Browse Articles » Travel

  • Harvey House: An American Icon that Helped Develop the West

    This chain of railroad restaurants was first class all the way.

    By Don Heimburger

    Do you enjoy food? Do you enjoy trains and railroading? How about both at the same time? Imagine yourself sitting in a Fred Harvey restaurant in 1900 at the St. Louis Union Station.

    Fresh, quality ingredients would have been used in the preparation of your meal, generous portions of food would be offered, and the interior furnishings would be first class. In those days, this devotion to quality was fairly rare, and certainly rare for a “chain of railroad restaurants.” Oh yes, even the cost for the meal was reasonable for what you received.

    But that was the “Fred Harvey way,” and Harvey’s influence was to reach along the Santa Fe tracks and into America’s transportation fabric in a big way, and in a fairly short time.

    Harvey House restaurants and hotels—and even resorts—sprang up just in time to make a large impact on the development of western United States. Still today in your railroad travels you can visit some locations where these famous establishments once operated. Harvey’s famous “Harvey Girls” won’t be there to serve you anymore, but you can take pictures of some of the structures for your rail scrapbook.

    Fred Harvey History

    Fred Harvey himself, an employee of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, who had “been around the block” before when it came to running restaurants (he and a partner had run three railroad eating houses on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (later Union Pacific), was a prosperous salesman and manager. Harvey, who came to the United States in 1850 from London, acquired experience in retailing, restaurant management, railroad freight sales, cattle ranching, advertising, and promotion, and he used all these to build his booming business.

    Harvey, a perfectionist, set high standards for his food, accommodations, and employees, maintaining an air of good taste in his lifestyle. Wherever one went, passengers could be assured of a clean bed and an excellent meal. In the early days, any meal on the menu, when eaten in the dining room, was a mere 50 cents, including a Kansas City steak. That included appetizers.

    And despite his restaurants and hotels spending large sums of money to please their clientele, his business was an overwhelming success.

    Not surprisingly for Harvey, a savvy businessman, he convinced the Santa Fe that he could run the food concession on the railroad far better than the railroad itself. The railroad agreed, and success came almost overnight. In fact, at one point, the railroad worried in the 1870s that the Topeka, Kansas restaurant Harvey opened was keeping people in Topeka so that they were hesitant to move further westward and thus ride Santa Fe trains! Harvey’s solution was to build another restaurant further down the line, 100 miles away. It worked.

    Harvey Houses on the Move

    By 1883, Harvey operated 17 Harvey Houses along Santa Fe tracks from Topeka to Albuquerque and Deming, New Mexico. By 1887, the chain had reached California. It was also in 1883 that the Harvey Girls, who were paid $17.50 a month plus room, board, and tips were employed as staff.

    Later, Harvey owned his own dairy and produce farms, cattle ranch and a central laundry. Refrigerator cars with fresh produce and meats were often used to help transport these supplies to his restaurants and hotels.

    Kansas City was the firm’s headquarters and his establishment there was considered the “best” of the operations. The restaurant in Chicago’s Dearborn Station was recognized by thousands of travelers who traveled through this city, and the famous Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel was operated by Fred Harvey.


    To learn more about Fred Harvey's operations, go to


    Article Details

    • Original Author Don Heimburger

    Article Album (3 photos)

    Share - Report