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When Fred Met The Mother Road

By Nick Gerlich

The annals of business history are filled with many names still known today, the visionaries who shaped the world of commerce in which we find ourselves. Names like Penney, Sears, Roebuck, and Walton are frequently found beside American streets and thoroughfares, while Marriott and Hilton are commonplace both downtown and in the suburbs.
But there was one man more than 140 years ago who quietly set the stage in both hospitality and retailing, and wound up with a ringside seat along Route 66 when its time came. His name, though, is long forgotten by many, prompting his one-day biographer, Stephen Fried, to candidly ask, “Who the hell is Fred Harvey?”

Fred Harvey.

Off The Tracks

Fred Harvey was born in England in 1835, and immigrated to the US in 1853, finding employment as a pot walloper in New York City. It was there that he learned the restaurant business one pay grade at a time, unknowingly planting the seeds for a career in the hospitality industry paralleling the railroad. By the 20th Century, his name had become synonymous with quality throughout the US, and particularly in the southwest.

In spite of his work ethic and pluck, Harvey suffered through two major personal tragedies. In 1861, his first business partner, William Doyle, absconded with every penny their restaurant had. The divide was over the issue of slavery, which Fred renounced. It was the only political matter Fred ever voiced his opinion on, preferring instead to keep politics out of business. Doyle, though, vehemently disagreed, and joined the Confederacy.

In October 1862, Harvey’s wife, Ann, died following complications in the birth of their second child. Fred Harvey was left a penniless widower, and the father of 1-year-old Eddie and 20-month-old, Charles. He remarried quickly—four months later, to be exact—exchanging vows with Barbara Sally Mattas, whom he had met in St. Louis. Harvey even went so far as to create a bit of a charade to make it look like Sally was the mother of his children.

Appearances were important in that era, and Fred sought to look squeaky clean, even if it meant perpetrating a small fraud. They went on to have four children (Ford, Minnie, Byron and Sybil), two of whom — Ford and Byron — later went on to lead the company. Sadly, Fred’s two sons with Ann died of scarlet fever in 1865.

In the aftermath of these tragedies, Harvey took a job as a sales agent with the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, which proved fortuitous. His prior knowledge working for and later owning a restaurant provided him with the necessary skills to provide a quality dining experience, something that was still rather rare in those days. Working for the railroad gave him an understanding of how freight—and people—moved across the country. It was a synergy waiting to happen.

In working his way up through both business fields, Harvey learned that there was room for improvement in depot cuisine, where nefarious operators charged time-bound travelers high prices for lousy food, and then, as the legend goes, re-plated uneaten food for the next train to come along. Harvey set his mind to reimagining how a restaurant could feed the primarily wealthy travelers in less than 30 minutes, while locomotives were being fed a diet of coal and water.

In 1876, with transcontinental railroads well-established hauling freight and people long distances, Harvey partnered with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (ATSF) to open eating houses in Wallace, Kansas, and Hugo, Colorado. It was the beginning of a lucrative, eponymously-named service company that had no need to own property, as it wound up renting (sometimes for free) space in railroad depots, not just for food, but also for lodging and newsstands.

He ultimately set in motion the deployment of thousands of women known simply as Harvey Girls, who helped “civilize the west one meal at a time,” ensuring speedy service of the company’s signature quality food. In some cases, the Fred Harvey, the company (the person and company were named the same), also operated dining cars on those trains, keeping the company name—and menu— constantly in front of travelers.

In doing so, Harvey is now credited with being the first chain hotel, restaurant and newsstand in the country. Those chains carried over well into the Route 66 era. The only problem is that Harvey died in 2:12, at age 66, of intestinal cancer, missing the birth of Route 66 by 25 years.

Route 66 wouldn’t be a highway shield viewed through anyone’s windshield for decades, but Harvey unwittingly set the pace for early roadside cuisine and lodging along The Mother Road.

It was about as symbiotic a relationship as any two businesses could ever fantasize, and whenever the Harvey name was uttered, you could always count on a railroad track being a few feet away.

Driving Wheel

So successful and blurred were Fred Harvey, both the man and the company, that no one seemed to notice he was even dead for a decade. During that time, foundations were being laid by his sons to ensure the longevity of the family business long into the future.

That future included the automobile, which, after a decade of fits and starts, wound up becoming increasingly mainstreamed shortly after Henry Ford perfected the assembly line. With those cars came the need for a network of roads on which people could drive great distances. Thus were ultimately born more than 250 named auto routes connecting the coasts and borders, slowly but surely changing the way people traveled, as well as the way freight was hauled.

It was primarily in the southwest where Fred Harvey had its biggest presence, and that was because of its affiliation with the ATSF.

The bulk of Harvey operations were trackside, giving it a captive audience - those traveling by rail. Early roads generally hugged the railroad tracks, taking advantage of corridors carved decades earlier by the railroads that followed every rise and fall of the land. In a time before sufficient federal funding, heavy equipment, and modern civil engineering, it was simply prudent to work with the mighty railroads and follow their lead.

One of the early transcontinental motor routes through those parts was the National Old Trails Road (NOTR), which spanned from Baltimore to Los Angeles. The NOTR entered New Mexico from the north, winding its way through a gap in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between Las Vegas and Santa Fe, and then down to Albuquerque, where it made a beeline for Los Angeles. Fred Harvey had long cemented its presence along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line in the region with fine hotels and restaurants.

It was here, when Route 66 was christened in 1926, that the Fred Harvey company met The Mother Road, with every inch of the old NOTR between Romeroville, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California, becoming part of Route 66.

Vintage Fred Harvey Postcard.

Suddenly, tourists were coming by rail and car, both in proximity to the depots. In some cases, Harvey hotels and restaurants found themselves sandwiched between the two, an accident of seemingly divine proportions.

The 1920s and 1930s found Fred Harvey in three southwest Route 66 states and associated cities, including New Mexico (La Castañeda in Las Vegas, La Fonda in Santa Fe, El Ortiz in Lamy, and Alvarado in Albuquerque, and El Navajo in Gallup), Arizona (Escalante in Ash Fork, Fray Marcos in Williams, Havasu House in Seligman, and La Posada in Winslow), and California (El Garces in Needles, Casa del Desierto in Barstow, and Union Station in Los Angeles). There were also operations along Route 66 in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois, but not at the same level of grandeur as found farther west.

Those Harvey House hotels and restaurants in the southwest became convenient stopovers for early motorists along The Mother Road. Their locations and spacing were driven earlier by the railroad, when locomotives could not go fast nor for long distances without stopovers. Between Las Vegas, New Mexico and Los Angeles, there were no fewer than a dozen of these, spaced on average, 100 miles apart. They were vital parts of each city’s economy, providing jobs to chefs, busboys, Harvey Girls, and others.

Early automobiles could not go as fast or as far then as they can today, so the spacing was about right for a small but growing number of motorists. With their prime locations in proximity to both rail and road, Fred Harvey the company couldn’t help but be successful in the early Route 66 era. Having two pipelines of potential customers, along with hungry local residents, put Fred Harvey in an enviable market position.

Sensing that the company had to evolve to meet changes in transportation, sons Ford and Byron, and later grandson Freddy, drove the company in new directions. While many family-owned businesses suffer problems of succession, Fred Harvey carried on with new versions of the original vision, which was to serve well-heeled travelers. The company began advertising on highway billboards, supplementing its earlier print ads and postcards.

These changes were serious affronts to the railroad business and anyone associated with it. The car, and later the airplane, presented formidable competition. While Fred Harvey was blessed to find itself beside Route 66 early on, planes were a different story.

But those weren’t the only structural changes afoot, as the steam locomotive was replaced by diesel (and thereby did not need to stop every 100 miles to re-supply), and cars were steadily improved to the point that drivers could cover more than 200 miles in a day. That’s another way of saying that there were storm clouds on the horizon for the Fred Harvey company.

The Great Depression presented challenges, but Byron and Ford seized the opportunity to appeal to the fascination many Americans in the east had about Native Americans. The company championed the idea of Indian Detours, utilizing “Harveycars” to take people on one-and multi-day tours of the southwest, visiting Indian ruins, and soaking up culture and history that they had never experienced. “It wasn’t an accident that The Mother Road came into Santa Fe the same year the railroad came into Santa Fe. It strikes me as not coincidental that they decided to make Santa Fe the center of their tourism activities in 1925-1926, and the new Mother Road linked to Santa Fe in 1926. That’s not an accident,” biographer Stephen Fried commented.

While liberties were sometimes taken to add theatre to the experience (Fred Harvey frequently employed Natives to showcase their wares and put on demonstrations), tourists clamored for the opportunity. These were staged in large part out of Santa Fe and Winslow, with the former utilizing the legendarily treacherous La Bajada descent on Route 66 southwest of Santa Fe.

Main Lobby of La Posada, Winslow, AZ.

“When people first started going to the southwest as tourists and taking tours to learn about Native American life and learn about the archaeology, architecture, and geology, it was the Harvey Company that turned that business into something educational,” said Fried.

By the 1930s, grandson Freddy Harvey tried to reconcile growing air travel, with an early intermodal transcontinental service that included flying by day and trains by night, shuttling passengers coast to coast in what was then a record two days. As planes improved, though, reliance on trains to supplement travel faded.

Starting before World War II, and continuing into the 1950s, more changes were seen that slowly began to affect Fred Harvey. The elegant hotels along the railroad began to close, one by one. The post-war years accelerated the trend that automotive travel had started a few decades earlier, with the democratization of travel meaning that the masses could now afford to take to America’s highways on what we now know today as the road trip. Passage of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956 implied replacement of the old two-lane roads with high-speed superslabs that nearly always bypassed cities around their periphery, ushering in a new era of travel. As such, Route 66 itself was now in danger.

So What Went Wrong?

The company was defiantly opposed to debt, which hindered its ability to grow in pace with the rest of the hospitality industry.

Further complicating matters was an almost undying commitment to serve wealthier clientele, at a time when the middle class was exploding in size and force. Thus, it was quietly and unceremoniously blindsided in the 1950s when fast food and casual diners took hold, including brands like KFC (1952), Denny’s (1953), Burger Chef (1954), Dunkin’ Donuts (1950), McDonald’s (1953), and Burger King (1953).

Daggett Harvey, Jr. and Stephen Fried.

Adding further fuel to the new fire was the emergence of the chain motel, as opposed to Fred Harvey’s highly regarded, often opulent hotels, allowing motorists to drive right up to their door and bed down with their family at much lower rates. Holiday Inn (1952), Howard Johnson (1954), Ramada Inn (1954), Hiway House (1956), and Imperial 400 (1959) were the first of many chains that built along the nation’s new interstate freeways, putting them immediately in the path of millions of potential customers. Meanwhile, Harvey Houses were still down by the tracks, often in city centers and miles from the freeway exit.

Inexpensive and fast food, affordable convenient lodging, and high-speed travel teamed up to present choppy waters for Fred Harvey. Although its expansion into national parks, including Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest on or near Route 66, provided stability, they were more destination properties than those one encountered along the way. Fred Harvey’s management of the Grand Canyon Caverns along 66 in northwest Arizona gave them one more opportunity to intercept travelers in a way more consistent with the emergent casual ethos, but it was not enough.

Efforts including several free-standing restaurants around the country, as well as hotels and restaurants at major railroad terminals, helped keep the company afloat. Perhaps the best thing the company did in the modern era was to assume operations of the travel oases along the Illinois Tollroad around Chicago and across northern Illinois.

“There are two different ventures in which the Harvey Company entered the interstate highway system. One was very successful, the other was not. The successful one was to pick up the concession of the Illinois Tollroad. That was the second biggest profit center of Fred Harvey,” former vice president and great-grandson Daggett Harvey, Jr., recalled. Once again, the company had a captive audience, drawing highly upon tourists, but also attracting locals who bore the expense of a toll to eat in a classy restaurant.

“The other venture, which came later and was under-capitalized, was the establishment of some much smaller freestanding highway restaurants.” These were in California, Kansas, and Wisconsin and were not so lucky. “They didn’t last very long,” Daggett said matter of factly. Fred Harvey did have some luck, though, running airport restaurants, such as the one in Albuquerque.

Still reluctant to take on debt, the company finally went public in 1966, making available one-third of the family’s shares. As great-grandson and one-time company vice president Daggett recalled, it was more for the family to begin “to get its personal estates in order” than to raise capital. The company’s reluctance to embrace new faster-paced lifestyles also left it with quality sit-down establishments at a time when travelers wanted to be on their way. It was “speed and cheapness, in retrospect,” that hurt Fred Harvey. “The other thing that we never did was franchise. I think that control was the issue,” Daggett continued.

Fred Harvey’s House.

“The people who were still alive [in the Harvey family] were trying to deal with the decisions made by their parents and grandparents. It was those people who made those decisions not to innovate beyond what the railroads were doing, and thus tied their fortune to the railroads,” Fried added.

If anything, the company found itself involved in many ventures, but no longer specializing in any, the result being a company that lost focus. “They were doing airport concessions, in-flight feeding, catering for General Motors in California, Admiral Corporation in Chicago and others. The company spread out in a bunch of different directions, but they couldn’t develop an expertise in any of them,” Daggett said. Diversification became the bane of their existence, much of which came through acquisition. “What we weren’t good at was taking over other people’s problems,” he lamented.

Fried argues that Fred Harvey thought much the same as the railroad, and that they were all but complicit. “The railroads shot themselves in the engine by refusing to play with anyone else. Instead of saying they were in the transportation business, they insisted they were in the train business. They wound up not taking advantage of cars and trains. Just as Fred Harvey gave up on highways and let Howard Johnson take that business, the railroads let the highway do that.”

“The railroads were so full of themselves that they refused to get involved in any of the other forms of transportation. Before Henry Ford, the railroads were the biggest companies in the world. They were bigger than the federal government. We can’t conceive of a company that big anymore,” Fried added. “If the railroads had been more interested in the Good Roads Movement, and not seen them as competition, things could have gone differently.”

The fourth-generation family members found themselves with a company that was still profitable, but also quickly losing its relevance among the general public. In 1968, the company was acquired by Amfac, which ultimately morphed into the Xanterra we know today that manages numerous national park concessions.

The infusion of new blood and corporate money helped propel the company in new directions, but it began to look less and less like the old family business. Today, respectful homages at Grand Canyon National Park’s El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge, along with a lonely signature on the gift shop wall at Petrified Forest National Park, remain as reminders to the Fred Harvey legacy.

It’s not so much that Fred Harvey did wrong; it’s that it missed a lot of opportunities that would have required evolving in ways it was not accustomed to doing. The company certainly found itself in the right place at the right time when Route 66 debuted, but as the highway and its travelers evolved, the company was more rigid than it was flexible.

Had Fred Harvey survived, Daggett speculates that the company would have done things very differently: assuming debt and “taking a chapter out of the franchise book that Holiday Inn used.”

As rail travel slowly faded and was replaced primarily by vehicles driven by middle class people in a hurry, the dynamics of tourism were forever altered. While this paradigm shift was significant, it could be argued that culture changed even more. Travelers were just no longer concerned about prim and proper service provided by Harvey Girls, as well as the five-course meals. They wanted Grand Slam breakfasts and burgers to go, and demanded a couple of double beds mere feet from where they parked their mid-century chariots. Furthermore, they certainly did not want to show up in suits and dresses.

A Vintage Fred Harvey Postcard.

If anything, Route 66 technically suffered a worse fate than Fred Harvey with its decommissioning in 1985. In one fell swoop, the highway that helped shape history and pop culture was relegated to our collective memories. Fred Harvey’s legacy, though, remained intact in many places under its new owner, at least for a while. The brand still had a lot of equity to be exploited.

While the early highways stole from the railroad, the Interstates stole from Route 66 and other slower, older roads. Fried argues, “It’s the history of America. You have the original wagon trails, the canal systems, the eastern trains, the midwestern trains, then the beginnings of dirt and paved roads. Each time the country is connected in a way it wasn’t before. A path can go from being the most important place in the world, to not mattering anymore, or having to reinvent itself.” Unfortunately, neither the railroad nor Fred Harvey did.

Both Fred Harvey and Route 66 live on today, though, by virtue of nostalgic yearnings and a desire to be in a different moment. La Fonda (Santa Fe, NM) and the restored La Posada (Winslow, AZ) appeal to a new generation of tourists, those yearning to experience an authentic Fred Harvey escape in the southwest. El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge showcase what Fred Harvey did in our national parks. The recently renovated La Castañeda (Las Vegas, NM) will offer Harvey enthusiasts and history buffs the opportunity to take a holiday by train, bookended by stays at Harvey Houses in Las Vegas and Winslow. And, of course, for those who know where to look, Route 66 is still there to connect these dots by auto.

While Fred Harvey the man likely could not have fathomed the automobile era, nor the changes it wrought, in many regards, the Renaissance man that he was would have done equally well had he landed in the hospitality business a half-century later. That Fred Harvey the company prospered for many years as both hospitality and roads evolved is testament to the way the man himself sought to civilize the west and the entire nation.

One meal at a time.

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