- Historic Sites
Purveyor To The West
To a culinary wilderness Fred Harvey brought civilized cooking—and pretty girls to serve it.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
A not inconsiderable number of agencies have been credited with bringing what passed for civilization to the Old West. First and foremost is the United States Cavalry, with the assistance of Sam Colt’s single-action frontier model pacifier and the Winchester magazine rifle. The peace officers and city marshals of the Kansas cow towns, again with an assist from Colt and Winchester, also rank high in popular esteem as agents of sweetness and light. So does the princely banking and express firm of Wells, Fargo & Company, aboard whose Abbot & Downing Concord coaches, routed and administered from Montgomery Street, San Francisco, the amenities of urban life—strolling players, clergymen, prostitutes, forty-rod whiskey, and frontier newspaper editors—reached mining outposts like the Comstock, the Coeur d’Alêne country, and the diggings at Treasure Hill.
Still another claimant as a vehicle of lux et veritas was the iron horse. In its trailing palace cars rode the frock coats and gold-headed walking canes of lordly finance; it brought to the frontier grand opera troupes, and English commentators whose patrician snarls in print and condescending approval were received with local raptures in Cherry Creek and the adobes of Santa Fe. Finally, it brought the refining influence of civilized dining to an area where burnt cow and rifle whiskey had hitherto constituted the height of gastronomic ambition. Its agent in this last endeavor was a young Englishman named Fred Harvey.
There was little about Harvey to suggest a Roman proconsul bringing the enlightened authority of the Empire to the farthest reaches of Gaul or Asia Minor. Nor, except for a common English ancestry and background, was there much about the mild-mannered man of pots and sauces to suggest the shapers of the British reign who for three abundant centuries gave Britannia dominion over palm and pine. And yet on a scale and to a degree of perfection that has become part of the folklore of the trans-Mississippi West, Harvey imposed a rule of culinary benevolence over a region larger than any Roman province and richer than any single British dominion save India.
Where the grunt and growl of frontier barbarism had held sway, Fred Harvey endorsed a law of “please” and “thank you.” Where the inhabitants had rooted about in a beans-and-bacon wilderness, he made the desert bloom with vintage claret and quail in aspic. It was quite an achievement.
In 1876 the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe was fairly small punkins as railroads went in the West. Starting at the Topeka of its corporate title, it had barely reached Pueblo, Colorado. It had yet to engage in its epic struggle with the narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Western for possession of Raton Pass, which was to give it access to the high plains of New Mexico and, eventually, to all the great Southwest. It was nowhere near the Santa Fe of its title, and, in fact never did include that city in the main line, though the line was to run all the way from the shores of Lake Michigan to Los Angeles.
The Santa Fe was, like all railroads of the time, full of optimism. When its founder, side-whiskered Cyrus K. Holliday, turned the first spadeful of earth at Topeka in 1868 and, in his inaugural speech, mentioned going to the Pacific coast, the townsfolk smiled tolerantly. Any railroad with pretensions to respectability in those days included the word Pacific in its title, but, as everybody knew, the Union Pacific, when it was completed the following year, would be all the railroad connection needed by California for the next couple of years.
In 1876, Frederick Henry Harvey, the future César Ritz of the false fronts, was just forty-one years old. Born within sound of Bow bells in London in 1835, he had emigrated at the age of fifteen and gained his first experience as a restaurateur in New York. He was a pot-walloper at Smith & McNeill’s chophouse and ordinary at 229 Washington Street for $2 a week and found. A few years later, fulfilling the universal ambition of all restaurant workers, he opened his own business in St. Louis. But the coming of war in 1861 made chaos of most private enterprise in that turbulent, half-southern river town; in the early sixties Harvey got a job as a mail clerk on the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, whose western terminus was the jumping-off place for the Far West. The Hannibal & St. Joe, known to its early passengers as the Horrible & Slow Jolting, was the first carrier of a railway post office in which mail was sorted en route, and Harvey was the first mobile mail clerk. Some of the letters he sorted may well have gone overland by the immortal Pony Express.
Subsequently he worked for other railroads and for a time sold advertising space in the Leavenworth Times and Conservative, making, according to James Marshall, annalist of the Santa Fe, as much as $3,000 a year. This, in the minted gold of the time, was real money, the equivalent of perhaps five times as much today.
We next encounter Fred Harvey in the capacity of western freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad; it was one up on the Santa Fe because it actually served all three elements of its corporate title. The Burlington was a granger railroad; it was going places in a hurry, and Harvey was known as a hustler. But then he came down with a stomach complaint that today would probably be diagnosed as ulcers. It may have been the result of too much railroad food.