Fred Harvey Company

  • American

After a very successful venture to establish suitable eating facilities in Topeka in 1872, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway developed an agreement with Fred Harvey in 1878, in which he would provide quality service and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway would supply the buildings. By 1883, Fred Harvey assumed exclusive control of all meal service on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway from Topeka to El Paso. Mr Harvey's operation functioned with an extremely high level of efficiency even sending telegrams from trains as they neared the depot. This enabled Harvey House staff to have all the facilities ready for customers as they got off the train. The Harvey Girls aided the popularity of the Harvey Houses. Recruited from eastern States, these rigorously trained waitresses served meals with precision and tact. - NPS

Notable Position Person From To
Founder of the Fred Harvey Company Fred Harvey 1876
Architect Mary Colter


Y/M/D Description Association Composition Place Locale Food Event
Y/M/D Description Association Composition Place Locale Food Event
Operator El Garces Needles
1878/00/00 The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway hires Fred Harvey to provide quality food service to their passengers. Contract
1879/00/00 Castaneda Hotel built in Las Vegas, NM Operator Castaneda Hotel Las Vegas, NM
1885/00/00 Montezuma Castle built, used as a hotel until 31 October 1903 Operator Montezuma Hotel Complex Montezuma
1905/01/01 Construction completed Owner Hopi House Grand Canyon NP - South Rim
1906/02/00 Built for a total cost of $260,000, more than 10,000 people tour the El Paso Union Passenger Station on opening night in February 1906. The Harvey House restaurant was on the second floor. Operator El Paso Union Passenger Station El Paso
1910/00/00 Waynoka Sante Fe Depot and Harvey House Waynoka
1913/00/00 Designed in a hybrid Santa Fe 16th century Spanish and Southwest American Indian style, 'Casa del Desierto' is built between 1910 and 1913 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway to replace an earlier one built in 1885 that burned in 1908. Harvey House Railroad Depot Barstow
1914/00/00 Built Operator Hermits Rest Grand Canyon NP - South Rim
1914/12/31 Santa Fe depot is completed at a total cost of $300,000 with a Fred Harvey Company lunch counter and dining room. Operator Santa Fe Depot San Diego, CA
1917/00/00 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Passenger Depot and Harvey House are built in 1917 Operator Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Passenger Depot Colorado Springs
1930/05/00 La Posada Hotel opens Operator La Posada Hotel and Gardens Winslow, AZ


The ATSF did not initially provide sleepers or dining cars for its passengers, who were forced to rely on trackside establishments. These were of, to put it politely, uneven and unpredictable quality. Overall, the restaurants were dirty. It was also common practice for railroad and restaurant staff to arrange for the train to pull out after orders were taken and money exchanged but before meals could be eaten. When food was served, passengers complained of "chicken" stew whose main ingredient was really prairie dog. Lastly, brawling among staff members was reputedly common.

Entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw opportunity in the situation. In 1876, he took over the ATSF's Topeka, Kansas depot, refitted it, and opened it as the first Harvey House. It served full-course meals with tremendous amounts of food (breakfasts finished with apple pie and coffee), and soon did capacity business to locals and railroad passengers alike. Impressed with Harvey's emphasis on cleanliness, service, reasonable prices, and good food, the ATSF gave him control of food service along the route.

Harvey built a hospitality empire that worked symbiotically with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to provide consistently good service at reasonable prices in its restaurants and hotels. Quality was hugely important to Harvey. His restaurants often used fresh, local food, but he did not hesitate to bring in more exotic items like Great Lakes whitefish, Texas beef, or Atlantic shellfish. Where local water quality was lacking, the company shipped in and used its own spring water to make coffee. Menus were planned such that food did not repeat as passengers traveled on down the railroad line. Meals were typically priced at 75 cents. Harvey Houses constantly operated at a financial loss, but their consumer appeal was so important to ATSF ticket sales that the railroad line was happy to underwrite the establishments.

The famous Harvey Girls served the food. Harvey attracted them with the ads he placed in newspapers seeking "young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30, to work in eating houses in the West." These largely white, eastern women agreed to live under fiercely conservative standards, maintain a spotless appearance and competent demeanor, and meet Harvey's exacting standards for service in return for well-paid employment and a chance at western adventure and opportunities. Between 1883 and the late 1950s, approximately 100000 Harvey Girls made this bargain. Approximately half of them enjoyed their new environment so much that they stayed, often marrying and establishing southwestern families. Harvey Girls, the 1946 movie starring Judy Garland, paid romantic tribute to Harvey's business empire. When Garland sang the show-stopping "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," she not only garnered an academy award, she reminded the United States of this time of railway travel and new national vistas.

Harvey restaurants proliferated until, by the late 1880s, a Harvey House was located at least every 100 miles along the ATSF route. By the end of the century, Harvey operated 15 hotels, 47 lunch and dining rooms, and 30 dining cars. By 1912, operations had grown to 65 eating houses, 12 large hotels, and 60 dining cars, all in conjunction with the Santa Fe and Frisco Railroads. In 1930, one period writer claimed, the Fred Harvey Company served 15 million meals a year.

Railroads remained the primary mode of long-distance travel until the 1920s, and the Fred Harvey Company saw potential in a series of "Indian Detours" serving the Southwest tourist trade. The Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey teamed up to market the route between Chicago and Los Angeles, building major hotels in communities along the way - in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Gallup, Santa Fe and, finally, in Winslow. Planned just before the stock market crash of 1929, La Posada was the last of the great railroad hotels. Colter, who designed many Harvey hotels along with marvelously imaginative hotels in the Grand Canyon, always considered La Posada her best work. The hotel opened in May of 1930, at the beginning of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, 40s and 50s, passengers abandoned trains and took to cars. - NPS

Shop Amazon

Shopping on Amazon

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Google Ad

Google Ad