Fred Harvey: Defining Hospitality in the American West

By Donna K. Keesling

Fred Harvey, a nineteenth century entrepreneur in the hospitality industry is credited with standardizing food service along the railroad routes in the American West. It has been said that he started the first “restaurant chain” in the United States. At its peak, the Fred Harvey company operated sixty-five restaurants and lunch counters, sixty railroad dining cars, a dozen large hotels, and all the restaurants and retail businesses in five of the country’s largest railroad stations.[1]But why is Fred Harvey best known as “the civilizer of the American West?”

In 1850, Frederick Henry Harvey immigrated from London to the United States. He was only 15 years old when he landed in New York and started his first job as a dishwasher at Smith & McNell’s. After eighteen months in New York, working as a busboy, waiter, and line cook, Fred Harvey moved to New Orleans and continued working in restaurants. In 1853, he moved to St. Louis where he owned and managed his own restaurant.

Fred married his first wife, a Dutch woman named Ann in 1859. She died following the birth of their second son in 1862. Fred married Barbara Sarah Mattas, known as Sally, in 1862. Sally became mother to Fred’s two children from his first marriage. In 1865 the children died of scarlet fever. Fred and Sally had five children of their own. Their first child, Ford, was born in 1866.

After his restaurant in St. Louis failed, mostly due to the conflict between the northern and southern states, he moved to St. Joseph, Missouri. He went to work for Captain Rufus Ford – who had befriended him in St. Louis – at his packet boat business. Fred also took a job as a mobile mail clerk – working for the government on a rail car which was used to sort mail while en route. Fred then began to sell passenger tickets for the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad and later moved to Leavenworth, Kansas as a sales agent for the North Missouri Railroad. He was eventually hired as freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad.

Fred spent a lot of time on trains for his work and discovered that rail travelers had few choices for meals along the way. Trains typically stopped every 100 miles or so to put water in the locomotive or change engines. At these stops, eating houses were established by local entrepreneurs. However, most of the food – and the service – was of poor quality. Fred, with his restaurant and railroad experience, determined that he could provide travelers with a much better dining experience. With his friend Jepp Rice, he took over the food service for three establishments along the Kansas Pacific railroad. When the partnership did not work out, Fred approached the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, where he worked as a freight agent, with his food service ideas. They were not interested, so he then approached Charles Morse, superintendent of the Atchinson, Topeka, & Santa Fe (ATSF). In 1876 he took over the lunchroom on the second floor of the Topeka train depot. From this humble start, Fred Harvey went on to establish a hospitality empire that included restaurants, hotels, and food service in railroad dining cars.

Fred’s Harvey House restaurants have been described as “an oasis of comfort and civilization along the railway routes of the Southwest.”[2] Fred Harvey insisted on quality food service in an elegant atmosphere with imported linens, and place settings of silver and fine china. He required men to wear jackets in the dining rooms – providing a jacket to anyone who was without.

The standards and procedures that Fred Harvey implemented ensured the same experience at a Fred Harvey establishment no matter where a patron travelled. According to authors Foster and Weiglin, the “lunchroom was kept spotless, the menu was usually varied and of high quality, and the prices were moderate.”[3] Restaurant operating procedures were worked out in great detail, with specific instructions for everything that needed to be done.

Unlike most establishments along the railroads where the waitstaff was primarily male, Fred Harvey employed women between the ages of 18 and 30 to serve customers. The young women, dressed in black shirtwaist dresses and white aprons and caps, came to be known as “Harvey Girls.” The women typically lived in the same building as the restaurant and were supervised by the Harvey Girl with the most tenure. They signed a year-long contract and forfeited part of their base pay if they left before the end of the year. It is said that their manners and decorum had a “civilizing effect on the often rough customers in the territories.”[4]

Fred Harvey ventured into the hotel business when he opened a hotel in Florence, Kansas in 1878. A much bigger venture was the Montezuma hotel at Hot Springs, six miles north of Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was owned by the Santa Fe Railroad and operated by the Fred Harvey company from 1882 – 1902. Other trackside resorts operated by Fred Harvey included the Castaneda and the Alvarado. The hotels owned by the Santa Fe and operated by Fred Harvey offered a “consistently high level of accommodations that made them vacation attractions in themselves.”[5]

In 1905, the Santa Fe Railroad opened El Tovar – a resort located along the rim of the Grand Canyon. Fred Harvey operated El Tovar, and later Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Lodge at the Grand Canyon. All three still welcome guests. As Stephen Fried states in Appetite for America, El Tovar is “one of the last places where Fred Harvey lives on.”[6]

Fred Harvey died in 1901. His son, Ford, and son-in-law, John Frederick Huckel took over the company upon his death. After World War II, tourists began travelling in automobiles rather than by rail. The trackside Harvey Houses began closing in the 1930s. However, the company expanded by offering restaurants along scenic highways frequented by travelers. Fred’s son Byron and his sons continued to run the Fred Harvey company until 1968 when it was sold to Hawaii-based Amfac Parks & Resorts (renamed Xanterra Parks & Resorts in 2002).

Because of his experience in fine restaurants in New York and New Orleans and a less than favorable experience in his early years of working for the railroads, he recognized a business opportunity. The Fred Harvey company helped to make travel in the American West more enjoyable by “serving tasty meals in pleasant surroundings and bringing a touch of graciousness to a mostly unsettled land.”[7]

[1] Stephen Fried, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), xviii.

[2] “Fred Harvey, the Harvey Houses, and the Harvey Girls,” The Public Library Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, accessed May 10, 2022,

[3] George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin, The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining along the Santa Fe Railroad (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1992), 24.

[4] “Fred Harvey, the Harvey Houses, and the Harvey Girls.”

[5] Foster and Weiglin, The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining along the Santa Fe Railroad, 129.

[6] Fried, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire that Civilized the Wild West, xv.

[7] Jayne Clark, “The Harvey Girls Defined Hospitality in the Wild West of the 1880s,” Grand Canyon National Park – South Rim, February 24, 2016, accessed May 10, 2022,