- 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
At this juncture, it may be well to insert a footnote on the gastronomy of travel in the years before clever George Mortimer Pullman placed in service the first dining car on the Chicago & Alton. Depot restaurants were spotted along the right of way at appropriate intervals, and three times a day the cars were hand-braked to a smoking halt; their occupants then engaged in a pitched battle with the management to get fed in the conventional twenty minutes allowed at each stop. No favorable commentary on the depot fare of the Southwest has survived, although contemporary reports indicate that things weren’t nearly so bad on the Union Pacific a few hundred miles to the north. Without exception the depot-lunch proprietors of Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado were descendants of the Borgia family. To their talents as poisoners, some of them added those of brigands. They would bribe the train crew to sound the “all aboard” whistle before the prescribed twenty minutes had elapsed. The passengers had paid in advance; nevertheless, what they left on their plates was sold again to the next trainload of arrivals. The food was simply terrible.
There were, to be sure, two alternatives to risking one’s health in such establishments. One was to go without food at all and subsist solely on bottled nourishment. The other was the shoe-box lunch.
“Many years ago when you went for a trip on the cars,” said the Kansas City Star in 1915, “somebody at home kindly put up a fried chicken in a shoe-box for you. It was accompanied by a healthy piece of cheese and a varied assortment of hard-boiled eggs and some cake. When everybody in the car got out their lunch baskets with the paper cover and the red-bordered napkins, it was an interesting sight. … The bouquet from those lunches hung around the car all day, and the flies wired ahead for their friends to meet them at each station.”
In this extremity it occurred to Fred Harvey that perhaps a railroad restaurant which offered reasonably edible fare and honest treatment of the customers might attract favorable attention and even make money for its altruistic proprietor. Its very novelty would occasion comment.
The Burlington management had other things on its mind when he brought the idea to its attention. But the management of the Santa Fe—in the person of Charles F. Morse, a general superintendent with a taste for unsalted butter and underdone steak—saw eyetooth to eyetooth with Harvey, and in 1876 the first Harvey restaurant came into being in the railroad’s Topeka depot and office building.
The impact was sensational. Word that “an eating house with a conscience” was in operation, serving tastefully prepared food in clean and well-ordered surroundings, spread far and wide, nowhere more swiftly than among the drummers or commercial travellers who formed a ponderable part of the railroad patronage in those days and who began planning their itineraries so as to be in Topeka at mealtimes, just as a later generation of continental travellers took pains to stay only in cities where they knew there was a Ritz Hotel.
“For a few months it looked as though civilization were going to stop short in her onward march at the capital of Kansas,” wrote a contemporary, “and that the westward course of empire … would end at the same spot. Travellers positively declined to go further once they had eaten with Fred Harvey. Traffic backed up, and it became necessary for the Santa Fe to open similar houses at other points along its right of way in order that the West might not be settled in just one spot.”
The next stop in the westward progress of gastronomy was at Florence, Kansas, where Harvey, using the profits from his venture at Topeka, purchased an entire hotel. Here was the first Harvey House that offered sleeping accommodations. At Topeka Harvey had merely operated a depot restaurant, but at Florence he maintained not only a formal dining room but bedrooms for his guests as well.
It was an overnight success, and the Santa Fe at once made a gentleman’s agreement with Harvey providing that in future the railroad should furnish the premises and equipment, and Harvey the food and service. A handshake between Fred Harvey and Superintendent Morse was all that bound the two companies for some time, until their operations reached a degree of complexity that indicated written contracts.
At Dodge City, when Fred Harvey arrived in the eighties, the gunsmoke of frontier times had not yet blown from the scene, and it was still a rough, tough cow town. In the absence of more formal accommodations, two primeval boxcars were taken off their trucks and set on the ground, one to serve as kitchen and the other as dining room. The waddies were amazed at the amenities of dining that prevailed in this impromptu setting. Across the range the word spread: “They make you take off your hat and put on a coat there in an old boxcar, but the grub is strictly A-No. 1.”