Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER 15

TRANSCONTINENTAL FRED

DURING THE PREVIOUS TWO YEARS, FRED HAD BEEN OVERSEAS more than he had been home. He had taken three long trips to England and the Continent, usually returning to Leavenworth in the fall, staying through Christmas and New Year’s, and then sailing back. He occasionally had visitors in England, friends or business associates, but never his wife or family. His role in their lives was reduced to whatever happened during those few months at home. His youngest son, Byron, would always remember going to a paradewith his father where they played a game counting white horses (when they reached one hundred, he got a $5 half-eagle gold coin) and the advice Fred wrote to him in an album before leaving the year he was eleven: “My Dear Son Byron, I hope that you will always speak the truth—under no consideration ever tell a lie.”

Most of the family relationships, however, were carried on by international mail; Fred wrote home often, and was never subtle in his disappointment when he did not receive individual letters from his wife and children. “Well, Ma,” he wrote during one long stay in Europe, “I hope you and the children are well … I have not heard from Minnie, May, Byron or Sybil for some time. Kiss them all for me and tell them to write. Say to them the letters I write you are intended for them as well.”

Fred was able to spend so much time away because his business was relatively stable. It had not grown any easier to maintain the standard at twenty different eating houses; Harvey Girls were getting married at a dizzying pace; managers and chefs would leave to run their own hotels and restaurants. But the scale of such pressures had grown predictable, as had the strong cash flow and the low overhead.

But now everything was about to change. The Santa Fe system, which for Fred basically ended in Albuquerque, was going to be extended all the way to California—immediately. Strong had once hoped to build new, wholly owned tracks to the Pacific, but President Cleveland had put an end to the land grants. So the Santa Fe consolidated two railroads it half owned: the Atlantic & Pacific, which ran from the Rio Grande at Albuquerque across northern Arizona to the California border; and the California Southern, which started where the A&P ended in Needles, California, and went all the way to San Bernardino, with connections to Los Angeles and San Diego.

In May 1887, the Santa Fe began offering its own through service from Kansas City to Los Angeles. To further “brand” this cobbled-together route, Strong announced that the Santa Fe would now be featuring its signature “Meals by Fred Harvey” all the way to California.

This meant that Fred had to take over the wretched eating houses along the new desert route, each one at a more sun-scorched, godforsaken location than the last. There were eight of them, starting at Coolidge, New Mexico, about a hundred miles west of Albuquerque, continuing across northern Arizona through Winslow and the area that would become Flagstaff, and ending in Mojave, California, about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles.

It was a trying ride. One Santa Fe railroadman recalled, “the people who made the long trip in those days were the real dyed-in-the-wool travelers, the kind that wore caps with a visor at both ends and a bow on the top, loud checkered Sheppard plaid English suits, spats; many with monocles, some with canes and, of course, the crooked stem English bulldog pipes … The passengers were not in any good humor, for they were hot, dusty, hungry and none too well pleased with the country and its accommodations.”

Overnight, these new eateries doubled the geographic breadth of Fred’s empire—and quintupled his headaches. They were all dumps, managed by Stackpole & Lincoln, a California firm that had briefly run the eating houses well, until a series of disastrous fires forced it into receivership.

When Fred took his first train ride to survey the eight new eating houses, they made him sick. Literally. When he got to the sixth house—in Barstow, California, the town named for his friend William Barstow Strong—he had such a severe attack of neuralgia that he remained in bed there for two days before turning around and heading home.

The deal for Fred to take over the houses was formalized and reported on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. But nobody reported just how risky a deal it was. Unlike his previous arrangements with the Santa Fe, where the railroad built depots and gave him the space, Fred had to buy out the Stackpole & Lincoln leases as well as their equipment and furniture, even though he knew it would all have to be replaced. (Dave was dispatched to execute the buyouts: “With the aid of sheriffs or of railroadmen,” one magazine described, “he took possession of one place after another, striking the best bargain he could with the proprietors.”) Since the eating houses were so distant from each other—and from Kansas City—he would also have to set up a western satellite office, which Byron Schermerhorn agreed to run from Riverside, California. All this would require nearly $100,000 ($2.33 million)—more than twice as much as he had invested in the eating houses up to this point.

After the deals were made, eight new managers and chefs were selected from the staffs of existing eating houses to oversee the remodeling and staffing of the dining rooms, lunchrooms, and kitchens. By now, Fred had decided that all positions of authority should be filled from within; as tempting as it was to hire seasoned managers from other restaurants or hotels, the only way to maintain the standard was to elevate and challenge loyal employees already well versed in the company ethos.

New furniture was ordered, and Fred left immediately for Europe to buy everything else needed to quickly make these houses Harvey-worthy. In New York, he was joined by his daughter Minnie, who for her sixteenth birthday was given the honor of being the first family member to accompany him to England. She saw where Fred had grown up in London, and he took her to Wolverhampton to visit his mother’s grave. Then he left her with his sister Annie while he went shopping.

His first stop was Belfast, where he bought one thousand linen tablecloths and three thousand oversize linen dinner napkins. Then he went to Sheffield, where he ordered hundreds of “Fred Harvey” signature place settings. Crossing the Channel, he traveled to Bordeaux to buy wines for the restaurants, and to Limoges for porcelains. Everything was shipped back to the States and then carried by train to the eating houses in Arizona and California.

Fred gave his new managers a month to get set up before he returned for his first inspection of the transcontinental Harvey System. He was not pleased.

In Kinsley, Kansas, he scribbled angrily in his datebook, “Girls flirt with traveling Men … have run of the store room. Cashier should be changed.” In La Junta, Colorado: “Cooking poor, Tables have 71 inch cloth that should have 84 or 87 inch cloth.” In Coolidge, New Mexico, he found the “pastery poor, coffee poor, House generally poor.”

But the worst was Williams, Arizona, one of the towns from which intrepid explorers were beginning to set out for what was then called the “Grand Cañon of the Colorado.” There he was appalled to see sewage from the bathroom on the kitchen floor.

“Very bad,” he wrote in his datebook. “House not satisfactory. Worthless manager.”

After ten years of running eating houses, Fred found it amazing how much work there was still to be done, how many tablecloths still to be yanked.

AS SOON AS THE Santa Fe reached California, William Strong turned to face the siege of Chicago. He laid tracks from Kansas City east across Missouri, through the southeastern corner of Iowa, crossing the Mississippi at Fort Madison, and then across Illinois all the way to Chicago’s oldest downtown train station at Dearborn and Polk streets, a Romanesque brick and pink granite building with a grand twelve-story clock tower. By doing this, he put his railroad in direct competition with all the big Midwestern lines that had previously provided the Santa Fe with much of its business, carrying freight and passengers as far as Kansas City.

Some thought him foolish to challenge his best business partners, many of whom were also his close friends. But he believed it was the only way. The mighty Pennsylvania Railroad was battling to dominate the route between the East and Chicago. And he believed one railroad would eventually dominate from Chicago west. He wanted it to be the Santa Fe.

The new route was referred to as an “airline” between Chicago and Kansas City, because it had very few stops and the trip was fast—only twelve hours. To call attention to it, Strong built what the press called “the handsomest trains in the world.” The first-class cars had mahogany walls and high-back sofa seats with plush maroon upholstery and gold piping; the sleeping cars were done in a Louis XV motif with bronze hardware, antique oak, and peacock blue silk upholstery; the parlor car, finished in elaborately carved oak in a Moorish design, had a smoking room and a separate reading room with a library, a writing desk, and movable wicker settees. All the interior trimmings were silver plated, and even the brake handles were solid bronze.

Besides the visual splendor, the train was a mechanical marvel. Each car had its own self-sustaining electrical system—with a revolutionary new laborsaving device, “switches, so that the light can be turned on and off at will”—and was heated using steam from the engine instead of the old-fashioned wood-burning heaters located in each car.

The train also incorporated the latest innovation in railroading, “vestibules.” George Pullman had finally figured out how to allow train passengers to walk from car to car in safety. He had invented and patented the first working vestibule, a flexible, sturdy covered platform through which people could pass while the train was moving. And there was a special incentive for passengers to walk through this train—because its dining car was making culinary history.

The nation’s two greatest names in passenger comfort and service were collaborating for the first time. George Pullman designed and built the dining car, with its sensational state-of-the-art metal-clad kitchen, and Fred Harvey designed the sumptuous menu and provided the staff to cook and serve it.

The dining car walls and furnishings were hand-carved French antique oak. There were private dining areas, as well as a wine room and a buffet room. On the menu were bluepoint oysters, followed by consommé, and then tender young chicken halibut with fine herbs, spring lamb with mint sauce, sweetbreads sautéed with mushrooms, or teal duck, served with new potatoes in cream, sweet potatoes au gratin, or potato croquettes. For dessert, there was English plum pudding with brandy sauce, strawberries in Neapolitan cream, and various cakes and cheeses. There were five wines to choose from, after-dinner cognac, and, of course, a generous assortment of the finest cigars. Dinner was prix fixe at $1 ($23).

The train made its inaugural run on May 1, 1888. It was the crowning achievement of William Strong’s career, and he bet everything he had on it. The Santa Fe had doubled in size in just the past two years, laying three thousand miles of new track and upgrading every rail and tie on its existing tracks. It was now the largest railroad in the world. To accomplish all this, Strong had run up a massive debt of $65 million ($1.5 billion), but the investment seemed to be paying off.

His new service from Chicago to the Pacific—featuring “Meals by Fred Harvey”—was such a runaway success that rumors began circulating in the financial press that the Santa Fe was not going to stop there. They said Strong would build or buy tracks all the way to New York, riding in with his white-hat philosophy to take on the robber barons and clean up America’s railroads.

JUST THREE WEEKS after the triumphant debut of the new transcontinental Santa Fe train, the Harvey family had a more personal milestone: Ford got married. The event seemed perfectly timed as a celebration of the official end of his four-year apprenticeship—just as the company had doubled in size and its possibilities seemed limitless. It was also the culmination of a great Leavenworth love affair.

When Ford first started dating Josephine “Judy” Blair, the daughter of prominent attorney General Charles W. Blair, there were a lot of raised eyebrows in Leavenworth society. The Blairs lived in the Piety Hill neighborhood on the north side and were “old money,” which in Leavenworth meant they had been wealthy for at least twenty years. The Harveys were clearly among the south-side nouveau riche. Judy—a handsome young woman with melancholic, compassionate eyes and thick hair she wore pulled back in a loose bun—was the youngest of four wealthy daughters, and Ford was the only one of the Harvey children who hadn’t been born into wealth.

The courtship of Ford and Judy had been tempestuous, and the younger Harvey children had watched it like an entertaining parlor drama. Periodically, one of the Blairs’ servants would show up at the Harvey home on Olive Street, returning all of Ford’s letters and presents to Judy. Then Bean, the Harveys’ coachman, would be dispatched to Piety Hill to return all of Judy’s letters and presents to Ford. After they made up, the servants would cross paths again, bringing everything back. As the relationship became more serious, some of the fights were probably about religion: The Harveys were Episcopalian, and the Blairs were Catholic.

Now they were finally marrying. Ford was twenty-two and couldn’t wait to move out of his parents’ house; at twenty-one, Judy was also more than ready. Ford agreed that Judy would raise their children as Catholics, but since he didn’t want to convert, they couldn’t be married in her family’s church. Instead, the wedding was at the Harveys’ church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, on May 19, 1888, and it was the social event of the year. The front pages of all the Leavenworth newspapers overflowed with descriptions of the gowns, the food, the guests, and the floral motif: snowballs in May, accented by roses of all types and colors. The wedding dinner at the Blair mansion was prepared by Werner, the famous Chicago caterer, who served “a menu comprised of all imaginable delicacies.”

After the wedding weekend extravaganza, the newlyweds did the fashionable thing—they took the new Santa Fe vestibule train to Chicago, where they honeymooned at the Palmer House. Then they took the new train back to Kansas City, where their things had already been moved into their new home. It was within walking distance of the Fred Harvey office in Union Station, in an upscale residential neighborhood, with a name apt for the heir to a family business dedicated to perfectionism.

It was called Quality Hill.

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