Modern history

Inaugurated in 1892, the California Limited became the first of the Santa Fe’s crack passenger trains between Chicago and Los Angeles; here engine no. 53, a 4-6-0 ten-wheeler, waits with its consist at La Grande Station in Los Angeles. (Colorado Historical Society, scan 20104180, W. H. Jackson Collection)

Part Three

Santa Fe All the Way


An American cowboy is coming east on a special train faster than any cowpuncher ever rode before; how much shall I break the transcontinental record?



Making the Markets

The southwestern railroads flung their tracks across generally wide-open spaces. Land grant sales in Kansas, mining revenues from Colorado, and transcontinental traffic across Arizona and New Mexico helped to pay some of the bills, but in many cases the railroads had to make their own markets. It was rarely easy.

When Frisco president Edward Winslow expressed interest in buying a 50,000-acre ranch out of the Atlantic and Pacific land grant in northern Arizona in an effort to spur land sales, Winslow’s wife and some friends made an inspection tour. A bumpy wagon ride across stark terrain and a sudden storm were enough to elicit a spousal veto. “Her impressions of the country,” the railroad’s land agent reported, “are not highly favorable.”1

But there were others who looked at the landscape with a different eye. William Jackson Palmer had pushed the merits of Colorado’s climate and scenery since his first love letters to Queen before the founding of Colorado Springs. After the Rio Grande reached Ogden, tourism through the mountains of Colorado became big business on the narrow gauge road. The awesome scenery of the Royal Gorge, Marshall Pass, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison prompted the Rio Grande to adopt the marketing slogan “Scenic Line of America.”

But why stop there? In 1884 Shadrach K. Hooper, general passenger and ticket agent of the Rio Grande, went one step further and changed the slogan to read “Scenic Line of the World,” taking as its symbol the spire of Curecanti Needle in the depths of the Black Canyon. Advertisements made it clear that whether one was traveling “for business” or “for health and pleasure,” the mountain scenery “of this line is un-equaled in variety and grandeur by that of any other railway on either hemisphere.…”2

But the Denver and Rio Grande did not have a monopoly on scenery. Jay Gould’s attempt to build straight west from Denver had not been successful, but that did not keep hordes of sightseers from flocking to the Georgetown Loop. Scarcely had Robert Brewster Stanton ensured its proper completion when famed western photographer William Henry Jackson arrived on the scene in a private car provided by the railroad. Jackson staged four trains at various locations around the loop and produced a promotional series of photographs for the Union Pacific.

Excursions westward from Denver around the loop and to the end of track at Graymont became a staple for many Colorado visitors. The story is told that when one sophisticated Victorian lady apologized to her Denver hostess for arriving in a sooty condition after just such an excursion, the hostess brushed off her guest’s embarrassment by assuring her, “Never mind, my dear. We have all been around the Loop.”3

And although it was comparatively short lived, the Denver, South Park and Pacific, along with its Union Pacific–controlled successors, also had a star attraction in the Alpine Tunnel. Not only did the line traverse “some of the finest scenery on the continent,” but also the South Park could boast that it crossed the “highest point reached by rail in North America.” One Union Pacific brochure from 1886 told of its glories: “It is something to know that the world cannot duplicate this ride—this audacity of engineering; man has always before stopped short of this extreme.”4

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe approached its marketing slightly differently. In time, the railroad would come to promote the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, the glories of sunsets setting the desert sky ablaze, and a close affinity to the historical cultures of the Southwest. But from the beginning—and overriding all these later themes—the Santa Fe focused on access and speed.

Within three years of the Santa Fe’s arrival at Deming in 1881, its advertisements were boasting of “Three Lines to the Pacific.” First and foremost, according to the Santa Fe, was its “Great Needles Route” via Albuquerque, over the Atlantic and Pacific to Needles, and the Southern Pacific on to San Francisco. The second route—again at the mercy of the Southern Pacific—was “the Los Angeles Route” west from Deming to the rider’s choice of Los Angeles, San Diego, or San Francisco. Finally, the third route touted connections from the Santa Fe spur at Pueblo, over the Denver and Rio Grande to Ogden, and westward on the Central Pacific to San Francisco.5

By the end of the 1880s, the Santa Fe’s aggressive expansion had rid itself of much of its reliance on the Southern Pacific, to say nothing of reaching Chicago’s Dearborn Station. With independent control of its own roadbed from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles came not only an ability to promote transcontinental access but also ever-greater speed.

In September 1889, William Barstow Strong, who had been the mainstay of the Santa Fe’s expansion for a decade, was forced to resign the railroad’s presidency. Strong was a casualty of an increasingly bitter power struggle between the road’s old-line Boston crowd and a new group of financiers centered in New York City. The conflict was a prelude to a period of financial unrest, but Strong’s successor, Allen Manvel, was to make one lasting contribution to the road.

A native New Yorker who came to the Santa Fe with more than thirty years in railroading, Manvel decreed that something significant had to be done to herald the completion of the Santa Fe’s Chicago–Los Angeles main line. The result was the California Limited, a passenger train that would operate between these two cornerstones of the American economy for more than a half century.

Manvel instructed his equipment managers to special order five first-class all-Pullman trains. Each consisted of six cars: (1) a combination baggage, club, and parlor car; (2) a dining car; (3) a through compartment car to Los Angeles; (4) a Chicago–San Francisco compartment and drawing-room sleeper car; (5) a Chicago–San Diego compartment and drawing-room sleeper; and (6) a combination sleeper and observation car with a small parlor and a covered observation platform at the rear of the train. (The San Francisco and San Diego cars were switched onto other trains at Mojave and Los Angeles, respectively, and sent on to their destinations without disturbing their occupants.)

The first westbound California Limited departed Dearborn Station at nine-thirty on the night of November 27, 1892. Designated train no. 3, by the next afternoon it was in Kansas City. Then westward the train roared across Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the grades of Raton Pass. By the evening of day two, the Limited was beyond Albuquerque and crossing the Colorado River at Needles. By nine in the morning on the third day, the train pulled into the station in downtown Los Angeles, after 2,265 miles and two and one-half days en route.

Sister trains were soon running in both directions on what was commonly advertised as the fastest service between the two cities. Over the years, the equipment and motive power of the California Limited changed with the times, and eventually it was relegated to second-class status by more glamorous successors, but at its inception and for years thereafter, the California Limited set the standard for transcontinental travel.6

In the race for transcontinental dominance, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was to have one not-so-secret weapon that had nothing to do with land grants, fast trains, low fares, or scenery. Well, maybe a different kind of scenery on a male-dominated frontier.

Early western railroad food was very grim pickings. The choices were few, the freshness of the serving never in doubt—it simply wasn’t—and the sanitary conditions decidedly suspect. In the business of getting from one place to another, food, it seemed, was an afterthought.

Passengers poured off a train as it wheezed to a stop at a food station and then swarmed around a so-called lunch counter, frequently competing with an even larger swarm of flies. Those who managed to find a seat and attempt civil dining were routinely interrupted midway through the fare by a whistle signaling an imminent departure.

Another option was to procure a box lunch from the station or a sandwich from the “butcher boy” who roamed the cars. On tepid summer afternoons on the plains of Kansas, these were best consumed straight off the hoof or not at all. Egg salad was definitely not recommended. Even the Santa Fe’s employee lunchroom in the main depot at Topeka was to be avoided.

All this began to change in 1876, when an impeccably dressed man called on the local Santa Fe manager in Topeka and expressed interest in leasing the Topeka depot’s lunch counter. His name was Frederick Henry Harvey. Born in London in 1835, Harvey immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen and found his first job as a busboy in a New York City café. He soon left for greater rewards and eventually became the western freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy.

Harvey’s work for the Burlington required extensive travel, and he was forced to endure the physical as well as the gastronomic discomforts of the road. After those experiences, he was only too happy to return home to his wife and growing brood of children, where he always found a safe haven of good cooking and a clean bed.

In 1875 Harvey made his first attempt to refine traveling conditions. He formed a partnership to operate restaurants on the Kansas Pacific at the division points of Wallace, Kansas, and Hugo, Colorado. But Harvey’s absences working for the Burlington and a disagreement with his partner over the appropriate standards to be maintained soon terminated the venture. Harvey suggested his idea of standards to the Burlington, but its managers weren’t interested. Food simply was not deemed important to selling railroad tickets.

So Fred Harvey went to the Santa Fe with the same idea: a clean eating space, prompt and courteous service, reliably good food, and a reasonable price. How could one go wrong? The Santa Fe agreed. Soon the Topeka operation was booming, and early in 1878, Harvey opened his second restaurant and some adjacent sleeping rooms at Florence, Kansas. Thereafter, he resigned his job with the Burlington and became a full-time restaurateur, opening a third restaurant in Lakin, Kansas, near the Colorado border, in 1879. After that, the westward march of Fred Harvey establishments was almost as steady as the advance of the Santa Fe’s rails.

The Fred Harvey–Santa Fe partnership proved unique. Done in the early years on the basis of a handshake, the agreements usually gave the railroad the responsibility for real estate and capital improvements, while Harvey was responsible for furnishings and kitchen equipment. The railroad also proved accommodating in transporting produce, dairy items, and fresh meat to Harvey facilities along the line, as well as providing coal, ice, and water.

These early operations were housed in relatively crude buildings, but they all promised and delivered the same high quality of food and service. Among the Fred Harvey innovations that a tired and hungry traveler could count on were fresh-baked pies cut into four—not six—pieces; spring water for coffee hauled in by tank car, not pumped from alkali-laden wells; and farm-fresh produce shipped by rail or purchased directly from local farmers.

Seeing the impact that Fred Harvey’s operations had on its passengers—not to mention its train crews, who also flocked to eat there—the Santa Fe quickly decided that well-fed passengers made for happy passengers, and happy passengers were good for business. There was an affinity between food and railroads after all. So Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe worked together to bring food service to a new level of efficiency.

Conductors went through the coaches prior to a food stop and asked how many passengers planned to visit the lunch counter or the dining room. The tally was telegraphed ahead, so that when the train stopped, everything was ready. And Harvey’s prompt service meant no more wolfing down half a steak as one’s train started to roll out of the station. With prior planning and civil service, a twenty-minute food stop could seem like a far longer respite from the clanging and swaying of the coaches.

One anecdote says much about the special standards that Fred Harvey demanded. While conducting an inspection of one of his kitchens, Harvey heard a commotion in the dining room. He immediately asked what the problem was, and the steward replied, “Oh, that man is an out-and-out crank. No one can please him.” Of the first point, Harvey readily agreed. “Of course he is a crank,” but, Harvey went on, “we must please him. It is our business to please cranks, for anyone can please a gentleman.”7

So popular did Harvey Houses become that for a short time Harvey tried to limit service to railroad travelers and not serve locals. Recognizing a good thing, locals rebelled, and Harvey Houses went on to become the social and cultural center of some of these small towns. Then, of course, there were the Harvey girls.

In the early years of the Santa Fe’s expansion across Kansas, there was a saying that there were “no ladies west of Dodge City; no women west of Albuquerque.” Fred Harvey changed that and saw to it that in an era when the morals of single women on the frontier were immediately suspect, his Harvey girls were all respectable ladies.

They came from varied, lower- to middle-class backgrounds, some escaping factory jobs, others leaving the farm, more than a few seeking adventure as much as a regular paycheck. What they found was Fred Harvey’s rigid code of recruitment, training, dress, and living arrangements.

All prospective Harvey girls were carefully recruited and indoctrinated into the Fred Harvey way of doing things. They wore simple but immaculate uniforms of black and white, the predominance of the color indicating whether they worked the lunch counter or the more refined dining room. Living arrangements were in Harvey-run dormitories, two girls to a room, under the watchful eye of a housemother or chaperone. Heaven help the Harvey girl who was caught sneaking back into her room after curfew.

In truth, twelve- or fourteen-hour shifts were not uncommon, and as one trainload of passengers disappeared down the tracks, there was plenty to do in preparation for the next load. As one Harvey girl reminisced, “We didn’t have time to do all the bad things people claimed we were doing!”

But in a West where the male-to-female ratio was still heavily tilted toward the former, Harvey girls frequently were accorded celebrity status. Many a cowboy, railroader, or traveling salesman professed his love for his waitress somewhere between his first cup of coffee and dessert. Some Harvey girls rose in the ranks and worked for the company for decades. Others served their initial six- or nine-month contract and accepted one of these proposals.

Sometimes it seemed as if Fred Harvey was in the matrimony business as much as food service. Many Harvey girls married locals and became a part of growing communities from Hutchison to Santa Fe to Barstow. By one account, “they used to say that the Harvey employment agent guaranteed the girls a fireman on a six-months’ contract, or an engineer on a one-year contract.”8

Two other Harvey institutions bear notice. The first was the coat rule. Fred Harvey carried his penchant for civility and proper form to a dress code for his patrons. All were welcome at the lunch counter no matter their attire, but in the dining room, gentlemen were required to wear a jacket at all times. Sensitive to his frontier customers, however, Harvey graciously provided an ample selection of dark alpaca coats that one could borrow and don for the occasion. Few, if any, gentlemen objected, and that little touch of class elevated the Harvey dining experience all the more. It became part of why it was so often said that Fred Harvey civilized the West.

Another Harvey institution was the cup code. As customers were seated, a waitress would ensure that the first course of fruit or salad was on the table or served immediately and then would take drink orders, arranging the patron’s cup so that the drink server would know immediately what to pour. There were variations over the years, but “a cup turned upside down meant hot tea; a cup right side up in the saucer meant coffee; upside down and tilted against the saucer, iced tea; upside down and away from the saucer, milk.” The cup code was another example of Fred Harvey’s ever-efficient system.9

The Fred Harvey–Santa Fe partnership was so successful that the railroad did not begin dining car operations on its trains until the completion of its Kansas City-to-Chicago leg in 1888. Even then, there were no dining cars west of Kansas City until the California Limited began service in 1892. And, of course, Fred Harvey operated those dining cars, and “Meals by Fred Harvey” became an important part of the Santa Fe’s advertising slogans.

By the time that the Santa Fe completed its full reach from Chicago to Los Angeles, the Harvey system of restaurants had evolved to include a growing number of adjacent lodging facilities. These were a far cry from the rudimentary beds Harvey first installed at Florence, Kansas, in 1878. Harvey Houses opened in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1882; Newton and Hutchison, Kansas, La Junta, Colorado, and Lamy and Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1883; and Winslow and Williams, Arizona, and Needles and Barstow, California, in 1887. In later years, many of these facilities would be replaced by grander destination structures, such as Albuquerque’s Alvarado, Barstow’s Casa del Desierto, and Winslow’s La Posada.

No matter what the competition, Fred Harvey gave the Santa Fe a leg up by serving scrumptious, reliable meals at reasonable prices and, along the way, creating the western legend of Harvey girls. It was no wonder that the veteran observer of Americana, William Allen White of Emporia, Kansas, wryly noted that Fred Harvey “had more friends west of the Mississippi than William McKinley.”10

Fortified by Fred Harvey meals, the Santa Fe’s growing reputation for speed and efficiency was further enhanced when the railroad whisked a young reporter named Nellie Bly from San Francisco to Chicago in a breathtaking sixty-nine hours. Bly’s excursion was not the most famous high-speed run on the Santa Fe, but it was a good indication of things to come.

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Nellie Bly acquired her pseudonym when she went to work for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885 at the age of twenty-one. A no-nonsense series on working girls gained her local notoriety, but one day in the spring of 1887, Bly failed to show up for work, leaving only a cursory note: “I am off for New York. Look out for me.”

New York City was awash with newspapers, but Bly decided that she wanted to work for the New York World, a rising star that Joseph Pulitzer had recently purchased from among the business holdings of Jay Gould. Her first major series was an exposé on New York’s insane asylums, for which Bly posed as unbalanced and had herself committed. Afterward, Bly attracted ever-increasing national attention as she combined her role as a serious investigative reporter with newspaper-selling publicity stunts.

By Nellie’s account, she came up with the idea to better the round-the-world record of Jules Verne’s fiction. In the fifteen years since the publication of Around the World in Eighty Days, no one had tried to equal let alone beat the mark established by the fictitious Phineas Fogg. At first Bly’s editors brushed off the suggestion—at least as to her role in it. A single female traveling alone would, after all, require a chaperone.

When told that the World might send a man on the assignment instead, Bly’s reply was short and to the point. “Start the man,” she retorted, “and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” By then, her reputation was such that her editors had no doubt that she would do just that. The World momentarily backed off the project, but when competitors threatened to do the stunt, Bly was hastily summoned and told to be ready to depart in just four days.

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly—traveling solo but hardly as an innocent—departed the Hoboken, New Jersey, pier on board the steamer Augusta Victoria, and the clock began to tick. Seasickness proved an immediate challenge, but Nellie had plenty of time to get over it.

Bly’s route took her from New York to London, then France, Italy, Egypt, and Ceylon. The World made the most of her journey and ran a guessing game for its readers to submit predictions of the exact time down to the second that it would take her to circumnavigate the globe. Among the prizes was a trip to Europe.

Meanwhile, Bly fretted about her delayed departure from Ceylon and eventually reached Singapore and Hong Kong. On January 7, 1890, fifty-five days into her journey, she sailed eastward from Yokohama, Japan, on board the Oceanic. When storms slowed her progress, the captain rang up for more steam, and an obliging engineer scrawled a new motto on the ship’s turbines: “For Nellie Bly, we’ll win or die. January 20, 1890.”

As the Oceanic neared the West Coast, the World dispatched a team of publicists, advertising agents, and general-purpose promoters to blanket her proposed route across the United States and sing the praises of Nellie Bly and the New York World. “On the line out to this point,” reported one contingent from a snowy Ogden, Utah, “the name of The World’s globe-girdler is as familiar as President Harrison’s and more familiar than the names of many of his Cabinet.”

By now, Nellie had more competition than the clock. John Brisben Walker’s Cosmopolitan magazine had put a rival in the field and sent its star reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, westward at the same time as Nellie sailed east. Nellie was blissfully ignorant of this competition for most of her journey, but now it seemed as if the race to New York from opposite ends of the globe would be quite close.

Nellie’s arrival in San Francisco with Miss Bisland’s exact whereabouts unknown argued for a quick transcontinental run due east on the Central Pacific and then across the plains on the Union Pacific. But snow in Ogden was just part of the problem. Record snowfalls in the Sierras had recently dumped foot upon foot of new snow and stalled trains for more than fifty hours. After covering 21,000 miles in sixty-eight days, it appeared that Nellie Bly’s final 3,000 miles across the good old USA might jeopardize her record pace.

With proponents of the southern transcontinental routes no doubt chortling over their morning coffee, the World avoided the Central Pacific–Union Pacific route. Instead Nellie Bly boarded a special train that was soon speeding south on Southern Pacific tracks bound for Mojave and the western terminus of the Santa Fe’s Atlantic and Pacific leg. For once, the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe appeared to cooperate fully. (The last thing Collis P. Huntington wanted at this point was a hail of criticism that somehow America’s favorite traveler was stuck in a snowdrift or rerouted to Deming.)

From Mojave, the Bly special sped eastward through the California desert, across the Colorado River at Needles, and past Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks. If one report is true, Bly’s train roared across a bridge that was under repair near Gallup without slowing. The startled workmen heard the train coming, but at fifty miles an hour, there was no time to flag it down.

Between Albuquerque and Kansas City, even though it was forced to climb Raton Pass, Nellie’s train established a speed record of forty-six miles an hour for the 918 miles. Almost two thousand people waited to see her as she passed through Topeka. Next came the perfect test for the speedway that A. A. Robinson had recently built between Kansas City and Chicago.

Reaching Dearborn Station, Bly was feted by the Chicago Press Club at an early morning reception before she made the transfer to the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad for the run into New York. The following afternoon, Saturday, January 25, 1890, Nellie Bly stepped off the train in Jersey City, having circled the globe in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds, at an average speed of 22.47 miles per hour.11

Nellie Bly’s fame was secure, but she would never again be quite the celebrity that she was during the last few days of her cross-country sprint. As for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, its role in Nellie’s blitz was just a small indication of things to come. Whatever else can be said of Nellie Bly’s adventure, this much was certain: The world was getting smaller, and the Santa Fe’s developing southern transcontinental speedway had a hand in it.

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