The legacy of Fred Harvey began in 1876 when he opened his first Harvey House Restaurant at the Topeka Santa Fe Depot Station. Before Harvey, westward travel was one that promised gastronomical discomfort in railroad towns referred to as “hell on wheels,” famous for their single shack depots and water tanks. The marriage of Harvey and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) was one that brought prosperity, civilization, and culinary excellence to an untamed American West. Harvey insisted, “Maintenance of standards, regardless of cost,” and his standards were high. This meant food must be first rate, served promptly, in fashionable surroundings, at a reasonable cost. Young women across the country left their hometowns to seek employment as a Fred Harvey Girl, a serving position that required a high school education, good manners, clear speech, neatness in appearance, and zero tolerance for vulgarity. In return Harvey Girls received competitive pay, room and board, three meals a day, laundry, and incentives of vacation days and free railroad passes contingent on their agreement to remain unwed for at least a year. Regardless, more than 20,000 of them eventually married and helped settle the West. Quite possibly the Harvey Girls are the most lasting legacy of the Fred Harvey story and an icon of an era gone by.
"Meals by Fred Harvey" became the slogan of the AT&SF. Harvey cooks and waitresses were given advance warning by telegraph of the number of passengers to expect in the dining and lunch rooms so staff and food would be ready and waiting. Bluepoint oysters on the half shell, English pea soup au gratin, roast sirloin of beef au jus, pork with apple sauce, salmi of duck, queen olives, New York ice cream, fresh fruit, Edam and Roquefort cheese, French coffee, and homemade pie all could have been included in a 1880s menu. The menus along the line rotated every four days, and Harvey chefs exchanged recipes all authorized by Fred Harvey. Such a distinctive dining experience had china to complement. China patterns were marked by the silhouette of an iconic Harvey Girl in uniform, a logo of a cactus native to the West, or four gold stars conveying to passengers that they were in for a first class dining experience. The Harvey system did not die with Fred Harvey in 1901; rather it continued to prosper under the Harvey name and standards, and in 1943 Harvey Houses served more than thirty million meals.
Erika Lusthoff, Curator
The Christopher Transportation Collection