The Harvey Houses

I was watching a 1946 movie the other night called “The Harvey Girls”, starring Judy Garland. Miss Garland plays Susan, a young girl from Ohio who sets off to the Southwest by train to marry a man she has never met. When she arrives and finds a “mangy old buzzard,” the wedding is off. Susan stays and takes a job at a new restaurant in town, the Harvey House.

Judy Garland, from 1946’s The Harvey Girls, co-starring Ray Bolger, John Hodiak, and Angela LansburyBefore dining cars in passenger trains became common, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad faced a major problem in the mid 1870s. The railroad lacked sufficient dining facilities for passengers traveling the long routes to the Southwest. The Santa Fe made a deal with hospitality man Fred Harvey: They provided buildings for the restaurants; freighted food, ice, coal, and water; and transported employees as needed. Harvey managed the restaurants, supplied equipment and workers, and prepared the meals. Santa Fe train crews could eat for half price.

In 1876, Harvey opened his first depot restaurant in Topeka, Kansas. This was the beginning of the “chain” of Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe line from Chicago, through Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and into California.

The employees consisted of chefs, busboys, and the famous “Harvey Girls.” Young women from 18 to 30 years old were paid $17.50 a month (approximately $436 today) plus room, board, and tips. They lived in dorms where they had to abide by strict rules—a 10 p.m. curfew, and inspection of their uniform every morning. The uniform was a black dress, white apron, black hose and black shoes, and a white bow in their hair. There was no make-up, and chewing gum was not permitted while on duty.

Delicious food was served on fine China and Irish linens in 30 minutes, at reasonable prices. In time, meals were served on the trains and in dinning cars by the Fred Harvey Company (as it became).

In 1929, Harvey created tour packages of the Southwest called For an additional fee, one could detour for a day or more off the train trip West, and visit Southwestern attractions. “Detours” included motor transportation, meals and hotel.

The Harvey Co. helped open the West to women by giving them an environment for work and the opportunity to travel. Harvey Girls pioneered the West for working women as working women. The Harvey House era ended in 1970, but is being revived in Sacramento. A Harvey House restaurant has opened up in a historic location close to the Wells Fargo History Museum in Old Sacramento. And close as well to the Railroad Museum—it makes historical sense that visitors can step off the train, have a meal, then resume their “trip!”

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Guided By History

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