Virginia Tolles, Wordsmith

Writing and Editing for You

Fred Harvey & His Harvey Houses

La Posada Hotel
By Richie Diesterheft - CC BY 2.0 ( - Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1800s, before there were dining cars on trains, finding good food that was served in a timely manner was difficult, if not impossible, for travelers, who had been riding in overcrowded coaches and sitting on hard, wooden seats.

Fred Harvey from Leavenworth, Kansas, had an idea for establishing dining rooms in train stations that offered good food. But that only solved half the problem. The other half was timeliness; after all, the trains had schedules to keep and did not remain in the stations for very long. Harvey came up with a solution to that problem: He established a system for telegraphing his restaurant when trains would arrive in order that the meals would be ready for the passengers when they arrived.

Harvey tried without success to interest two other stations in his idea before The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe station in Topeka, Kansas, agreed to give the idea a try. So successful was the dining-room that other Santa Fe stations began allowing Mr. Harvey to operate out of their stations.

In time, Mr. Harvey began building Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe route from Los Angeles to Chicago. These structures housed hotels, restaurants, newsstands, and gift shops and were built in every architectural style from Greek Revival to Spanish Hacienda. In all, the Harvey Company built more than eighty hotels along the railway.


Architect of the Harvey Houses

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Miss Colter studied architecture at the California School of Design. Upon graduation, she taught mechanical drawing in St. Paul, Minnesota, and applied for a position with the Fred Harvey Company. Her first job for Mr. Harvey was to decorate the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Impressed by the spaces around her, Miss Colter drew upon the natural resources and upon Native American and Spanish architecture for the design of her buildings and, indeed, for the dinnerware that was used in the Fred Harvey restaurants. To this day, her mimbreño Santa Fe Railway china is highly desirable. Miss Colter was also known for going to great lengths to make her new construction appear as though it had been lived in for some time. She was a notable success in an age when women generally were not accepted in the field of architecture and interior design.


The Harvey Houses offered more than just the timely service of good food in lunchroom settings. The restaurants were known for serving hearty portions of well-prepared food. Sandwiches included three slices of bread, while pies were cut in fourths, rather than sixths, as was the custom in the food industry. The Harvey Houses also offered formal dining with gourmet cuisine and elegant china, crystal, and silver.

The waitresses who worked in the restaurants were known as Harvey Girls. These women were brought from the East Coast to add a touch of refinement to the restaurants. They were trained, provided with uniforms, paid good wages, and given residential rooms in the hotels. Hollywood paid homage to these girls in a movie, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland (MGM, 1946).

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway supplied fresh food and dairy to the restaurants, shipping it aboard its refrigerator cars. In addition, it operated two dairies to ensure the availability of fresh milk. This arrangement would continue after the addition of dining cars to train consists. 

In addition to food service, the Harvey Houses offered hotel accommodations that featured all the creature comforts a traveler could want. Those amenities included newsstands, barber and beauty shops, and even ballrooms.


Dining and Sleeper Cars Arrive

The arrival of dining and sleeper cars spelled the beginning of the end of the Harvey Houses. No longer did train schedules have to include meal stops. No longer did travelers need to stop at night in order to sleep.  

With the coming of dining cars in 1889, the Fred Harvey Company began providing the kitchen and wait staff on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe trains. The Fred Harvey Company provided food service on all of the Santa Fe’s passenger trains, as well as to the Harvey Houses.

The Harvey Houses began dying out. Some of the early ones, which were built of wood, burned down. Others, such as Casa del Desierto in Barstow, California, became community centers for the towns in which they were sited. The original Harvey House in Florence, Kansas, thrives today as a museum and restaurant. The Harvey House in Chanute, Kansas, is now a public library. The dining room of the Harvey House in Newton, Kansas, the Arcade Hotel, now houses a law firm.

Still, a few Harvey Houses are still open for business or have reopened for business after spending years as railroad offices and storage depots. Two currently operating as restaurants and hotels are  El Tovar at the Grand Canyon and La Posada in Winslow, Arizona.


Fate of The Fred Harvey Company

Upon the death of Fred Harvey in 1901, his family took over operations, running the business for another sixty-seven years.  After World War II, when train travel declined, The Fred Harvey Company turned its efforts to running hotels and restaurants in the national parks. In 1968, The Fred Harvey Company was sold to Amfac, Inc. of Hawai‘i, and ceased to exist. In 1988, Amfac was bought out by JMB Realty of Denver. JMB changed its name in 2002 to Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which continues to operate hotels and restaurants in the national park system. Even now, it remembers its legacy in the Harvey Houses.


About Fred Harvey

Frederick Henry Harvey was born in London, England, on July 27, 1835. His parents were Scottish and English. When Fred was 15 years old, he and his family moved to New York, where he worked as a pot scrubber and busboy at a café. Thus, he was introduced to the restaurant business. After living in New Orleans, he moved to St. Louis, where Harvey met his wife, Barbara Sarah Mattas.

There, Harvey went in with a partner and opened a café. The business enjoyed success until his partner left with all their money. Harvey then went to work for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. Rising through the ranks, he settled in Leavenworth, Kansas, which remained his home for the rest of his life. While working for the railroads, Harvey traveled extensively. He became aware of the difficulty in eating on the rails. There were no dining cars and few restaurants at station stops.

In 1873, he went in business with Jeff Rice to establish three restaurants on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. That business failed, but in 1876, Harvey partnered with the Santa Fe Railroad through an acquaintance with the superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, Charles Morse. Thus, the first Harvey House restaurant was opened in the Santa Fe depot in Topeka, Kansas. So successful was the restaurant that the railroad prevailed upon Harvey to establish restaurants in other depots along their routes and in new structures, which the railroad built. These included not only restaurants, but hotels, tonsorial parlors, ballrooms, souvenir stands, and newsstands, as well. The first was built in Florence, Kansas, in 1878, In all, 84 Harvey Houses were established. They are credited with being the first “chain” restaurants in the United States.

Fred Harvey was an entrepreneur, a man who moved forward with the times. When dining cars were implemented on Santa Fe passenger trains, Fred Harvey won the contract to provide food service. When the West proved to be wild and unruly, he hired cultured ladies from back East to serve his customers and set the tone for respectability.

As Fred Harvey grew old, his sons, Ford and Byron, took over running the business. Mr. Harvey died on February 9, 1901, in Leavenworth, Kansas. To this day, he is known as “the man who civilized the West.”


Berke, Arnold. Mary Colter: Architect of the Southwest. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Fried, Stephen. Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West. New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

Fred Harvey Legacy. Grand Canyon Railway.

Grattan, Virginia L. Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press, 1980.

Harvey Houses - Hotels, Lunchrooms, Restaurants in the Old West.

Melzer, Richard. Images of America: Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.