Hit the Road

Journalist chronicles railroad hospitality tycoon in book

The Greatest Generation and some older boomers are probably the last demographic groups to really remember the Fred Harvey empire, which eventually encompassed 26 hotels (some are still operating or in restoration) and more than 300 lunchrooms, dining rooms and newsstands at 155 stops along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the St. Louis and San Francisco, the Kansas Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads. (The restaurant in St. Louis’ Union Station remained operational until 1970.)
The life of this amazing British immigrant and American entrepreneur (1835-1901) is chronicled in the recently published “Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the West” (Bantam Books). It was written by award-winning investigative journalist and magazine writer Stephen Fried, who became enthralled with Harvey after a 1993 stay at the august El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon (opened 1905; renovated 2005). It was actually built by Harvey’s son, Ford, who carried on with his father’s vision after the magnate’s death.
“There was a portrait of Fred in the lobby and a pamphlet about him in the room,” said Fried in a phone interview from his Philadelphia home. “Initially I thought it was a magazine story, but as the years went by and I learned more about him, I came to believe that it would be a great sweeping story.”
Fried spent six years writing the Harvey story which he pieced together from the volumes of notes, letters, datebooks and other papers Harvey kept over the years.
“(Fred) wrote down a lot of stuff … and I was the first journalist to have access to it,” Fried explained. “Most of it was sitting in basements of family members and not catalogued. They had been taken care of well enough, but no one had treated them as the museum pieces that they are.”
Fried took the documents home where he assembled a fascinating read that marries Harvey’s notes on his daily routines, chronic illness, business ideas, meetings, travels, expenses, recipes and family relationships with American history. In doing so, the author gives events like the Civil War, the Panic of 1893 (eerily similar to today’s recession) and the Oklahoma Land Rush a human face.
“I slept through much of this in high school history class,” Fried said, “but now, following the family through history, it was real and dramatic.”
Harvey played a large role in attracting visitors to the 1915 Panama California Exposition in Balboa Park, and managed the food service at the Santa Fe Station in downtown San Diego.
To appreciate what Harvey did for the traveling, tourism and restaurant industries, you must understand that those who could afford to vacation in the late 1800s/early 1900s went east to Europe. The wonders of our West were just being discovered and traveling by train and dining along the way was evolving from “subpar” at best.
“The food was awful … ” Fried said during an interview on NPR. “… they would serve it to you so late that by the time you sat down, it was time to get back on the train. (Then) they would actually scrape the food off the plate and serve it to the next person who came … ”
Fred Harvey changed all that.
He hired renowned chefs and brought in fresh produce and meats via railroad cars. He set high standards for flavor, cleanliness, efficiency, uniformity and fast service with a smile.
And then there were the Harvey Girls — young women who came mostly from Eastern states to work as waitresses in restaurants and lunch counters throughout the West. They had to be single, sign a contract promising not marry for a year, wear no makeup or jewelry, live in nearby dormitories and wear uniforms that resembled nuns’ habits minus the veils. Above all, they were to exude “wholesomeness.”
Harvey’s story is “what America was,” Fried said, “especially for the people in California. (In the late 1800s and early 1900s) they lived in a world that was controlled by the East. Fred Harvey showed that America did exist from sea to shining sea.”
Fried’s book includes many photos; a list of all existing and past hotels, restaurants and newsstands; excellent index and source notes; a map of railroads and Harvey establishments; the story of Fried’s “Grand Tour of Fred Harvey’s America;” and more than 50 original recipes, including Bull Frogs Saute Provencal (“Remove skin, dismember bull frog … ”), Angels on Horseback, Macaroni and Oysters and Brandy Flip Pie. Harvey also is responsible for popularizing Southwest cooking (Guacamole Monterey and Huevos Rancheros) and mission-style architecture.
For more about the book and author, visit www.stephenfried.com.