Biographies & Memoirs


WHEN THE HARVEY GIRLSWAS FINALLY RELEASED IN JANUARY 1946, the premiere was held at New York’s Capitol Theatre, on Broadway and 51st Street, and the line to get in circled an entire city block. The location was perfect, since the movie was being hyped as “an original Broadway musical for the screen.” It was also ironic. Just a few blocks to the east, at 50th and Madison near the Waldorf-Astoria, was the first Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Manhattan.

To assuage Byron Harvey, the film opened with a somber foreword, the language of which had been negotiated for weeks. It read:

When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants further and further West along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known—The Harvey Girls.

These winsome waitresses conquered the West as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons—not with a powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.

To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.

And then the singing and dancing began.

The Harvey Girls was a smash hit. It became one of the top-grossing films of all time—even during a year when it was competing with both It’s a Wonderful Life and The Best Years of Our Lives—and it won an Oscar for best original song. The film brought amazing national press attention to both Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe. And besides selling many more copies of the Samuel Hopkins Adams book, Bennett Cerf’s Random House published the first popular history of the AT&SF: Santa Fe: The Railroad That Built an Empire.

Byron decided this was the perfect time to launch his sons into the next generation of the family business. Only weeks after the movie premiere, he announced he was kicking himself upstairs to be chairman of the board; Byron Jr. was named president, and his brothers Stewart and Daggett were named vice presidents.

Unfortunately, neither the railroad nor Fred Harvey could capitalize on all the publicity. One news story even pointed out that the Santa Fe made less money in 1946 than the song about it had earned.

Once all the troops had come home, there was precious little peacetime business left for the Fred Harvey eating houses and hotels. In late 1947, Byron Sr. left Chicago on a private business train with just one other passenger: Santa Fe president Fred Gurley. Their goal was to inspect all the remaining depot hotels and eating houses from Kansas to California and talk frankly about the future. They got as far as Gallup, New Mexico, and by the time they returned, almost every Harvey House on the Santa Fe was slated to be closed. Only the hotels in major Santa Fe junction points—in Newton, Kansas, and Albuquerque—were considered crucial. A handful of others in the West were kept open because they were popular with some West Coast travelers—especially La Posada in Winslow, Arizona, which remained a favorite of aviators, Howard Hughes in particular, who was there so often they kept a regular room for him, No. 225.

None of the hotels were making much money, if any at all. Fred Harvey’s profits came primarily from the Grand Canyon operation, which picked up where it had left off before the war. The firm did steady though diminishing business at its union stations in Cleveland, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, its newsstands in Santa Fe stations, La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe, and the railroad dining car service.

But the original Fred Harvey company, which had invented the chain restaurant business, the chain hotel business, and the chain bookstore business—and had demonstrated how a chain could not only connect a nation but actually help hold it together—was no more. The chain had been broken.

ALTHOUGH THE COMPANY was never the same, the Fred Harvey saga and ethos did not lose their ability to inspire. In 1948, Walt Disney fell into a deep depression. His firm had barely survived the war and a crippling strike—it had been six years since his last successful feature, Bambi—and he was suffering from arthritis in his neck and shoulders. Hazel George, the studio nurse who gave him treatments for his pain every afternoon, told him he needed a vacation. Everyone around Disney knew the boss had a thing for trains, although they really didn’t know why, since he was a fairly taciturn, distant man. So when Hazel heard there was going to be a railroad fair in Chicago, celebrating the centennial of the first trains to the Second City, she told Walt he should go and take Ward Kimball with him. Kimball, one of his top animators, was obsessed with model railroading—a true trainiac.

Disney booked adjoining compartments on the Super Chief, and two days later they boarded the Santa Fe train in Pasadena. They had dinner in the Fred Harvey dining car. Kimball, who had never been on the fancy Super Chief, wanted the beef stew, which he had heard about from other railroaders: They said the Harvey chefs actually seared the beef before mixing it with the vegetables.

Beef stew? For God’s sake!” Disney exclaimed. He ordered them both filet mignon.

The next morning, the engineer sent back word that if Disney and Kimball wanted, they could come ride in the engine. Giddily, the two middle-aged men climbed up into the locomotive when the train was stopped at Winslow. Walt was given the job of manning the air horns, which had to be sounded well before the train approached even the smallest rural crossing. Each time he heard the horn, his face exploded into a smile that his longtime colleague hadn’t seen for years. Whenever they passed one of the electronic line-side signals, the engineer would “call the aspect”—for a green light, yelling out “Clear,” which the others in the engine had to repeat, mantra-like. It was a way to ensure the engineer was always alert and never took his eye off the rails ahead.

The panoramic view from the engine was much more dramatic than what they could see from their compartment—there was a big difference between passing things and watching an entire world unfold before your eyes. Hawks hung lazily in the air, animals large and small scurried away from the tracks, as the train passed along miles of untouched landscape.

I can’t figure out why in the hell everybody lives in the city,” Disney said. “Why don’t they come out here where they have this great empty land, filled with opportunity and silence?”

They were allowed to stay in the engine all the way to Albuquerque, more than 250 miles. After getting a bite to eat in the dining car, they retreated to Disney’s compartment, where he pulled out the small cut-glass decanter and two shot glasses he always kept in his suitcase and poured them a couple of whiskeys. He then proceeded to reveal to Kimball the real inside story of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney, the Santa Fe, and Fred Harvey.

It turned out that Disney had spent his early childhood in the Santa Fe town of Marceline, Missouri, where his uncle was an engineer for the railroad and Walt loved to put his ear to the Santa Fe tracks to listen for oncoming trains in the distance. When he was a teenager, the family moved to Kansas City, where he and his older brother Roy took summer jobs as “butcher boys” selling newspapers, sandwiches, and candy on westbound trains. Roy Disney actually worked for Fred Harvey as a butcher one summer; the next summer, Walt took a job with the competing Van Noy news service—and probably wished he had worked for Harvey, because he was often given rotten fruit to sell and ended up losing money on the job. But both brothers were working for the railroad out of Kansas City in the all–Fred Harvey Union Station.

The Santa Fe and Fred Harvey had a huge impact on Disney’s image of America, and the kind of business he intended to run. It was no coincidence that Walt Disney used his name alone to brand his company, just as Fred Harvey had. Nor was it surprising when Snow White, the subject of his first feature-length film, turned out to be a combination of a Brothers Grimm princess and a Harvey Girl.

In fact, as he explained it to Kimball, Mickey Mouse had been created on a Santa Fe train ride—along the very same route they were traveling. Disney and his wife, Lilly, were on their way back to California from New York, where he had just learned that because of his business naïveté he had lost control of his first major cartoon character; Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was being swiped by his distributor, Universal Studios, together with all the animators who worked with him on it. Walt brooded and doodled all the way from New York to Chicago, where they boarded the Santa Fe train. And not long after they passed Toluca, Illinois, he started telling his wife about this mouse character he was thinking about. It was based on an actual mouse that Disney had befriended and fed scraps to at his original Laugh-O-Gram Studio on East 31st Street in Kansas City.

He had come up with a really great name for the new mouse character, “Mortimer.” And somewhere in America’s heartland—Disney wasn’t sure where exactly, but he knew it was before they reached the La Junta Harvey House—his wife said the magic words: “Mortimer is too pompousfor a cartoon mouse. How ’bout Mickey?”

By the time the Super Chief reached Chicago, Walt Disney had told Ward Kimball much of his life story, in a way and to an extent that none of his employees and few of his friends had ever heard.

The highlight of the Chicago Railroad Fair—besides all the marvelous old, restored engines and train cars—was a pageant called “Wheels a-Rolling,” which showed the entire history of railroading from a stage larger than a football field. Walt was delighted when the pageant director invited him to play a small part in the production, portraying a passenger on an old Santa Fe railroad train who stops at a depot restaurant to be served by Harvey Girls. He wore a stovepipe hat and a black frock coat, and he improvised his lines from Harvey House stories he had heard as a child in Marceline and his own experiences as a young man in Kansas City.

After the train fair, Disney and Kimball spent two days at Henry Ford’s museum and historical village in Dearborn, Michigan—which also had old trains, as well as re-creations of other aspects of transportation history—and then they caught the Super Chief home. On the way back, Disney started formulating the plans for what he called “Mickey Mouse Park,” which became Disneyland, the venture that saved his company from bankruptcy, repurposing all his cartoon characters and launching the empire we know today.

When the original Disneyland opened, it had a replica of an old Fred Harvey restaurant, and the engine of the mini-train ride circling the complex was called the E. P. Ripley. When Disney World opened years later, the Fred Harvey idea of staging authentic Native scenes trackside—like those Disney had seen during so many stopovers in Albuquerque—was used to create a wonderful world’s worth of “Indian Buildings” in Orlando, Florida.

BUT WHILE OTHERS continued to be inspired by the Harvey story, Fred Harvey itself was now history. Byron and his sons made the very wise decision to buy the Grand Canyon hotels from the Santa Fe in 1954 for $2 million ($16 million), since the railroad had completely lost interest in owning them. This meant that Fred Harvey would continue to make money, and there would always be a place that retained the original feel of the company’s headiest days. But the Byron Harveys never shared the big dreams of Fred, Ford, and Freddy. They had no interest in using the well-regarded Harvey name to build a new chain directed at the sensibilities of postwar America—quality fast food, family dining, or both—in part because they had, in the words of one Harvey great-grandson, “an almost destructive hatred of debt.” They simply wanted to run what was left of the company, and perhaps open a few higher-end restaurants around their hometown of Chicago or in Los Angeles. The union station restaurants would continue to link people in St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Los Angeles to the great old days of railroads and Harvey Girls and comfort food. But the mass marketing of American cuisine and Americana was left to other family businesses—and Fred Harvey’s America went on without Fred Harvey.

Kitty Harvey fled Kansas City, where she donated the family home to the French Institute of Notre Dame de Sion, and moved full-time to Arequipa in California, where she made a small fortune investing the millions her uncle Byron had paid for her shares in Fred Harvey. She spent it expanding her amazing art collection, traveling, working with her gardeners to create award-winning floral displays, and making myriad charitable contributions to worthy causes. The best-known result of her charity was the discovery of the oldest human remains in the Western Hemisphere, the “Arlington Springs Man,” which was found on Santa Rosa Island in California by an archaeological expedition she funded. Scientists later thought the Arlington Springs Man might have been a woman, and then changed their minds back again, in a controversy Kitty would have found endlessly amusing.

Kitty died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1962 at the age of seventy, leaving the bulk of her estate to her family—especially to Byron Harvey III, “Ronny,” her favorite—as well as to Mary Perkins and her gardener. (She also funded the Katherine Harvey Fellows program at the Santa Barbara Foundation, which to this day trains young professionals to get involved in nonprofit work.) She ordered her life’s collection of correspondence burned, but arranged for various items in the house to be sent to certain people with notes she had written. Her nephew Stewart Jr. had spent his honeymoon night in 1956 at Arequipa, where he and his bride broke one of the cherrywood beds in the guest room. Kitty had teased him about it, saying she would leave it to him in her will, and days after she died, the bed arrived at Stewart’s Boston home, with a note from Kitty advising him to have a furniture craftsman “shore it up in anticipation of more labor d’amour.”

Byron Harvey died of colon cancer in 1954 at the age of seventy-eight, and his children ran Fred Harvey through the 1950s and 1960s. They made any number of attempts to reignite the spark of the company. In Chicago, there were the Harlequin Room and other restaurants in the Palmolive Building, the Bowl & Bottle and others in the Continental Companies Building, the Kungsholm and the Old Spinning Wheel in Hinsdale. In Southern California there was the Victor Hugo Inn in Laguna Beach, El Adobe de Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano, and the Pavilion and Curtain Call restaurants in the Los Angeles Music Center. They tried the airport food business in Albuquerque and Grand Rapids, institutional food service at General Motors, Packard Bell, Douglas Missiles & Space Systems, and the First National banks of Kansas City and Memphis. There was even a last-ditch attempt at the turnpike business, with modern restaurants over the Illinois Tollway. All had their fans and their moments, but none were terribly successful or resonant.

In 1966, what was left of Fred Harvey—the Grand Canyon and smaller national park facilities at Painted Desert and Death Valley, La Fonda, a handful of remaining union station and institutional contracts, and a hodgepodge of postwar eateries and theme restaurants—went public, with 162,500 shares selling at an opening price of $17.75, for an initial capitalization of $2.9 million ($19.2 million). But within two years, as Byron’s grandchildren were planning to take their places at the top of the company, they were shocked to learn that their fathers had decided to sell the family business to a large Hawaii-based conglomerate called Amfac. Before long, there were no Harveys left at Fred Harvey, and the ninety-two-year relationship between Fred’s company and the Santa Fe finally was over.

It wasn’t long before the railroad stopped carrying passengers altogether. In May 1971, what was left of America’s long-distance rail passenger business was taken over by a quasi-governmental body known as Amtrak. The only remaining Santa Fe line on Amtrak was the Chief, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles along the very same route that Fred Harvey always rode.

Mary Colter had it right. When she was eighty-seven years old, the grandmother of American architecture was told some troubling news. The last of the great trackside hotels—her masterpiece, La Posada, in Winslow—was going to be shuttered.

“There is,” she said, “such a thing as living too long.”

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