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El Vaquero Hotel

Another Harvey House Gem

By Frank Jastrzembski

Photography Credits: Boot Hill Museum Inc., Dodge City Kansas

Dodge City, Kansas, best known for its history as a wild frontier cowtown dating back to the 19th Century, is once again in the spotlight, as history hunters flock to the welcoming area to take in some of the Old Western culture and heritage that still color this Kansas gem. Even the name is romantic. Dodge City. But few are aware of the history of the town’s actual origins and its connection to Fort Dodge, a structure that was built in 1865 to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail running from Missouri to New Mexico. “The story is that [at] the fort they could not serve alcohol,” said Jan Stevens, Director of the town’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). “It couldn’t be on the premises, except five miles away. That’s the closest you could get to Fort Dodge with any alcohol.” But in June 1872 a shrewd businessman saw an opportunity to make a profit from thirsty travelers. “George Hooker took a string and tied it to his wagon wheel and somehow calculated how many rotations that wheel had to go before he reached five miles.” Hooker built a sod and wood-plank bar and sold whiskey for twenty-five cents a ladle, thus establishing Dodge City.

The Railway Arrives

Seven years later, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) reached the young town. The railroad facilitated millions of buffalo hides to be shipped east. “The hides were [highly] coveted because they shipped them back east and made hats, coats, things like that from them,” Stevens explained. Skinners returned from the prairie with mounds of stinking buffalo hides in their wagons and piled them near the railway station. “Buffalo skinners could make about $100 a day, which was a lot of money at that time.” Within a few years, the demand for the hides outpaced the supply, and buffalo herds were virtually wiped out by 1876. With the supply of buffalo depleted, the AT&SF turned Dodge City into a base for shipping cattle arriving from Texas. The heavy traffic in the frontier town attracted saloon owners, gamblers and prostitutes to cater to the cowboys arriving in droves, looking for loose women, strong drink and entertainment. “The cattle trail time is really when things got rough and rugged,” Stevens said. “Dodge City was kind of a tent city, then they became wooden buildings, and then we became a community. Once we became a community and had churches, cemeteries, and things like that, that’s when the trouble really started.” A British traveler described the town as “the sink of iniquity” and “perfect hell upon earth,” and even compared it to Sodom and Gomorrah. Noted lawmen, such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Bill Tilghman tried to maintain some resemblance of law and order, but this was a rough and rumble time, and the Old West, with its legends and myths, was being born. Even though this period of anarchy only lasted about a decade, its unsavory and wild reputation has stuck ever since.

A Man with a Plan

In 1850, a teenager from England named Frederick Harvey arrived in New York City and landed a job as a dishwasher and busboy. He was industrious and worked hard for little. Fast forward twenty years later, Harvey, now an up-and-coming businessman, approached the president of the AT&SF to set up dining rooms along the railroad so that he could provide the railroad’s passengers with quality meals. Prior to Harvey’s proposal, passengers dined on unpalatable canned meats and vegetables, rancid bacon, and drank bitter coffee. “I think Fred Harvey saw a need the way Howard Johnson saw a need for restaurants and the highway, and Ray Kroc saw a need for fast, cheap hamburgers,” Kansas City restaurant critic Charles Ferruzza declared while giving a presentation on Fred Harvey at the Kansas City’s National Archives. “I think he saw a need and jumped right in.”

Dodge City, Kansas stagecoach 1880–1910.

In 1876, Fred Harvey set up his first dining house in an AT&SF train depot in Topeka, Kansas. He decided to expand to hotels and purchased the Clifton Hotel in Florence two years later. Within seven years, seventeen Fred Harvey “Houses” popped up in towns along the AT&SF. By 1901, forty-five restaurants and twenty dining cars were established across the United States, with the majority being in the southwest. Fred Harvey capitalized on the influx of traffic in Dodge City and set up two boxcars – one as a kitchen and the other as a dining room – on stilts, near the tracks, to feed the AT&SF’s hungry passengers.

Harvey had a unique connection to Dodge City besides his crude dining house. Harvey’s wife’s sister – Margaret Mattas – was married to Jack Hardesty (Colonel Richard “Jack” Hardesty). The pair met on Fred Harvey’s ranch during a party in July 1879. “They were having a big party, it was the Fourth of July. [Harvey’s] wife and his sister-in-law came to this, met this Colonel Hardesty, and [Mattas] married him. They lived in Dodge City and their house is [now] the museum on Boot Hill complex,”noted Barbara Straight, a veteran tour guide of the Santa Fe Depot and El Vaquero Hotel.

Thinking Big

Straight described Dodge City leaders’ push in 1896 to get the AT&SF to build a sturdier depot to handle the substantial flow of traffic and to replace the deteriorating original structure. “The story is that the city fathers had gone to the Santa Fe [AT&SF] and said, ‘you know we need a new building, we’re this big point here, and there are trains going each way.’ So they promised the hotel, hot and cold running water, steam heat, electricity, and phone service. It was a big deal.” After laying out the plans for the depot, Jacob Frey, General Manager of the AT&SF from 1893-1899, proclaimed that “the structure will be first class in every particular.” The building, completed toward the end of 1897, was state-of-the-art. Dodge’s citizens were hugely proud of it. Most of rural Kansas did not even have electricity for another four decades.

Construction got underway and James Clinton Holland, a prominent Topeka architect, chose to construct the building of red brick and stone in the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Buildings built in this style were known for their strong foundations and longevity. The stone used in its construction came from quarries in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, and Colorado. Continuing its partnership with the AT&SF, the Fred Harvey Company abandoned its boxcars and built a dining room and hotel inside the new depot. A fire had destroyed one of his eating houses in nearby Kinsley, so the depot was selected to replace this service. The hotel portion, elegantly decorated and furnished, had forty-three guest rooms, all located on the second floor, in addition to a large dining room and lobby. The hotel became a popular meeting place for businessmen and for organizations to hold banquets or reunions. It was simply known as the Harvey House.

Harvey House El Vaquero Restaurant, Dodge City, Kansas, circa 1900.

Of the millions who eventually passed through the depot, President Theodore Roosevelt was one of its most famous visitors. Roosevelt stopped in Dodge City to have breakfast on his way back from a Rough Rider reunion. Another prominent visitor was Edsel Ford, the son of the automobile titan, who stayed in the hotel during a roundtrip with six companions in his Model T in 1915. Around 1913, a two-story dormitory was built about twenty feet away from the depot to accommodate its forty “Harvey Girls.” The building presently houses the Depot Theater Company’s offices. In 1883, Fred Harvey started hiring attractive, courteous, and morally upright women instead of men. His strategy was hugely successful. Author Lesley Poling-Kempes, an authority on the Harvey Girls, said that between the 1880s and 1950, 200,000single girls worked for the Fred Harvey Company. “More than half of them remained in the southwest to become part of the fabric of new communities built along the Santa Fe Railway,” Poling-Kempes declared.


“What we had were a lot of farm girls,” Straight said of the women working there, “so coming to Dodge was a step-up for some of them.” Trains arrived at all hours and the girls worked irregular shifts. One Harvey Girl, Joanne Stinelichner, complained that, “There were more trains coming in there all the time because of the wheat and cattle.” The dust and the smells could be unbearable. Another Harvey Girl who worked there, Hazel Williams, grumbled that “the smell of cattle was horrible. Some days you could hardly stand it if the wind was blowing right.” As such, conditions were not always the most ideal, and a natural contradiction was present between the upscale lodging and dining experience provided and the actual living conditions of the Harvey team.

In 1913, both the depot and hotel underwent a renovation. This construction added another two blocks to the building, totaling 45,000 square feet, making it one of the largest Harvey establishments of its time. It cost around $40,000, nearly $1,000,000, today’s costs. The citizens of Dodge City gained the consent of the company’s management to select a name for the beautifully refurbished hotel. They reasoned that they deserved to name the hotel “both as a matter of convenience and publicity.” El Vaquero – Spanish for cowboy – was chosen among the submissions.

Today, it would be hard to miss the red three-story Santa Fe Depot and El Vaquero Hotel while driving down Dodge City’s East Wyatt Earp Blvd. It is the largest restored depot in the state of Kansas. The city’s CVB is located on the second floor in the old hotel portion of the building. “If you ever get to Dodge, you definitely have to go to Boot Hill Museum, but the depot is something you would be in awe of,” Stevens encouraged. “It’s got great history and it’s huge, and you can just wander the hallways and imagine what it was like back then.”

Over time, the rise of automobile ownership began to diminish train travel on the AT&SF, finally leading to the closing of the El Vaquero Hotel in the late 1940s. Afterward, the building fell into disrepair. “The Santa Fe left in the early 1970s, so the building was abandoned, and it sat for about 20 years,” Straight said. Over time the once grand, impressive building incurred extensive water damage and had a great many wires hanging from the walls, even its framing was bare. “At one point it was abandoned and nobody was in it, and of course, pigeons took over, and there were lots of homeless people that lived here,” Stevens recalled. “It was more or less an eyesore for the community.”

Salvation for the El Vaquero Hotel

But the sad state of disrepair and neglect would not be the end of the tale for this storied venue. “The wonderful story is the whole resurrection of that building, because so many of the depots were torn down,” said Straight. The Depot Theater Company, looking for a new home, spearheaded the restoration project and raised money through grants and personal donations. Straight’s husband was one of the volunteers who helped to bring the building back to life, spending countless hours on his hands and knees sanding its yellow pine floors. After eight years, the old hotel rooms on the first floor of the east end of the building were converted into a theater, light and sound booths, dressing rooms, and a rehearsal studio. The theater company moved into the building in July 2004.

“Our building is alive and well,” Straight proudly stated of the revived historical landmark. “There aren’t many authentic buildings in Dodge City, and this is an authentic building.” Many of its original features are still intact, such as its leaded glass windows, floors and ornate tin ceiling. One of the hotel rooms was even restored so that visitors can see what it would have looked like when the hotel operated.

Front desk at the El Vaquero.

John Stuff was impressed when he arrived in Dodge City three years ago to take over as the executive director of the Depot Theater Company. “I came here from central Illinois, a much larger metropolitan area, Urbana, with a major university and a lot of commercial activity,” Stuff noted. He was concerned that it would be difficult for him to adapt, but he was won over as soon as he entered the historic building. “I walked into the front door of the depot and said wow, I can do this. They did such a nice job renovating the building and it’s so beautiful. It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to work here. It has so much character.”

Haunted, in a Good Way

Boot Hill Cemetery 1938, Dodge City, Kansas.

Spirits still linger in the once opulent venue. “We have this paranormal group that comes out from Wichita,” Straight explained, “and they love the depot and the spirits … whatever they find, the activity in the depot.” A doubter herself, she told the story of how one of her co-workers saw a ghostly spirit of a little girl in the building on the stairs going up to the third floor. “They were practicing doing a cabaret one night and she looked at the top of the stairs and a little girl was leaning over the railing.” Stuff, also a skeptic, admitted, “There’s a girl up on the third floor, there’s a guy down in the basement. There seems to be quite a bit of activity throughout the building.” Enjoyed by ghostly spirits or actual living beings, the Santa Fe Depot and El Vaquero Hotel is a testament to Dodge City’s rich history and its role in taming the Old West. “It’s a beautiful building, and it’s being repurposed, it’s not falling in. It’s really a solid building,” Stevens stated. “How much more authentic can you get than that? Ghosts and all, it’s pretty cool.”


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