Hotel in nearby Williams, Arizona, built as a Harvey House in 1908, now houses a gift shop, offices, and the train depot for the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel.
Of Fred Harvey, Will Rogers once said: “He kept the West in food and wives.”