Tourists discovered the American Southwest in the 1890s as passenger trains carried them over snowy mountain passes; through dense pine forests; across desolate stretches of desert; and past canyons, mesas and buttes. The landscapes were so different from the flat fields and rolling green hills they’d left behind, they might as well have been riding on the surface of the moon.
The only thing more foreign than the scenery was the people they encountered along the way - cowboys, prospectors, ranchers, tough frontier women and Mexicans – all strange and interesting. But none were more surprising than the Indians, gentle artistic people who lived in adobe villages and bore no resemblance to the wild, half-naked, tomahawk-wielding savages they’d expected.
The Southwest was exotic yet it was also accessible. It was part of America, after all. Many of the rail travelers yearned to experience more of this intriguing region than what they glimpsed whizzing past the train window or on short stops at stations and track crossings.
But was that even possible? If they weren’t traveling on a train, how would they get around? Where would they eat and sleep?
Enter Fred Harvey
The Fred Harvey Company got into the hospitality business in 1876 when the company’s namesake opened his first Harvey House, a trackside restaurant catering to rail passengers, in Topeka, Kansas. The Harvey Houses were so successful that within a few years, Fred Harvey was in charge of food service and hotels all along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail system which stretched from Missouri to California.
The company’s success was built around delicious food, fair prices and excellent service. They hired the best people they could find and then invested significant time and money in training them. The most famous group of Fred Harvey employees were the Harvey Girls, a cadre of wholesome and bafflingly efficient waitresses that many historians credit with taming the Wild West. You can read their incredible story here.
In addition to food and hospitality, the company ventured into the retail world and introduced rail travelers to the richness and complexitiy of Native culture and history. After establishing positive and respectful relationships with Native American artists and craftspeople in the Pueblos and the Navajo Nation, they opened shops featuring silver jewelry, baskets, textiles and pottery in major train stations and their hotels. The shops carried museum quality works and were often staffed by the Native artists themselves. You can read more about the retail operation here.
The Indian Detours
Although Fred Harvey died in 1901, his company carried on. Management continued to improvise and create successful new offerings for western travelers. In 1926 they launched a program to satisfy train passengers’ desires for more in depth experiences of the Southwest: Fred Harvey’s Indian Detours.
The Indian Detours were culturally-oriented excursions lasting two or three days. Passengers got off the train in Albuquerque or Lamy, New Mexico, the closest mainline station to Santa Fe. They were then taken by private car or bus on an escorted overland adventure. At the end of the Indian Detour, they got back on the train. Of course it would not be the same one they had been on prior to the Detour. That train would have continued on while they were touring.
The concept was straightforward, but the logistics were tricky. Trains ran on very tight schedules and the Detours often encountered delays. Plus there was the luggage. Lots and lots of luggage. People traveling by rail in the 1920s did not pack lightly. Since they were changing trains, their luggage had to accompany them overland on the Detour. They also sometimes had miniature poodles or other small pets in tow. The Fred Harvey Company’s obsessive attention to detail kept everyone and everything moving in the right direction and arriving at the right place at the right time.
An Upscale, Exclusive Experience
The Indian Detours were designed for educated, experienced travelers. The Detours took them to places they could not visit on their own. The rugged terrain of New Mexico, the lack of decent roads and the isolation of many villages meant the participants enjoyed unique travel experiences. The scenery was spectacular, the ancient ruins were mysterious and the small Spanish colonial towns were romantic. But the highlight of the Indian Detours was the Pueblos.
Some of New Mexico’s Pueblos, such as Isleta south of Albuquerque, were relatively accessible and the residents were used to seeing tourists troop through on a regular basis. The Pueblos on the Indian Detours were different. They were remote and usually closed to outsiders. As the Fred Harvey Company was designing the itineraries for the Detours, they reached out to representatives of several Pueblos and received exclusive permission to bring their clients in.
Even though the Indian Detours delivered an authentic adventure and contact with an exotic culture, much of their appeal related to their upscale nature. People signing up for an Indian Detour were not interested in roughing it. They were luxury travelers. The Fred Harvey Company understood that and the brochures emphasized food, accommodations and comfort.
Passengers traveled in special clean, comfortable Fred Harvey buses or private cars. The cars were Cadillacs or Packards with luggage carriers attached to the running boards. There were two bus sizes. The smaller could carry 12 passengers; the larger could accommodate 25 people plus luggage. The buses had large windows for unobstructed views and swiveling, leather seats.
Each exciting day ended with a delicious, elegant meal and a deluxe room at a Harvey Hotel. Lunch breaks, even in the wilderness, also had to meet Fred Harvey’s high standards. One of the most popular stops was at a ranch on the banks of the Pecos River. While the travelers relaxed under the cottonwood trees and watched the river flow by, ranch hands grilled freshly caught trout.
When there were no acceptable lunch options, Harvey Hotel kitchen staff prepared an elaborate picnic which was laid out with linen, crystal and silver in a pristine natural setting. Nothing was ever left to chance.
The company even came up with a special name for the people who went on the Indian Detours. They called them Detourists, a term someone in upper management must have thought was incredibly clever. Maybe a little too clever. It wasn’t long before the staff started calling the customers "Dudes".
The Fred Harvey Company recruited an elite team to staff the Indian Detours. The guides who escorted the Dudes from the moment they stepped off the train until they reboarded at the end of the tour were called Couriers.
The Couriers were all women. They were rich, sophisticated, outgoing and well-educated. They had to be at least 25 years old and extremely knowledgeable about the Southwest. A working knowledge of Spanish and local Indian dialects was helpful. Many were daughters of prominent New Mexicans including doctors, federal judges and even a senator.
All Couriers had to have college degrees. They also had to complete a rigorous training program on local geography, geology, plants and animals, native cultures, history, art and archeology. They were expected to provide accurate, interesting, in-depth information about the places and people visited on the Detour. It was also critical that they be able to expand on topics that interested the Dudes as well as to answer all their questions.
The Couriers wore southwestern-inspired outfits which consisted of khaki skirts with walking pleats, velveteen blouses in deep jewel tones, floppy hats, tan stockings and comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots. When a Courier completed her training, she received a silver badge bearing the Indian Detours thunderbird logo. Some attached the badges to their hat bands; others pinned them to their blouses. Couriers also wore lots of silver and turquoise jewelry including squash blossom necklaces, bracelets and concha belts.
Couriers were well-paid and all their expenses on the road were covered. They were not allowed to accept tips, although they often received expensive gifts from the wealthy Dudes. Many of them were able to save significant amounts of money, enough to buy little houses in Santa Fe near the La Fonda Hotel where the Indian Detours were headquartered.
The Indian Detour Drivers were all local men who understood weather patterns and knew the terrain and roads, such as they were. Most of New Mexico’s roads were little more than dirt trails which became rutted, muddy and often impassible after storms. Some of the driving was cross country. Drivers routinely encountered flooded arroyos and washed out bridges. Flat tires and breakdowns were almost daily occurrences.
Drivers wore western garb including neckerchiefs, cowboy hats and boots. They were well-paid too, although they did not make as much as the Couriers. Like the Couriers, all their expenses on the road were covered. However, the drivers stayed at rooming houses or inexpensive hotels while the Couriers stayed at the Harvey Hotels with the Dudes. Couriers had to be available if an emergency arose during the night.
Drivers were required to document everything that happened to or with their vehicles. They filled out forms about where they got gas and how much it cost. They wrote reports with detailed descriptions of any strange sounds or repairs they’d performed. Everything was turned in to the central garage in Santa Fe at the end of each Detour.
The rough roads and back country terrain were hard on vehicles. The Fred Harvey Company employed a small army of mechanics who were on call around the clock to keep the fleet in tip top condition. The Santa Fe garage also housed schedulers and dispatchers who knew the approximate location of each vehicle at any given moment.
In the early days of the Indian Detours, Couriers and Drivers were not allowed to date each other. That rule was eliminated later and some Couriers and Drivers got married. Romance aside, many of them developed strong and lasting friendships.
The word “dude” had a different connotation in the 1920s than it does now. It referred to rich people from the east who vacationed on western ranches and pretended to be cowboys and cowgirls. These establishments came to be known as dude ranches.
The Dudes came from all over the world to participate in the Indian Detours. Some very famous people toured New Mexico with the Fred Harvey Company including Eleanor Roosevelt, the Guggenheims, John D. Rockefeller, Mary Pickford, Will Rogers and Albert Einstein.
They visited isolated Pueblos and old missions, climbed rickety ladders to cliff dwellings, contemplated mysterious ruins, explored the narrow back streets of Santa Fe and Old Town Albuquerque, gazed at natural wonders and shopped and shopped and shopped.
One of the Dudes’ favorite evening activities was a lecture on how to buy Native American arts and crafts. Couriers explained how to distinguish hand-worked silver jewelry pieces from those that had been machine stamped. They showed different grades and colors of turquoise and told the Dudes how much to offer for various pieces. They also described how to evaluate textiles, baskets and pottery.
By all accounts, the intrepid shoppers received excellent bargains. The Navajo and Pueblo artists were happy with the prices too. The Dudes took home fantastic souvenirs. Some of these treasures, particularly the rugs, are now priceless. Another chapter in the Fred Harvey success story.
Hitting the Jackpot
The company had been confident there was a market for the Indian Detours, but demand far exceeded expectations. Many of those who took the first season’s tours were newspaper and magazine writers. Their glowing accounts of their experiences reached thousands of people. Coverage was especially extensive in New York and Los Angeles. The Fred Harvey Company also promoted the Detours by sending enticing brochures to travel agents nationwide and placing colorful posters in train stations.
In the off-season, old itineraries were fine-tuned and new itineraries were developed. More Pueblos were added and visits to Spanish colonial villages were introduced. And the Dudes just kept coming, many of them repeat customers.
The company decided to market the Indian Detours to groups. The maximum number for a regular group Detour was 25. That would fill one of the large buses. The reservations department was stunned when they started getting inquiries from groups as large as 500. There wasn’t a hotel in New Mexico that could accommodate that many guests so the company arranged for them to stay in Pullman railroad cars parked on the sidings at Lamy, New Mexico. They were ferried around in a fleet of buses
Into the Sunset
As we all know, nothing lasts forever and so it was with the Indian Detours. Demand began to decline after the stock market crash in 1929. The slump continued through the Depression and World War II.
After the war, major road improvement projects were undertaken all over New Mexico. Places that had been cut off or very difficult to reach were suddenly accessible. To compound the problem, more and more people were buying cars and they wanted to travel under their own steam in a less structured way.
There was still some demand, but for most the idea of sophisticated Couriers and rugged cowboy Drivers escorting aging business tycoons and privileged society matrons around the desert seemed hopelessly out of date. As the lean years wore on, the Detours suffered from mismanagement, a problem unthinkable in the early days of the operation. By the 1950s the Detours were finished.
The Fred Harvey Company invented Southwestern cultural tourism. The seeds of much of what people come to this magical region to see and do were planted by the Couriers, Drivers and Dudes. Here are some ways you can follow in their footsteps.
Plan your Visit
There are so many fun and interesting things to do here. This list is not all inclusive. Consider it a menu of appetizers.
Stop first at Visit New Mexico to get your bearings.
The Pueblos – There are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico. You can learn about all of them at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. The site has information on visiting individual pueblos including information on etiquette and photography. One of my personal favorites is Acoma Pueblo, also known as Sky City. Read more about visiting Acoma here.
Natural Wonders – It’s hard to know where to begin, but here are a few suggestions. You want National Forests? We’ve got the Gila, Santa Fe, Carson, Cibola and Lincoln. National Parks? Yep. How about Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the Valles Caldera National Preserve or White Sands National Monument?
Ancient Ruins – Try Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Petroglyph National Monument, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument or Bandelier National Monument, one of the most beautiful places on earth.
La Fonda Hotel – This wonderful hotel in the heart of equally wonderful Santa Fe was the headquarters for the Indian Detours. Stop in and soak up the atmosphere. The original sign for the Detours still hangs in the lobby. You can even buy your very own sterling silver reproduction of a Courier’s badge in La Fonda’s aptly named Detours gift shop. The badge is available online too.