Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Frontier Food at Its Finest (Fred Harvey and His Girls, Part 1)

Traveling is not for the faint of heart. With today's security concerns, passengers must arrive at the airport or train station hours before departure times and subject themselves to searches, in addition to riding for hours in cramped seating. Then there is the minuscule bag of peanuts or pretzels that is expected to keep travelers nourished during the trip.

However, people literally took their lives in their hands when they traveled by train during the early 1800s. Dangers abounded from train robberies and locomotive breakdowns to buffalo stampedes across the tracks. By all reports, that was nothing compared to the possibility of food poisoning.

As far as the railroads were concerned, their job was to transport passengers from Point A to Point B relatively on time. They had no interest in whether their clients arrived hungry or not. Dotting the route were station cafes, that served "greasy doughnuts and lukewarm, bitter coffee (made once a week), rancid bacon, heavy cold biscuits called 'sinkers,' bowls of gray stew full of strange looking objects, antelope steak so tough you couldn't get your fork into the gravy, and worst of all, the dreaded and notorious 'railroad pie:' two crusts as tasteless as cardboard, held together by a glue of suspicious looking meat and shriveled potatoes." (History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad by Keith L. Bryant, Jr., page 107)


Fortunately, English immigrant Fred Harvey came to the rescue. Having worked in the restaurant industry upon his arrival in America and being subjected to the station cafes, Fred decided to address the deplorable situation. He knew the railroads were growing by leaps and bounds, giving him a ground-floor opportunity. After being turned down by the Kansas Pacific Railroad, he convinced the Aitchison, Topeka and Santa Fe to partner with him.

The first restaurant opened at the Topeka depot in 1875 and was a resounding success. For only thirty-five cents, diners could get a full English-style breakfast that consisted of steak and eggs, hash browns, a stack of pancakes with butter and pure maple syrup, topped off with apple pie and coffee for dessert. (Yum!) By 1884, there were seventeen Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe route.

There was only one problem...finding good help. The employees, who were all men, would get "liquored up and either not come to work or come to work drunk and bleary eyed or hung over and shaky. They dropped or threw dishes, made rude remarks to customers, and picked fights." (The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West by Juddi Morris, page 17)

After one particularly harrowing incident at the Raton, NM restaurant, Fred fired the entire staff and locked the door. What could he do?

Enter Tom Gable, the newest Harvey House manager. "Women were used in eating houses in the east and they provided to be very satisfactory, so I suggested we do the same." The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West by Juddi Morris, page 18) It was a risky idea, but the always-willing-to-try-something Fred bought into it.

The bigger question was would young women buy into it and leave their lives behind to come West?

Come back on February 14th to hear the rest of the story.

A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Shenton Matchett is the author of Love's Harvest and Love Found in Sherwood Forest. On the Rails: A Harvey Girls Story will be available in February, 2017. Under Fire, the first book in her trilogy about WWII War Correspondent/amateur sleuth Ruth Brown, will be released on July 25, 2017. Visit Linda at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com


  1. Such an interesting time in history. I love novels built around this subject. The women were tenacious. Love historicals!

  2. There was an interesting historical display on the Harvey Houses in one of the rim properties at the Grand Canyon....very enlightening.

  3. I love this! Harvey Girls. I've heard that term.

  4. Ah! Way to leave me hanging. LOL
    Very interesting. I look forward to reading the rest.