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Fred Harvey Company


Fred Harvey

Photo credit:
Museum Collection
Grand Canyon National Park

Fred Henry Harvey was the quintessential American entrepreneur. Although born in England, he immigrated to the United States at the age of 15 and was determined to exploit the endless opportunities rumored to exist in his new home. Harvey settled in New York City. His first job as a busboy and dishwasher paid him only two dollars a week. But what he learned about the food service and restaurant business would prove to be invaluable.

Harvey's travels took him to New Orleans and eventually to St. Louis, where he found a partner and opened his first restaurant business. After bouts with illness, an ill-fated business agreement and several ups and downs, Harvey landed a job as a mail clerk for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad in 1862. He was later assigned to sort the mail in transit on the train. Harvey's constant work-related travel exposed him to the unsanitary accommodations and unsavory meal choices available to rail travelers. During this time, he also sold newspaper advertisements. The combination of professional railroad experience, restaurant business and sales gave Harvey unique insight into serving railroad passengers. Harvey knew that he was the person to deliver good, clean service and good food for a reasonable value to railroad passengers.

Historic image of train
Photo credit:
Kansas State Historical Society
Library and Archives Division

Harvey’s modest business plan, impeccable timing and distinguished presence impressed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway executives. He soon opened his first dining room in Florence, Kansas. Success came quickly to Harvey in Kansas and he expanded westward all the way to California. His hospitality empire included hotels, lunch stands and “dining room” restaurants for a more elegant experience. This rapid expansion required uniformity in product and presentation as well as generous rewards for his well-trained, dependable and extremely loyal staff. Although the Harvey Houses themselves did not all look alike and they varied greatly in size, they shared the same high standard of service expected of all Harvey ventures. Equally important to his success were promotions. Harvey created and distributed countless marketing pieces for each of his establishments. Each promoted good service at a good value and tempted countless thousands of visitors to head west knowing that the Fred Harvey Company would take care of them along the way.

Harvey Girls
Photo credit:
Museum Collection
Grand Canyon National Park
In 1883, Harvey hired the first members of his staff to be known as “Harvey Girls.” These young women were well educated by 1880s standards, neat, displayed good manners and spoke clearly. They signed contracts ranging from six to twelve months and left their homes for their assignments immediately upon being selected. Harvey Girls followed strict rules and faced dismissal for infractions including abstaining from marriage during their initial assignment. They were so legendary that MGM made a feature movie, "The Harvey Girls," a musical starring Judy Garland.

Harvey left no customer service detail to chance. Railroad staff took orders from passengers in-transit and wired them ahead to the awaiting Harvey House staff. When the trains arrived, the staff was ready to serve the hungry passengers within the 30 minutes allotted for each stop. Guests arrived, enjoyed their meals and re-boarded their train having had a good meal at a good value in a clean establishment.

In 1926, Harvey realized that guests to the Harvey House properties, including El Tovar, wanted and needed reliable, informative, entertaining and convenient tours from the properties to local attractions. They were traveling to the exotic Southwest to see the countryside and to experience the West firsthand. Harvey formed a new business venture focused on delivering these tours from his properties. When La Posada opened in 1930, Harvey “Indian Detour” guides in specially outfitted touring cars took guests to Meteor Crater and to nearby Native American locations. But, when travel by train to Winslow waned and demand for the tours decreased, Harvey sold that part of his business to a local businessman.

At the time of his death in 1901, the Fred Harvey Company had 15 hotels, 47 lunch and dining rooms and thirty train dining cars. After Fred Harvey’s death, the company continued under Harvey family leadership and expanded to include 100 newsstands and dozens of retail stores until 1968 when it was sold to the AmFac Corporation.

Fred harvey station
Photo credit:
Museum Collection
Grand Canyon National Park
The Fred Harvey Company set the standard for excellence in lodging and food service across America and helped promote tourism to the West for more than a hundred years. Their advertising campaigns flooded Arizona and the West with tourists anxious to experience the unspoiled West firsthand. During the day tourists kicked up the dust out on the trails of Arizona, then returned to a delicious meal and a comfortable place to sleep at night at a Fred Harvey property.




Suggested Reading on Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls:

Armstrong, William Patrick. Fred Harvey: Creator of Western Hospitality. Bellemont, AZ: Canyonlands Publications, 2000.

Babcock, Barbara and Weigle, Marta, ed. The Great Southwest of the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway. Phoenix, AZ: The Heard Museum, 1996.

Henderson, James David. Meals by Fred Harvey: A Phenomenon of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas. Texas Christian University Press, 1969.

Herbert, Charles W. The Fred Harvey Story. Arizona Highways, Vol., 44:6, June 1968.

Poling-Kemps, Lesley. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York, NY: Marlowe & Company, 1991.

Putman, Nina Wilcox. The Harvey Girls—Tamers of the Wild West. The American Weekly, August 15, 1948.


Online Resources:

National Fred Harvey Museum Leavenworth, Kansas

Florence Harvey House Florence, Kansas

The Fred Harvey Collection The Heard Museum

Special Collections University of Arizona Fred Harvey Collection
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The Fantasy: La Posada
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