Purveyor To The West

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A loyal partisan of Fred Harvey was William Allen White, “the Sage of Emporia,” who categorically stated in the editorial columns of the Emporia Gazette that Harvey food was head and shoulders above all the competition. “It is the best in America,” White testified. “Deponent has in the past six months eaten meals on ten of the great railway systems of the country. Harvey meals are so much better than the meals of other railroads, east, west, north and south, that the comparison seems trite.”

In the opening years of the last decade of the nineteenth century, it was becoming apparent that the universal meal-stop along main-line railroads was becoming a thing of the past. Faster schedules and limited trains caused operating departments to take a dim view of three half-hour stops a day in addition to the operational and switching stops dictated by absolute necessity. The introduction of dining cars on the faster and more luxurious trains was the solution of the problem. In the beginning, because of the limited tractive force of locomotives, diners were more frequently cut into trains at division points and carried only long enough for the service of a single meal, or perhaps breakfast and lunch, before being switched to a siding and then cut into a following train, or one bound in the opposite direction, for dinner. It was an intricate and vexatious process, but even the pauses required to pick up and set out diners once or twice a day didn’t add up to the delay involved in three full meal-stops.

In 1892, the Santa Fe placed in service the first of the great trains that were to make its operations the transportational glory of the West. The California Limited, a name radiant in the lexicon of the Old Southwest and one that ornamented the Santa Fe timecards until well after the Second World War, carried a luxurious innovation in the form of a through diner that rode with the Pullmans all the way from Chicago to Los Angeles. Thus a new pattern of de luxe travel made its appearance, and from that day until comparatively recently much of the best food served in the United States was served on flanged wheels.

For Fred Harvey to take over the operation of the Santa Fe’s dining cars was little more than an extension of an already well-established and elaborately routined service operation. The same organization that purchased Texas steers on the hoof at Kansas City, supplied California citrus to Chicago terminal restaurants, and distributed game, seafood, and dairy products at strategic points over half a continent, lent itself with a minimum of strain to the operation of mobile eating establishments that rolled night and day over the same huge territory.

To the dining cars Harvey brought the same decorum and the elevated amenities of food and service that had been the hallmark of his wayside operation. Irish table linen from Belfast and Sheffield silver as heavy as that in the best private clubs were the rule. There was a variety and quality of food in keeping with the opulent Harvey tradition of frontier generosity. The diners of the California Limited set the standard; those of the Colorado Express, the Missionary, the San Francisco Limited, the Grand Canyon, the Navajo, and eventually the Chief and Super Chief, followed in its footsteps. The best of everything was none too good for the Santa Fe’s patrons, and until his death Fred Harvey saw that that rule was enforced on thirty-odd Santa Fe dining cars.

Although other western carriers like the Great Northern might advertise the luxury of eating aboard their crack name-trains, it was the Santa Fe which travellers always used as the standard of culinary excellence. “Real railroading begins west of Chicago” has long been an American aphorism, and by “real railroading” most passengers mean the quantity and quality of the food available to them. Other railroads have had dining-car stewards of national celebrity, such as Wild Bill Kurthy aboard the Union Pacific-Southern Pacific’s Forty-Niner and Dan Healey on the Milwaukee’s Pioneer Limited. But the Harvey organization has eschewed spectacular personalities in favor of an urbane worldliness and savoir-faire that would have pleased the legendary and monocled Olivier of the Paris Ritz.

The high-water mark in Santa Fe sumptuousness was to be found aboard a once-a-week, all-Pullman, extra-fare limited between Chicago and Los Angeles inaugurated in 1911 under the name De-Luxe. Aboard it a strictly limited sixty passengers were carried in upholstered surroundings never before experienced in public travel. They slept in private staterooms in individual brass beds instead of berths. Valets and ladies’ maids and barbers crouched in the shadow of potted palms ready to spring at any unwary passenger who tried to do anything for himself. Gentlemen passengers received pigskin billfolds as souvenirs of their trip, and at the California border uniformed messengers came aboard with corsages for each lady traveller. For such service a surcharge of twenty-five dollars was exacted—the equivalent in the hard-gold currency of the time of, say, one hundred dollars today. And, of course, the food in the diner was Fred Harvey’s.