Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER 24

ON THE VERY BRINK OF THE DIZZY GULF

BUILDING A NEW LUXURY HOTEL AT THE GRAND CANYON, SOME sixty miles from a dependable source of fresh water, was, predictably, a nightmare. The new hotel finally had a name: El Tovar, after Don Pedro de Tovar, the Spanish conquistador who first told his boss, explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, about this natural wonder, leading to its “discovery” by white men in 1540. (They considered a Coronado-related name, but all the good ones were already taken—the most prominent being the popular Hotel del Coronado beachfront resort in San Diego.)

Construction on the building immediately fell way behind schedule, and Ford was getting nervous. He was accustomed to delays—after all, he worked with the trains, so his life was all about delays and feeding people who were famished and cranky because of them. But the El Tovar delays were different. This was not another trackside hostelry in the middle of the desert or the prairie. This was the Ritz of the Divine Abyss, a monument to the new American pastime of “sightseeing” and a project whose progress the president of the United States, and the entire nation, were watching.

There was also competition. The Northern Pacific had decided to build a similarly grand hotel in Yellowstone. Conceding canyon bragging rights, they were naming it after their geyser, the Old Faithful Inn.

But for Ford, El Tovar had greater personal significance: It was the Montezuma all over again. He never forgot what that hotel had done to his father, to their family. He was fifteen years old when Fred had basically left them for months at a time. Looking back, Ford could now see that the Montezuma made Fred Harvey professionally but injured him physically and psychologically. He was never the same after that—never truly well, only “better” or “worse.”

And while nobody liked to say it out loud, the Montezuma had been Fred Harvey’s most colossal failure. In its third incarnation, the resort hotel had lost so much money that the railroad was probably wishing it would burn down again, since nobody would buy it. Most recently, the Santa Fe had attempted to capitalize on its friendship with the president to help convince the U.S. Army to accept the Montezuma as a gift, a fine mountainside convalescent home for soldiers. But the government wouldn’t even take it for free.

Fred Harvey’s business had recovered from the Montezuma because the disappointment had occurred early in his relationship with the Santa Fe, when they were still getting to know each other. But Ford was not so sure his partnership with the nation’s largest railroad system could survive anything less than resounding success with El Tovar.

IN THE MIDST of these pressures, Herman Schweizer and the Huckels got some thrilling news. Because of the success of the Indian Building in Albuquerque, the territory of New Mexico was asking the Fred Harvey Indian Department to create its exhibit for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, the 1904 world’s fair in St. Louis. In less than two years, their little trackside museum had gained so much credibility that it was worthy enough to compete with the Smithsonian Institution and the other major museums of the world.

While their original big-name anthropologist had returned to the Field Museum in Chicago, he was replaced by one of the world’s leading experts on the Hopi Indians, Henry Voth, who had spent ten years on the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona. As a Mennonite missionary, Voth had converted only six Indians to Christianity over an entire decade, but in the process he had been able to painstakingly document Hopi life and culture. While his methods were controversial—he photographed Hopi rites against the tribe’s wishes—Voth was clearly the tribe’s premier ethnographer. He had also amassed perhaps the world’s greatest collection of Hopi art and artifacts, which had never been publicly displayed. They became the cornerstone of the Fred Harvey–New Mexico exhibit at the exposition.

There were dozens of elaborate Indian displays at the St. Louis world’s fair, ranging from complete re-creations of Pueblo cliff dwellings to the tragic image of the infamous Apache chief Geronimo, a federal prisoner for eighteen years, sitting in a booth “whittling bows and arrows and selling his autographs for 10 cents each.” Almost anywhere visitors walked, but especially down the fair’s midway, “The Pike” (which is where the phrase “coming down the pike” originated), they would encounter native peoples in full regalia. There were daily snake dances and other slices of “living history,” interspersed with more modern displays such as Marconi’s new wireless telegraph technology, an early motion picture theater, the latest in automobiles, and the debuts of a “health drink” called Dr Pepper, as well as baked cones for eating ice cream.

While the Fred Harvey exhibit in room 111 of the Anthropology Building didn’t attract quite as much attention as snake dances and ice-cream cones, it did win a number of prestigious jury awards: a grand prize for “best ethnological exhibit,” another grand prize for “best aboriginal blanketry and basketry,” and two gold medals. For a little museum run by a private company, it was a tremendous honor—not to mention great publicity.

In ethnology-crazed America, Fred Harvey was becoming the first name in the buying of Indian art and crafts. Word spread that any serious collector needed to make the pilgrimage to Albuquerque and talk to Herman Schweizer.

One of his most insatiable customers was William Randolph Hearst, who was hooked after seeing a Fred Harvey promotional display of Navajo blankets at the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago. Hearst, who was by then a congressman from New York as well as the owner of several powerful newspapers, insisted on buying several choice items right off the display—at a healthy discount. He became a regular at the Indian Building, since he often traveled on the Santa Fe express to and from California, but then he began writing or wiring Schweizer whenever the collecting spirit moved him, demanding that a selection of the finest items either be shipped to him immediately in California or be made available for perusal in his Pullman compartment so he didn’t have to leave the train.

Hearst and “My Dear Mr. Schweizer,” as he called him, developed a curious relationship. Not exactly friends, or even fellow collectors sharing the excitement of rare finds, they were more like a drug dealer and his richest addict, both respecting and detesting their mutual dependency. Schweizer understood Hearst in a way few did, in part because he often had to interact with Hearst’s mother, who traveled with the publisher and shared his fascination with Indian art.

Before Christmas one year, Hearst and “the bald-headed man” had a big argument over some items that Mrs. Hearst had tried to buy during a visit to Albuquerque. When offered her son’s usual 10 percent discount, she decided she could do better, and instead made Schweizer an absurdly low “offer for the lot”—$2,500 ($62,400) for seven fine blankets, a piece of Spanish tapestry, and a rare Acoma wedding dress.

Schweizer stunned her with a word she was unaccustomed to hearing: “No.”

Hearst fired off an angry letter. In his three-page response, Schweizer did his best to pacify him, even enclosing an unusual silver Navajo ring as a peace offering. Hearst liked the ring, but still insisted Schweizer ship him all the items his mother coveted—at a big discount—and audaciously asked him to include a sampler of new blankets as well. In exchange, he claimed he would buy enough pieces to make it worth Schweizer’s while, but also offered to sweeten the deal:

“If a little article in the newspapers any time would be of value,” he wrote, “let me know on what lines you would like it prepared and I will see that it is inserted.”

The stubborn pair continued negotiating through several more impassioned letters, before Schweizer made one final offer—which also provided an interesting insight into his way of doing business. He stuck to his guns and refused to give Hearst the discount his mother wanted—yet at the same time he sent an extra blanket as a personal gift, assuring them it was worth more than what they had hoped to save. The deal was made.

The irony of all this negotiating was that Hearst was notorious for ignoring his Fred Harvey bills. Schweizer and his boss, John Huckel, had numerous discussions and letter exchanges—all copied to Ford because of the delicacy of the matter—concerning the risks of trying to make the publisher pay his bills. Yet Hearst was relentless in demanding more and more.

I will bet you two huge Mexican dollars that you haven’t shown me your real treasures,” he wrote. “Out with them now Mr. Schweizer or I shall feel that I am not being treated fairly.”

IN THE LATE FALL of 1904, Ford went back to the Grand Canyon to oversee the end of construction at the South Rim. He slept in one of the rustic rooms at the old Bright Angel next door, which now looked like a run-down carriage house for his new hotel complex.

Regardless of the myriad delays and budget overruns, Ford was pleased with El Tovar. It was the ultimate Fred Harvey oasis, in every way honoring President Roosevelt’s plea not to deface the canyon. It was an intriguing combination of styles and materials, a cross between a log cabin castle and a Swiss château, its dark wood floors, walls, and ceilings decorated with an occasional Indian rug or moose head. The long, narrow building had 125 guest rooms, and a massive square-helmeted turret rose above its three-story center staircase—an architectural feature that served to hide the water tower inside the roof, which would be filled several times a week with water carried to the canyon by railroad car. But its architecture, ultimately, was less impressive and surprising than the simple fact of its location—it was hard to believe that a luxury hotel could be built so far from civilization, and so close to the edge of the Divine Abyss.

Just across the circular driveway from El Tovar was a similarly counterintuitive structure, dreamed up by Mary Colter—a more ambitious version of the Indian Building at the Albuquerque depot. This time, she had convinced the Santa Fe and Fred Harvey to let her replicate an actual Indian building—a full-scale, brand-new, eight-hundred-year-old pueblo, authentic to the smallest detail, where the Indians who were hired to do art demonstrations and dances would actually live. Inspired by buildings in the nearby reservation city of Oraibi, it was called Hopi House.

Colter and Harvey ethnologist Henry Voth drove local workmen crazy trying to re-create perfectly imperfect surfaces, inside and out. Colter brought in an old wooden bench that had been dug out of a shiny denuded log, and insisted that every piece of furniture and support beam have the same weathered sheen, as if nature had been buffing them for centuries. There was, by design, hardly a straight line in the entire structure. The exterior was built of irregular slabs of Coconino sandstone, endlessly stacked until they created three towering stories, with tiny, slightly skewed rectangular windows. The cement floors were poured to resemble mud, and the walls were irregularly plastered like adobe. The sloping ceilings were made of peeled logs with smaller branches laid across them, and there were several working fireplaces whose chimneys were fashioned from new, old-looking clay pots with the bottoms freshly broken out. The native ambience was so “real” that one easily forgot the dim rooms were ingeniously lit with hidden electric lights.

The star attraction of the Hopi House was Nampeyo, the forty-three-year-old Hopi woman who was considered the most important native potter of her generation and had been featured at several world’s fairs. Nampeyo agreed to become a “Fred Harvey Indian,” living, working, and performing at Hopi House, along with her large family.

The cost of the two new buildings—trumpeted in the promotional materials because it was higher than the price of the Northern Pacific’s Yellowstone hotel—was $250,000 ($6.3 million). Another $50,000 ($1.3 million) was invested in stables for the horses that guests would ride along the rim and the mules on which they would descend into the canyon. While the railroad owned the buildings, Fred Harvey was responsible for buying, training, and maintaining the livestock, as well as running the on-site farms where fruits and vegetables were grown for the restaurant.

But El Tovar and Hopi House, while extraordinary, were not the main selling points. The first Santa Fe ads, which started running across the country well before the opening, promised nothing less than the chance “to see how the world was made … deep down in the earth a mile and more you go, past strata of every known geologic age. And all glorified by a rainbow beauty of color.”

El Tovar made its debut on January 14, 1905—a soft opening in the dead of winter when the canyon often got an abundance of snow, so there would be plenty of time to work out the kinks before the anticipated throngs of summer. To manage the hotel, Ford brought back into the Harvey fold one of his father’s favorite employees: Charlie Brant, the heavyset Russian immigrant who had been Fred’s maître d’ at the opening of the Montezuma. Trained at Delmonico’s in New York and the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, Brant had left the Montezuma after the original building burned down, and went on to a distinguished career running hotels and private clubs in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and Mackinac Island, Michigan. Now in his mid-fifties, he and his wife, Olga, were looking for one last great challenge in the hospitality business. Nothing could be more challenging than running El Tovar and becoming de facto mayor of the little tourism town growing at the edge of the canyon.

The large Fred Harvey staff immediately doubled the number of people living along the canyon. The influx of Harvey Girls was especially welcome. They represented more single women than had ever been seen in northern Arizona, and the tour guides and miners particularly enjoyed their regular Friday night socials, chaperoned by the large and formidable Miss Bogle, the housemother of the Harvey Girl dormitory. Miss Bogle always kept her eye on the Kolb brothers—Emery, Ellsworth, and Ernest—a randy trio who ran the local photography studio but were best known for their off-camera exploits with the ladies, which they referred to as “rimming,” their code word for finding a secluded place along the canyon edge to make out. When Ernest Kolb danced too wildly and too close to a Harvey Girl, Miss Bogle would simply walk over, lift him up, look him in the eye, and say, “Stop your jiggling, you hear?”

Yet while everyone enjoyed the influx of Harvey Girls, there were deep suspicions about their boss. To this ragtag bunch of former miners and adventurers who had made nice little businesses for themselves, the arrival of Ford Harvey, who had enough muscle and money to buy and sell them many times over, was frightening. Ford wielded the full force of the Santa Fe, which had given him its complete proxy on the South Rim. Every entrenched small-time businessman there was either quaking in fear or preparing for battle—although, being pragmatic, they were also calculating their buyout prices so they would be ready when the inevitable offers came.

As the inaugural summer tourist season arrived, the first newspaper reviews were ecstatic. The Los Angeles Times called the hotel “magnificent”:

Reared upon the very brink of the dizzy gulf of the gorge, the view afforded the guests from its windows and balconies is something to live long uneffaced in the memory. One may flip the butt of his cigar from his chair on the veranda of the hotel down through space for a distance of more than 7000 feet, considerably more than a mile. He requires a field glass to the ground below his bed-chamber window. He cannot afford to be a somnambulist unless he carries a parachute strapped under his arms. To live in El Tovar is like enjoying the sensation of occupying a room in the top floor of a hotel more than 400 stories high, or in the pinnacle of seven Eiffel Towers piled one on top of the other, but fortunately without the inconvenience of having to send to China for a bell boy every time one rings for water.

El Tovar and Hopi House drew more people to the Grand Canyon than had ever visited before. The hotel was crowded, and initial business was good.

But the same had been true of the first tourist season at the Montezuma, so Ford maintained his reserve. In fact, when he and Ed Ripley made the deal for Fred Harvey to run the Grand Canyon properties, Ford hedged his bet. Instead of just splitting the profits evenly with the railroad—as he was doing now at all the other eating houses and hotels—he took a smaller percentage of the profits and insisted that the Santa Fe guarantee Fred Harvey would be reimbursed for all net losses. Just in case El Tovar turned out to be another sinkhole.

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