How Pie Tamed the West

What do lemon meringue pie, wholesome waitresses and the arcane science of coffee cup positioning have to do with the settlement of the American southwest? Pretty much everything.

The Other Side of Nowhere

Traveling through the southwest by train in the late 1800s was an adventure in the true sense of the word. The landscape was alien, starkly beautiful and sparsely populated by exotic Indian tribes. The golden era of railroad travel still lay in the future. Passengers endured uncomfortable seats, long rides with frequent stops, indifferent service and abominable food.


The horrible food was not directly the railroads’ fault. The railroad companies did not provide food for their passengers. They were focused on transportation. Food preparation and service was not part of their business model. This left the passengers, who were essentially hungry and thirsty prisoners until they disembarked at their ultimate destination, at the mercy of trackside charlatans who sold food at stations and other stops along the way.

Food supplies in the west were unreliable at best. Quality meat was a rarity, fresh fruits and vegetables were almost never available and when decent food was on hand, there was never enough to feed a trainload of hungry people. The problem went beyond lack of access to quality ingredients. The people who cooked the food at the trackside stops knew next to nothing about proper food preparation. And even if they had known, to be fair, they only had the most basic tools. There was no refrigeration and even though stoves and ovens were becoming common in the east, westerners were still boiling pots of unidentifiable grub over open fires. And this is what train passengers were offered.  

Trains generally stopped for about 20 minutes several times a day to refuel and take on supplies of water. The food was generally offered from a filthy shack or lean to. Passengers had to pay up front, often an exorbitant amount, for something that turned out to be inedible or that arrived as the train was pulling away. No refunds.

Meat was rancid and coffee, sometimes as much as a week old, was reheated over and over. According to many accounts, after the train left, the uneaten food was scraped into a pile so it could be divided up again and resold to the next trainload of people.  

Enter Fred Harvey


Fred Harvey was born in England in 1835. He migrated to New York City when he was 15 and got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Over the next few years he worked in restaurants in New York and New Orleans before becoming a railroad freight agent. As he traveled around the west on various railroad lines, he was exposed to the disgusting food, outrageous prices and despicable service. A creative and talented entrepreneur, he soon realized the sorry state of hospitality on the rail lines was a fantastic business opportunity. 

Fred Harvey’s idea was simple. He would open a restaurant catering to railroad passengers. He would provide top quality food, deliciously prepared for a fair price. It would be served by friendly and efficient waiters in clean and pleasant surroundings.   

He pitched his idea to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and they agreed to give it a try. The railroad closed a rundown lunchroom in the station in Topeka, Kansas and turned it over to Fred Harvey.

The building was a shambles. He had it repaired and cleaned from to top to bottom. Then he hired a full-time manager and a professional chef and added Irish linen tablecloths and English silver to the freshly painted dining area.

When the Harvey House lunchroom opened in 1876 it instantly became the best restaurant in Kansas. The food and service were so good local businessmen started eating there and the Topeka Harvey House became the preferred spot for people celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions. 

Based on the first lunchroom’s success, the railroad allowed Fred Harvey to expand his operation. He opened the second Harvey House in Florence, Kansas. This time the restaurant was in a trackside hotel. The building was cleaned and upgraded just like the one in Topeka had been. When everything was up to snuff, Fred Harvey brought in the English silver, the Irish linen and a chef from Chicago who received the highest salary in Florence. Harvey took over management of the hotel as well. This operation also found immediate success.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Fred Harvey was a perfectionist and he believed in standardization. He rode the rails several days a week dropping into his restaurants for unannounced inspections. Failure to uphold company standards in any way resulted in immediate dismissal. For waiters common infringements included having dirty fingernails, not setting the tables correctly and failure to keep their uniforms spotless. For kitchen help the cardinal sin was cutting portions to save money, which was a practice encouraged elsewhere. Stories abound of Fred Harvey dismissing staff by physically pushing them out the restaurant door and onto the train platform.

Finding and retaining good waiters was an ongoing problem. The west was a rough place and staff often showed up for work hungover, their faces covered with bruises and cuts from brawling the night before. The solution may seem obvious from our vantage point but at the time it was revolutionary. Fred Harvey decided to fire all the waiters and replace them with women.

But not just any women. 


The Harvey Girls 

Fred Harvey had a very specific sort of female candidate in mind. She would be 18 - 30 years old, single, wholesome, cultured, attractive, intelligent and of good moral charachter. The lucky few who made the grade would become Harvey Girls.

He placed ads in eastern and mid-western city newspapers. Hundreds of young women anxious to leave their friends, families and comfortable middle-class lives behind responded. It wasn’t because they were excited about becoming waitresses. Working for Fred Harvey was a grand adventure. Harvey Girls got to travel to the west, see new exotic places, encounter Indians and interact with travelers from all over the country. It didn’t hurt that they were moving to an area where single men outnumbered available women by huge margins.

Harvey Girls received a basic wage plus tips. Train travel was free and room and board were provided. They lived in dormitories and were closely supervised. They had to observe a curfew and were not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry.  Harvey Girls had to sign on for a full year and agree to forfeit half their base pay if they married before the year was up.

The introduction of the Harvey Girls upped the service and customer satisfaction levels significantly and attracted even more locals to the restaurants.  Additionally the sudden appearance of a steady stream of attractive, intelligent young women into small, isolated western towns caused quite a stir.


A Hot Cup of Coffee

In 1883, only seven years after the Topeka lunchroom opened, there were 17 Harvey Houses stretching from Kansas to Deming, New Mexico. Six years later in 1889, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe reached California. Fred Harvey was given the exclusive right to operate food and lodging all along the line, an arrangement that worked for him and for the railroad.  


The railroad owned the land and the buildings. Fred Harvey owned the restaurants and hotels and all the associated furniture and equipment. He paid no rent. His employees got free transportation. The fresh food and other supplies for the restaurants were delivered free. The Santa Fe, as it was commonly known, made up for the costs by attracting more and more passengers because of the excellent Fred Harvey food and service.

Fred Harvey had test kitchens and once a recipe was perfected – like everything else – it was standardized. The same dishes were served in big cities and small towns. Here are a few typical dinner offerings. The actual menus included many more choices.

Caesar Salad or New England Scallop Salad
Tournedos of Beef Marco Polo or Chicken Breast Tenerife au Grand Marnier
Stuffed Zucchini or Buttered Fresh Asparagus
Potato Souffle or Duchess Potatoes
French Apple Pie with Nutmeg Sauce or Strawberry Shortcake with Biscuit Dough
Hot Tea, Iced Tea, Milk or Fred Harvey Coffee

The food was not just delicious and elegantly presented; portions were substantial. For example, restaurants typically divided pies into six pieces. Not Fred Harvey. He cut his pies into only four pieces.

 It was all wonderful, but the menu item that received the most acclaim was the coffee. The Fred Harvey Company had its own blend which was available in cans so that people could take it home. The company was so particular about their coffee the railroad brought fresh water to certain restaurants daily if the local supply didn’t meet Fred Harvey’s taste standards.

Can you imagine how all of this impressed people in places like Clovis, New Mexico?

The System

Santa Fe passengers and local folks dining in Harvey Houses were duly impressed by the Harvey Girls. They filled customers’ orders flawlessly with a minimum of fuss and almost no communication. Their sometimes startling efficiency can be chalked up to one thing: The System. This is how it worked.

When a train was about an hour away from a Harvey House, the conductor handed out menus and took the passengers’ orders. The information was telegraphed ahead and the kitchen staff and Harvey Girls swung into action. Table settings were checked, coffee pots were filled, water was poured and food preparation got underway.


When the train was one mile away another telegraph signal was sent and the Harvey Girls placed the first course on the tables. The passengers arrived, sat down and began to eat. At this point a Harvey Girl approached the table and took drink orders. She never wrote anything down. She was followed by two other Harvey Girls carrying coffee, hot tea, iced tea and milk. They filled the drink requests without ever speaking to the lady who took the orders or to the diners themselves. For many Santa Fe passengers the almost magical drink service was their favorite part of the dining experience.

Of course the drink service wasn’t magic at all. It was part of The System. The Harvey Girl taking the drink orders communicated with the servers via cup placement.  

  • A cup left upright in the saucer meant coffee
  • A cup turned upside down in the saucer meant hot tea
  • A cup upside down and tilted against the saucer meant iced tea
  • A cup upside down and away from the saucer meant milk

The System did not vary from location to location. Once a Harvey Girl learned the ropes she could transfer to any other Harvey House and begin working at once.

Even though train meal stops were only 20 – 30 minutes long, the Harvey Girls and kitchen staff were so good at what they did that people were always able to finish their meals and none of the diners ever felt rushed.  At a small station, there may only be one or two meals served per day. At a busy station like the Albuquerque terminal, however, there could be 6 – 8 meals per day with 60 – 100 people at each sitting.

As the train approached the Harvey House, passengers were advised to use the restrooms before they disembarked. If not, they would have to wait until they got back on board because the restrooms in the station would not be available during their visit. There was only time to eat. No time for anything else. The train had to stay on schedule.

Carrying On

Fred Harvey died of cancer in 1901. He was 65. His dying words were, “Don’t slice the ham too thin!”

Even though he was gone, his company and vision for southwestern tourism lived on. Fred Harvey’s sons and grandchildren led the company through many successful expansions over the next several decades always maintaining the rigid quality standards that had made the operation famous in the first place.

The Fred Harvey Company opened newsstands in train stations. They also operated gift shops featuring high-quality Native American art as well as silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery, baskets and textiles. Read about how they developed the retail side of the business and their relationships with Native communities here.  

The company created a slate of tourist excursions called Southwestern Indian Detours. Participants left the train and were taken on guided tours of New Mexico’s spectacular scenery and ancient ruins. They also visited Indian Pueblos to shop and experience the local culture. Read about the Detours here.  

Several of the hotels and resorts the company managed became destinations in and of themselves including La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe and El Tovar on the rim of the Grand Canyon, both of which are still welcoming guests today.

When trains became faster, more efficient and made fewer stops, railroads added dining cars. Although many of the trackside Harvey Houses closed as a result, the Fred Harvey Company didn’t miss a beat. They acquired the concession to manage the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe’s onboard food operations and created an updated version of The System. The System could only work if everyone stayed on schedule. If the dishwashers fell behind, they threw the dirty dishes out the windows of the moving train. Even today people walking in isolated areas sometimes find broken bits of Fred Harvey china along the tracks.   


The End of the Line

Train travel began to wane in the 1930s due to the Depression. By the time WWII ended in the late 1940s, more and more Americans were exploring the west in their own cars. Fred Harvey was briefly involved with airline catering but the effort was short-lived. Although parts of the company continued, the 1950s essentially marked the end of the line for one of the most influential and significant hospitality companies in American history.  


Fred Harvey was a pioneer and a visionary. He invented southwestern cultural tourism and built the infrastructure to sustain it. He was responsible for upgrading food quality, preparation techniques and service standards throughout the west. His wildly successful Harvey Houses were the world’s first restaurant chain.

Many social historians believe the Harvey Girls civilized the west. Thousands of them ended their Harvey careers by marrying into small communities which they then set about improving. And they helped populate a relatively uninhabited part of the country with their own baby boom which included lots of little boys named Fred and Harvey.

If you’d like to sample Fred Harvey’s dishes, George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin compiled a cookbook from the test kitchen’s recipes. It’s called The Harvey House Cookbook and it’s available on Amazon and in bookstores. I found a copy in my public library. The recipe for the lemon meringue pie looks delicious.

Plan Your Visit

The Belen Harvey House Museum

If you’re interested in the Harvey Girls, railroads, restaurants or the history of travel, I cannot recommend this great little museum highly enough. It’s located in an actual trackside Harvey House Restaurant. The building dates from 1910 and is largely as it was in the heyday of train travel. There’s plenty of Fred Harvey and Santa Fe Railroad memorabilia on display including dishes, uniforms, posters, vintage photos and kitchen equipment. The Harvey Girls lived in the second floor dormitory which you can also tour. The folks who work there – all volunteers - are friendly and helpful. There’s a good video about the Belen Station and the history of the Fred Harvey Company as well as a gift shop with lots of great books. To top it all off, admission is free. Donations are appreciated.

The Belen Harvey House Museum

The Belen Harvey House Museum

The Belen Harvey House Museum is an easy 30-45 minute drive south of Albuquerque. It’s located trackside at 104 North 1st Street in Belen, 505-861-0581.

La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe

This classy and wonderful hotel used to be a Fred Harvey property. Even if you’re just passing through town, try to find time to have coffee or a margarita or to just walk through the lobby and soak up the great atmosphere in this historic building.

Montezuma Castle and the Castaneda Hotel

Fred Harvey had two properties in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Montezuma, which was a luxury resort, is now part of United World College. It’s a private facility open occasionally to Fred Harvey fans. The Castaneda is empty but is scheduled to undergo renovations. If you want to keep up with that project, here’s a link to their Facebook page.