AS THE DEPRESSION DEEPENED, THE HARVEY HOUSES TOOK on a new role in economically ravaged America—they became known as the softest touches in the West, the places where impoverished locals and drifters went in search of a free meal. It was company policy never to let anyone who couldn’t afford to pay leave hungry. Many begged for food at the back door and were pleasantly surprised to get sandwiches, fruit, bread, and coffee. Others came in through the front door.
Bob O’Sullivan, who later became a well-known travel writer, never forgot the hot, dusty fall afternoon in Albuquerque when he was a second grader and his family had to rely on the kindness of strangers in Harvey Girl uniforms. His mother was driving him and his eleven-year-old sister—with all their belongings stacked high against the backseat windows—to California, where they hoped to meet their father and make a new start. The O’Sullivans had arrived in Albuquerque expecting that $25—several weeks’ pay—had been wired to them at the Railway Express office. But when his mother walked out of the office in tears, Bob knew the money hadn’t arrived. As she pulled on her driving gloves, the children asked if they could still get something to eat.
“Of course we can,” she said finally. “We have to, don’t we?”
She drove along the railroad tracks to the Alvarado and led her children into the dining room. There were few customers there, but lots of delicious aromas, and every surface was gleaming. When a smiling Harvey Girl approached them, her puffed sleeves and starched apron rustling, Bob’s mother pulled her aside and whispered something. The waitress walked to the kitchen and returned with a man wearing a suit, to whom his mother also whispered. Then they were led to a table, where Mrs. O’Sullivan began to order sandwiches for the kids and just a cup of coffee for herself—until the man in the suit interrupted her.
“Why don’t you let me order for you?” he said, and proceeded to tell the Harvey Girl to bring hot soup, then the beef stew, mashed potatoes, bread and butter, and coffee for the lady. He asked the children if they wanted milk or hot chocolate.
“Yes, sir,” they both said.
“Milk and hot chocolate for the children,” he continued, “and some of the cobbler all around. Does that sound all right?”
“Will that be all?” the waitress asked.
“Oh,” the man said, “and these people are the guests of Mr. Fred Harvey.”
Bob saw his mother mouth the words “Thank you.”
The taste of that stew would stay with him his entire life. As would the memory of what happened when they finished eating. His mother pushed what few coins she had left toward the waitress, who pushed them back with a smile.
“Oh, no, ma’am. You’re Mr. Harvey’s guests,” she said, placing two bags in front of them. “And the manager said I was to wrap up what you didn’t eat, so you could take it along.”
“But we cleaned our plates,” young Bob blurted out. His sister sighed and looked at him as if he were the dumbest person in the world. Then the Harvey Girl started giggling, followed by his mother and then the kids.
In the car, Mrs. O’Sullivan opened the bags, and found them filled with more food than they had eaten for dinner.
“What’s in them?” Bob asked.
“Loaves and fishes,” she replied, shaking her head in amazement. “Loaves and fishes.”
THE ONLY WAY the company could afford to maintain such standards of quality and generosity, however, was if cuts were made elsewhere. And so, for the first time in its fifty-four-year history, Fred Harvey started removing some links from its vast chain. This was done in ways so subtle that residents of the affected communities barely noticed at first. By the end of 1930, all the small-town Harvey Houses along the old Frisco line—between St. Louis and central Texas—had been turned back to the control of that railroad. In some places, the Frisco then hired the entire Harvey staff and tried to keep serving pretty much the same food—and people continued to call them Harvey Houses or “the old Harvey House.” But the Harvey System no longer included Tower Grove, Cape Girardeau, Springfield, Monett, and Joplin, Missouri; Francis, Hugo, Sapulpa, Vinita, and Guthrie, Oklahoma; Fort Scott, Kansas; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and the lunchroom in Birmingham, Alabama. The next year, Fred Harvey left two more Texas towns, Cleburne and Gainesville, and also three older Santa Fe locations, Wellington and Chanute, Kansas, and Merced, California. And then, in 1933, Fred Harvey abandoned some of its oldest Santa Fe railroad locations: Arkansas City, Kansas, the site of the land rush; Trinidad, Colorado; Rincon, New Mexico; and Kingman, Arizona. In California they closed Mojave and Bakersfield, the lunchroom at the San Diego station, even the floating ferry restaurant on San Francisco Bay. They shuttered more eating houses in Oklahoma and Texas—including Purcell, Canadian, Sweetwater, and Fort Worth Union Station—leaving only the larger operations in Waynoka, Oklahoma; and Galveston, Houston, Temple, Brownwood, Slaton, and Somerville, Texas.
Since many people in these towns had been eating either breakfast or lunch at their Harvey House every day, and dined there on Sundays and special occasions, the departure of Fred Harvey left an enormous social and gastronomic void. It was like the closing of a small military base, with thirty or more years of history as an eating place, meeting place, and a business that brought hundreds of new employees to town who stayed and settled down.
Equally painful, hundreds of Harvey employees in Santa Fe cities, who had always thought of themselves as having the most stable jobs in town, were suddenly displaced. Some of the male employees—chefs, managers, busboys—were able to be reassigned to the Harvey dining car service, but that was a completely different world from the eating houses. The hours were much longer, the train rides endless.
“Those were tough times,” recalled one Harvey Girl whose husband, an eating house manager, was transferred to the dining cars. “He would be gone for eight days and was then home for two … It was a very hard job for my husband but he never complained.” Dining car staffers were really more employees of the railroad than of Fred Harvey, so their colleagues were a much tougher, unionized group. There were also no Harvey Girls on the trains. So the coed balance of the restaurants was replaced by a situation much like the one that led to the Harvey Girls being invented: an all-male staff with a certain amount of racial friction, cooped up together in a rolling tin can for hours on end.
Young writer Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. would marvel at the amount of responsibility Fred Harvey gave to black dining car employees during the Depression: “My waiter informed me that the entire car was not only staffed but also run by Negroes,” he wrote in the Amsterdam News. “Here I was in the heart of the Texas Panhandle—cracker land—with the ace diner in complete charge of Negroes. Weren’t these white folks a-scared? Why didn’t one of them die of fright?… [Actually] the amount of criticism has been negligible … The hillbillies and prairie folks who have never seen a diner before pass out when a Negro tells them to sit here or there … The regular traveler takes this in stride.”
The decisions to close the eating houses were probably made by executives at the Santa Fe, not Fred Harvey, and many of the closures were only coincidental to the failing economy. In a way, they had been envisioned for years—ever since Fred Harvey started competing against itself by running the dining cars as well as the eating houses. In fact, some of the smaller depot restaurants had survived solely because some train passengers still preferred them—for nostalgic reasons, but also because their prices were slightly lower. But trains were becoming faster—steam engines were getting more powerful, and the first diesels were on the way. More and more trains had Fred Harvey dining cars. So it was becoming harder for the railroad to justify making long meal stops and maintaining so many unprofitable eating houses.
One tough decision, however, did fall to Byron and Freddy. No matter how much they adored the Indian Detours and the entire culture that had grown up around them, that business, even with all its popularity, had never broken even. Now it was deeply in the red—and these were Fred Harvey losses, not shared with the railroad. So they decided to get out of the Indian Detours business. They kept La Fonda, but the Indian Detours company itself, including all the buses and Harveycars, the Courier outfits and guidebooks, was sold at a huge loss to its founder, Hunter Clarkson.
It was no longer possible for the Santa Fe and Fred Harvey to keep pretending the Depression was a temporary situation. That was especially true as it became clearer that the tariffs of the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930—championed by the same Republican senator who had golfed with Ford during the convention—not only had failed to protect the U.S. economy but apparently did just the opposite; the tariffs were blamed for exporting the Depression overseas and further dragging down the world’s financial markets.
Herbert Hoover was voted out of office, replaced by the Democratic governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt, who had built a national political coalition with the help of two powerful Westerners: William McAdoo and William Randolph Hearst. Roosevelt’s election and his “New Deal” offered some faint hope as he took office in March 1933.
But while the new president helped jump-start financial markets, he could not control the weather. As if the nationwide Depression were not enough, the Great Plains began experiencing droughts, devastating farmers in the heart of Santa Fe country. The railroad, which had to keep lowering fares and freight charges to compete, watched its operating revenue erode by half in the four years after the crash. Even more startling, its net income fell from $61 million ($767 million) to just $3.7 million ($61.5 million). The president of the Santa Fe, William Storey, resigned in exasperation and disgust.
WHILE THE ECONOMY CRUMBLED, Mary Colter and Herman Schweizer drove the back roads of the Southwest, searching for one more burst of inspiration. Now in their early sixties, they had aged into a feisty and odd pair of friends. Neither had ever married—their only sustained passion was work. Together they had recast America’s view of Indians and Indian culture, and created some of the nation’s most intriguing institutions and buildings. But with everything in their worlds so uncertain, it seemed this could be their last hurrah. Schweizer was growing nervous that the company would force him to sell off the Indian artifact collection he had spent over thirty years buying and curating. And Colter didn’t know how much longer the company would need her, with all the Harvey Houses closing. So, this building they had her researching for the Grand Canyon had to be special, resonant.
The single most breathtaking spot on the South Rim of the canyon was called Desert View, some twenty miles east of El Tovar. From there, visitors could see twenty to thirty unimpeded miles of the canyon and the Colorado River—and, if they were lucky, they could also watch the greatest weather show on earth, the lightning storms that regularly barrel through the canyon, followed by gleaming rainbows. The National Park Service had paved a scenic road along the canyon’s edge to connect Desert View with El Tovar and the main entrance to the park. Colter’s task was to create something that would improve the experience of one of the world’s greatest vistas.
She decided to build her own Indian “ruin” of a watchtower, some five stories high, with its own “kiva,” the rooms Pueblo Indians used for sacred rituals. To research it, she made repeated visits to every similar building still standing in northern Arizona and New Mexico. Sometimes she would insist on being taken up in small planes, to get that perspective. But mostly, she and Schweizer had a driver take them around. The two of them would sit in the backseat bouncing as the car traversed the treacherous, dusty roads and paths. They also camped out for days at a time, hiking and sketching or photographing ancient structures.
When it was finished, Colter’s watchtower appeared on the horizon like a huge Stone Age silo, a gravity-defying seventy-foot-high pile of indigenous rocks with irregularly shaped window openings positioned haphazardly around each floor. In fact, one of the windows was designed to appear as if it were falling apart, with a fake masonry crack clearly visible in the exterior wall. Yet the building was actually as steady as a skyscraper—beneath the authentic stone exterior was a steel-girder frame.
While kivas are usually underground, Colter had hers built as the first-floor entrance, with huge square windows and a remarkable ceiling crafted from concentric circles of stripped logs. This led to the Hopi Room, which evoked the Hopi Snake Dance with an altar, paintings on the walls, and a sand painting on the floor preserved under glass. From there, visitors passed into the silo’s astounding interior, crammed with paintings like a conical Southwestern Sistine Chapel, which one architecture writer would describe as
a balcony-ringed, cave-like column of space that rises three stories and surrounds one with an enthralling display of colors and folk images. A phantasmagoria of abstract architecture and art, it is a romantic, even mystical creation whose imagery suggests a fusion of modern paintings—Klee and Chagall come most immediately to mind—freed from their frames and spread onto the crudely modeled walls and ceilings.
Above that rose two additional floors, more open, with stairways corkscrewing along the outer walls (in a design likely invoked decades later by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York) until a visitor reached the fifth-floor observatory, the “Eagle’s Nest.” It was the highest point on the entire South Rim, more than seventy-five hundred feet above sea level.
Colter sweated so many details—down to editing every stone—that when the Watchtower was nearly completed, she sat down and wrote a hundred-page booklet for the Fred Harvey canyon guides so they could properly appreciate and explain it. She enclosed a letter apologizing for “the bulkiness of this manual” and assuring them that they weren’t “expected to learn it by heart,” but she also noted that she would not stand for anyone rattling off her hard-won insights in “parrot fashion.” If they didn’t talk about the Watchtower with the same passion she had, Colter threatened, “I won’t love you any more!”
When the Watchtower was finished, Colter was told what she already suspected. It would be her last building for a while—and perhaps her last building for Fred Harvey ever.