THE MORE SUCCESSFUL FRED BECAME, THE MORE HIS WORK KEPT him away from home. So in the summer of 1869, he decided to take his wife and three-year-old Fordie along on a business trip. They left on the Hannibal & St. Joe, changing trains in Quincy, Illinois, for Chicago, where they stayed at his regular hotel, the Briggs House, and went to the theater together. On a detour to Battle Creek, Michigan, they visited Fred’s old friend and mentor from St. Louis, Abner Hitchcock, who delighted the family with a trip around town in his buggy. And then Fred picked up his regular route around the Great Lakes, Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland, continuing through to Buffalo. The family had planned a short visit there on the way to Boston, but found the luxurious, leafy breezes and the overflowing bowls of fresh berries in Buffalo so addictive that a few days at Mrs. Oliver’s boardinghouse—just a short walk from Lake Erie—became a week and then another.
Enchanted by nature, workaholic Fred actually found himself pressing a flower between two pages of a “magic copying ink” book—an early form of carbon paper he used to make duplicates of his business letters. “I think Buffalo is one of the best places I ever was in,” he wrote to a friend back home. “The weather is splendid. Fruit is very plentyful here. Strawberries, raspberries and cherries, 5–6 cents a quart. Can’t you pick up and come down and lend us a mouth?”
But while he enjoyed this idyllic quality time with his family, this was supposed to be a business excursion. Sally wanted to stay a little longer at Mrs. Oliver’s, so Fred got back on the train alone. He headed first to Rochester, then to Seneca Falls. He spent a fruitless day canvassing clients in Albany and Troy—berating himself in his notebook, “did nothing”—and then continued on to Boston, where a client took him to see the gargantuan new wooden coliseum erected for the recently held National Peace Jubilee. A multiday concert to benefit Civil War widows and orphans, the event was the brainchild of impresario Patrick Gilmore, who wrote “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and produced extravaganzas known for their absurd number of performers. The coliseum had seating for fifty thousand, and plenty of room for Gilmore’s thousand-piece orchestra and ten thousand choral singers. The highlight of the Jubilee was a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore featuring, at just the right moment, one hundred Boston firemen clanging anvils.
Five days later, Fred returned to Buffalo for the weekend and then took the overnight train to New York City. He stayed at French’s, a hotel for men only, situated next door to the New York Times building and across the park from City Hall. French’s had become something of a symbol for ambitious New York businessmen after being featured in several of Horatio Alger’s novels of young men striving for their piece of the American dream. The basement bar had its share of scuffles, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a newspaper report of a suicide in one of the utilitarian guest rooms. Still, the hotel was a perfect headquarters for the work Fred needed to do in New York.
Indeed, he was doing quite well on this particular visit, sending back orders for a variety of patent medicine ads that hawked products like “Dr. Wolcott’s Vinegar Bitters” and “Phelps’ Nasal Douche”—as well as troubleshooting customer complaints. “I see you have not yet changed the type of the Gargling Oil ad,” he wrote to one publisher, enclosing a copy of the font the clients demanded before they would pay. He was also concerned about mix-ups on the ads for Professor Holloway’s pills and ointment. He wanted to make sure that the ads for the pills (made from aloe, ginger, and soap) alternated weekly with the ads for the ointment (beeswax and lanolin). The company was also to be billed for the ads featuring a new lozenge form of “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” a product that actually did do something, since its active ingredient was morphine.
As Fred was preparing to leave New York after five successful days and head to Philadelphia, he received a telegram at French’s at 1:00 p.m. It said he was needed in Buffalo immediately.
Fordie was ill. Terribly ill. In fact, he could be dying.
Fred checked out of his hotel, hailed a horse-drawn cab to take him to the New York Central station at 30th Street and 9th Avenue, and bought a ticket on the sleeper for the 6:30 p.m. train to Albany, which continued on through to Buffalo, an eighteen-hour trip. The train pulled out twenty minutes late and, after escaping the gritty city limits of New York, began its sunset trek along the eastern shore of the Hudson River, past West Point military academy and the towns where Washington Irving imagined a headless horseman riding through the night and Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the Revolutionary War. After midnight, the train turned west along the Mohawk River, arriving in Buffalo around noon.
The doctor said three-year-old Fordie had “the Gastrick Feaver” and was worried that it could turn into typhoid. Sally and Fred were in agony because his fever wouldn’t break. They waited through an unbearable twenty-four hours until his temperature finally started to drop. Still, even after the doctor told them Fordie would probably be fine, Fred was so unnerved that he remained in Buffalo with them for a week, catching up on his correspondence and doing some shopping: He ordered a handsome new buggy for Sally and then wrote home asking a friend if he could help him find a horse that would be a “bargain” and also “one that will be safe for my wife to drive.” They even took a little trip to Niagara Falls.
And then Fred went back on the road again. Leaving Fordie and Sally in Buffalo, he returned to New York, then continued on to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Joseph, and stopped briefly at home in Leavenworth before heading back east. On the way he made sales calls in Hannibal, Missouri; St. Louis; and then Chicago again before taking a twenty-one-hour train ride to fetch his well-rested family.
By then, Sally and Fordie were more than ready to go home, the three weeks they expected to be away having stretched into two months. They boarded an overnight train to Chicago and five days later pulled in to the Kansas Pacific terminal in Leavenworth at mid-afternoon. They were home, alive and well. For Fred and Sally, that was nothing to take for granted.
OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS, the Harveys had another child—a daughter, Minnie—and Fred’s business steadily expanded. He bought his family a four-bedroom house on the corner of Second and Linn, just a short walk to his office at Planters’ House and the bank of the Missouri River. He could now afford to keep a live-in staff of two: William, the general servant, and Maggie, the cook and housekeeper, were both teenagers from Kentucky. And he continued to send money to his sister Eliza and her family in St. Louis.
Fred took a new job with a larger railroad on the Joy System: The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy—“the Burlington”—made him General Western Agent for freight. It was a position with much more responsibility than his old job, but he and his small group of employees would work only west of the Mississippi. So he stopped selling newspaper ads in the East, and instead spent his time crisscrossing the West—which had expanded enough that what he had once known as the frontier was now being referred to as “the Midwest.”
Wherever the High Iron of a western railroad was extended, or new branch lines were added, Fred was there canvassing or collecting. He peddled the railroad’s services to farmers, ranchers, miners, manufacturers—anyone with large-scale shipping needs, no matter how challenging. He arranged for the shipping of vast quantities of hay, corn, wheat, millet, potatoes; live chickens, hogs, cattle, or sheep; meats, freshly butchered or cured; wool and pelts; copper ore, salt, oil, coal, ice, explosive powder; lumber to build entire towns, fifty or sixty train-car loads at a time; enough railroad ties to traverse entire counties.
There was even a big business in shipping bones—primarily the bones of all the buffalo that had been slaughtered for hides, sport, or national security. The government believed the best way to keep Americans safe from Indian attacks was to wipe out the herds they depended on to live, so it was not uncommon for people just to shoot them at random. In places like Hutchinson, Kansas, buffalo bones were collected from the prairies, brought to the depot to be sold for $6 to $8 a ton, and then hauled east to be made into fertilizer or bone china.
And Fred Harvey was there to quote the best price and make the best deal. “We accept the proposition,” he wrote of one transaction, “on [the] condition that the bones are thoroughly dry and free from bad smell.”
It was a profitable business, and he was very good at it. Adept at making offers and business decisions quickly, he had an uncanny ability to assimilate the dynamics of new markets no matter how obscure or esoteric, and to remain a gentleman no matter how ungentlemanly the enterprise. While the financial institutions of the East sold money and bonds to one another, Fred Harvey was working on the front lines of the essential American economy: raw materials, agriculture, goods, and services. And as he watched the ebb and flow of hundreds of western businesses, he paid close attention to best practices and worst practices, gentlemen and scoundrels, the value of trust and the relentlessness of the cycles. He loved to listen to businessmen complain about their problems as much as brag about their successes. And he soaked up everything.
“Fred was like an opportunistic sponge,” recalled one of his great-grandsons. “He fed on others’ talents and he exploited these people as he concurrently, not subsequently, learned from them. He asked many questions, and always pressed for practical solutions as they invented wheel after wheel.”
Since it was more important than ever that he appear to be represented in many places at once—and he had come to expect to lose a certain amount of time to his medical problems—Fred worked hard to maintain his small crew of salesmen and assistants. While he did his best to keep the ambitious men he trained, he understood that he couldn’t stand in the way when one of them was ready to go out on his own. So he always kept an eye out, in Leavenworth and on the road, for the next enterprising young man who could help him.
He built relationships all over the West: sales agents from competing railroads, ranchers, farmers, miners, small manufacturers, the staff at his regular hotels. In every town he had colleagues with whom he ate and drank—always in moderation—and buddies who would take him hunting: He had become pretty good with a shotgun.
His closest friend, however, was in Chicago, an eccentric and self-delighted shipping executive named Captain Byron Schermerhorn. “The Captain,” as Schermerhorn referred to himself—only half-jokingly—was nothing like Fred. He was bombastic and egotistical, with playful eyes, a round face, and a mustache and goatee that were long and unruly—completely the opposite of Fred’s clipped and perfect Van Dyke. A member of a prominent family in upstate New York, Schermerhorn had served in the Civil War as part of the Twenty-first New York Volunteers, which fought against Stonewall Jackson—indeed, Jackson’s troops had captured Schermerhorn in Upton Hill, Virginia, although he managed to escape. He also fought against Robert E. Lee at the Second Battle of Bull Run. After the war, he left the military and became successful in the express delivery business in Chicago. But he was a poet at heart, writing and illustrating endless volumes of satiric verse that he loved reading aloud to anyone who would listen.
The Captain was one of the few people who could make Fred really laugh. Over drinks and cigars, Fred would even sit through Schermerhorn’s recitations of his fifty-two-page epic of the absurd, “The Stale Trout,” an illustrated poem about a Civil War veteran who decides to mail “smelly fish” to various people around town, including his former superior officer. (Much hilarity ensues, including a Monty Python—esque exchange by two Norwegian servants trying to describe the stink.)
EVERY TIME THE TRAIN lines lengthened, Fred’s horizons expanded even further. In the spring of 1869, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was finally completed. It was considered the greatest technological achievement in American history and the turning point for the country—over seventeen hundred miles of track laid through challenging terrain between Omaha and Sacramento. Like everyone else in his industry, Fred was amazed by the accomplishment and its immediate impact on commerce. There was now a practical way to move people and goods all the way across America.
The only hitch was the Missouri River. There was still no bridge over the Big Muddy at Omaha, and it would take the Union Pacific several more years to build one. So, for the first two years of the new railroad, it wasn’t really transcontinental at all; when they reached the Missouri, passengers and freight had to be brought across by ferries or barges. And when the river froze, they crossed by whatever means necessary—sometimes temporary tracks were laid across the ice.
The Union Pacific bridge at Omaha wasn’t completed until 1872. By then, the Hannibal Bridge at Kansas City had also been built, so trains were finally free to traverse much of the country. Railroad companies were laying tracks as fast as the rails could be forged and the wooden ties cut, turning the nation into a huge board game, building not only to provide needed transportation but also, in many cases, to block competitors.
As the railroads consolidated and grew in the go-go postwar economy, their stocks were increasingly controlled by a small group of powerful eastern financiers who all sat on one another’s boards, slapped one another’s backs, and smoked the best cigars. But the railroad industry’s unprecedented power carried equally unprecedented risks.
In the early fall of 1872, Fred started noticing that in every city he visited, the local papers carried bigger and bigger stories about a financial scandal involving the builders of the transcontinental railroad. Union Pacific executives were accused of looting profits from the transcontinental railroad through a questionable company they created and gave a foreign-sounding name: Crédit Mobilier. Not only did this company receive no-bid contracts to build much of the railroad, but several members of Congress who voted on train funding were allowed to buy Crédit Mobilier stock at bargain rates. No criminal charges were ever filed, and only two of the congressmen were even censured, but the Crédit Mobilier scandal spooked European investors—who were the ones who owned most of America’s railroad stock.
Much of the concern focused on Philadelphia-based financier Jay Cooke, whose investment banking firm had helped Lincoln finance the Civil War by selling war bonds and who, in peacetime, became incredibly powerful by underwriting railroad development. Cooke’s current obsession was building his own transcontinental railroad, a train line directly to the Pacific Northwest. He attempted to float $300 million ($5.6 billion) in government railroad bonds to build his new line. But when rival financier J. P. Morgan thwarted Cooke’s efforts at financing, European investors became even more nervous—and they started dumping all of their American railroad stocks.
Jay Cooke’s brokerage company declared bankruptcy on Thursday, September 18, 1873, triggering a worldwide financial panic and a Black Friday sell-off on Wall Street. On the following Monday, the New York Stock Exchange did not open—the first time in its history that the exchange had ever halted trading. It remained closed for ten days, and when it reopened, the market had lost so much of its value that the country was plunged into a depression. Tens of thousands of businesses failed.
“Bubbles Bursting,” screamed the front-page headline in the Chicago Tribune.
Train stock prices dropped nearly 60 percent, and more than half of the nation’s railroad owners were forced into bankruptcy. Fred’s boss, James Joy, was one of the hardest hit, and the Joy System unraveled. Luckily, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which signed Fred’s paychecks, remained stable enough to avoid receivership.
And even with the railroad companies in receivership, the trains still ran. In fact, Fred’s Midwestern territory was initially spared the worst of the national economic collapse because its primary industry was agriculture, not high finance. In Leavenworth, it was business almost as usual for the Harveys—Fred traveled, and Sally raised their growing family. In December 1873 they had another child, a daughter, Marie, whom they called May.
Yet Kansas was visited by its own disaster the following summer—a plague of grasshoppers that descended on the landscape like sheets of black rain. They were first spotted on July 1, 1874, moving slowly eastward across the state. Not only did these “Rocky Mountain locusts” devour every county’s crops in a matter of days, but they ate the wool off live sheep, the clothes off people’s backs, and anything made of wood, including paper, lamp shades, even the handles on tools. At times, the grasshoppers even stopped the trains: Several inches thick on the ground, they rendered the tracks too slimy for the locomotive wheels to get any traction.
In his travels across Kansas, Fred saw people raking up piles of live grasshoppers, or using plows or sheets of metal smeared with tar as makeshift “hopper dozers,” or mixing the insects into the cement for the foundations of new buildings—and all anyone could do was laugh at the absurdity of the situation. While the plague was devastating, the humor helped them get through. Kansans developed an even greater resolve to overcome the nation’s economic woes and their own agricultural nightmares, reassuring one another that 1875 would be a great year, a landmark year.