- 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
Nothing like it has ever been seen before or since, not even the yard-long menu on the first Super Chief when that pleasure barge was inaugurated in 1936 with fresh beluga caviar at $1.50 and larded tenderloin of beef for 95 cents. Passengers on the De-Luxe didn’t dress for dinner, as they are reported to have done aboard the Blue Train to Monte Carlo at the turn of the century, or on the Simplon-Orient Express, but this was the only touch of grandeur that was lacking.
A footnote to the style in which Harvey operated in the mid-thirties, both on wheels and when grounded, can be discovered in the fact that for a decade or so the most socially and gastronomically acceptable restaurant in Kansas City was the Harvey Restaurant in Union Station. Here the most lavish dinner parties of the season were given by local magnificoes.
In those days the carding of the Chief westbound brought it to Kansas City shortly after nine in the evening for an operational stop that often lasted thirty minutes, and knowing regulars aboard the cars were met by friends and spent the interval profitably in the Harvey bar downstairs. Film celebrities occasionally were overserved and had to be helped aboard, while impatient locomotives panted to be on their way.
Until the spring of last year, when some of the stock was sold to the public, the ownership as well as the management and administration of the Harvey system was always a family affair. Upon Fred Harvey’s death in 1901 at the age of sixty-six, the business provided service for fifteen hotels, forty-seven restaurants, thirty dining cars, and a ferryboat crossing San Francisco Bay. The company passed intact to Harvey’s oldest son, Ford, who headed the organization until he died in 1928, when Fred’s younger son, the late Byron Harvey, Sr., took over. The late Byron, Jr., succeeded him, and at the present time two more of the founder’s grandsons, Daggett and Stewart Harvey, are still active in the company’s management.
In general terms the operation has been kept fluid, to accommodate itself to the changes of national habit, taste, and travel patterns that have been the direct result of the motor-car age. Most of the earlier on-line hotel operations that were integrated into the Santa Fe’s passenger traffic have been closed or modified. Mobile restaurants aboard dining cars and buffets have been geared to the class of patronage of the trains themselves—ranging from the epicureanism of the Super Chief to lunch-counter cars on the shorter runs in Texas and Kansas.
The original intention of Fred Harvey was to provide a Harvey facility approximately every 100 miles along the Santa Fe main line between the Great Lakes and California, but the trend in recent years has been away from on-line services and in the direction of operations entirely disassociated from the Santa Fe, such as inns, hotels, and restaurants, away from the railroad’s tracks and terminals. And the company has recently undertaken the merchandising of a number of proprietary-brand food products, including the special blend of coffee that has been sold at Harvey Houses everywhere since the firm was founded.
The original Fred Harvey with his well-bred English notions of the proprieties, the Harvey who tamed the western frontier of gastronomy, might not recognize the many diversifications of his company in the second half of the twentieth century. He would, however, recognize its guiding principle—no compromise with mediocrity, and only the best of everything for Harvey patrons—which served so well in the cow towns of the Old West.