The Girls Who Civilized the Old West

0-3 B J (Bill) Scott is a novelist who sets his stories in the mid to late 19th century of the American West. He is the author of five books: The Angel Trilogy, Light On A Distant Hill, and the newly-released The Rail Queen. His fourth novel, Light On A Distant Hill: A Novel of the Indian West, won the 2011 WILLA Literary Award, sponsored by Women Writing the West, for Best Original Softcover Fiction. All his books feature stories built around strong, ambitious women: determined, relentless, sometimes hot-tempered, and fearless. Locales range from the California Gold Rush to San Francisco, Hong Kong, Idaho, Montana, and Kansas.
Bill holds Bachelor’s degrees from Washington State University and Brooks Institute of Photography. He is a former professional photographer, civil servant, and college instructor of public speaking. He lives in Oregon with his wife and youngest son.

The Rail Queen, the fifth book of my “Tales of Strong Women” series, begins in 1884 Missoula Montana, where 17-year old Ryka Sundstrom nurtures a passion for steam locomotives, and secretly dreams of having her own railroad someday. Discouraged at every turn and violently opposed by her traditionalist Old World Swedish father, Ryka is driven from her home into the Midwest, where she fights for her vision against enormous odds. Although this novel is not about Harvey Girls or Harvey House Restaurants, my heroine does spend some time in that environment as she struggles to survive to pursue her dream. I thought it might be worthwhile to take a brief look at one of the most famous institutions of the late 1800s in the American Midwest.

First, one must understand what prompted Fred Harvey to begin his venture. Meal stops on Midwestern trains in the 19th century were the stuff of nightmares. When a train pulled into a depot, there was a mad scramble for the counter of the depot diner, as time and space was extremely limited. No matter whether it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the fare was unfailingly the same: fried steak, eggs, and fried potatoes. Some passengers fortified themselves beforehand with a dose of bourbon or whatever whiskey was available, in hope of being able to better stomach the fare. It didn’t always work, as it was not unusual to see passengers vomit their meal along the tracks before re-boarding. Even so, space at the counter was so prized that fistfights sometimes broke out. The all-aboard whistle sounded so quickly that many did not finish their meal. What was left on the plate was sometimes saved and served again to the next train’s passengers.
Out of this chaos were born the Harvey House restaurants. Turned down by the Burlington Railroad Company, Fred Harvey turned to the Santa Fe, which accepted his proposal to provide service equal to the finest hotel dining Harvey had experienced in New York. Harvey House Restaurants were the wonder of their time, serving top-notch fare on fine linen on a table set with crystal and fine china. No gentlemen were seated without jackets, which were provided if necessary. The first Harvey House opened in Topeka, Kansas in 1876.

The Topeka Depot of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe circa 1880. The Harvey House Restaurant was on the second floor. Photo courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

The Topeka Depot of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe circa 1880. The Harvey House Restaurant was on the second floor. Photo courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

One of the mysteries to diners was that after they were seated and drink requests were taken, a second Harvey Girl soon arrived and without a word promptly placed the proper drinks in front of each customer. How could she know? What the diners hadn’t noticed was that the waitress who seated them and took their drink orders had coded the table: a cup right side up in the saucer meant coffee; upside down, hot tea; upside down and tilted against the saucer, iced tea; upside down and off the saucer, milk.
In the early 1880s there were seventeen Harvey House restaurants along Santa Fe’s main line. To staff them, Harvey advertised far and wide for young women of good character and morals. Here is his actual newspaper recruiting advertisement.
“Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe Railroad in the West. Wages $17.50 per month with room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. Write Fred Harvey, Union Depot, Kansas City Missouri.”
For girls of the day, it was a superb opportunity, offering good wages and benefits in contracts of twelve, nine, or six months. Girls selected at sites such as New York received free first-class rail transportation to their training facility. And throughout their employment, they received free rail transportation on all Santa Fe lines.

Training was rigorous, and appearance standards were high. All Harvey Girls wore black and white outfits consisting of a black ankle-length dress and a white apron over a black blouse. There were slight variations to this scheme at different locations. Shoes were also provided.
The girls lived in dormitories that were off-limits to the public, overseen by a strict housemother. They were allowed out to dances and such, but had to be back in the house before curfew (ten o’clock on weekdays; twelve o’clock on weekends). Woe unto those who were not. Men were not allowed in dormitories, but there was a small courting room off the front parlor where gentlemen callers could converse with the girls for a limited period.
On the job, standards and expectations were high. There was a detailed routine regarding table setting, and it had to be perfect. All Harvey Girls lived with the daunting possibility of a surprise visit from Harvey himself. Though he took care of his girls generously, he was known to become angry when he discovered flaws. On one occasion he found a table set incorrectly, and abruptly grasped the tablecloth and pulled the entire setting to the floor.
The fare was superb, and portions were generous. Steaks were cut thick; pies were cut into quarters rather than eighths. Seconds were encouraged. Periodically a waiter would emerge from the kitchen with a tray piled high with steaming cuts of steak. Waitresses would take meat from the tray directly to their waiting customers. Orange juice was to be freshly squeezed for each customer, and pity the manager whom Harvey discovered with a pitcher of juice in the cooler. No item was to be taken to the table unless it was delivered on a tray. Girls were not to engage the customers in conversation beyond that required to serve them. A detailed description of Harvey Girl training and work practices is contained in The Rail Queen. Despite these strict standards, Harvey Houses were generous to the needy, and refused no one a meal.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 Harvey Girls worked for Harvey House restaurants. And there was the added bonus of exposure to potential husbands. The job provided the girls with pride and independence; any man who was attracted to them soon found they were a different breed than the saloon girls he might be familiar with. Will Rogers once said Harvey and his young servers “kept the West in food and wives”. A railroad baron of the day stated, “The Harvey House was not only a good place to eat; it was the Cupid of the rails.” Though Harvey Girls were severely discouraged from marrying during their contracts, it is thought that over 20,000 Harvey Girls married one of their regular customers.
When Fred Harvey died in 1901, there were 45 restaurants and 20 dining cars in twelve states. His sons continued the business, and Harvey House restaurants continued to be built into the 1930s. At its peak, there were 84 facilities. But over the opening decades of the twentieth century, Harvey Houses faded away. A decline in railroad traffic and the development of automobile and air transportation had much to do with it. Tragically, most of the Harvey House restaurants were torn down along with the rail depots that housed them. The last Harvey House constructed was built next to Los Angeles’ Union Station in 1939. It closed as a restaurant in 1967. Thankfully, it is perfectly preserved and sometimes available for tours through the L. A. Conservancy.
For those interested in further information on Harvey Girls and Harvey House restaurants, I recommend looking online at the Kansas Historical Society, the Oklahoma Historical Society; at, and the City of Florence, Kansas website. My favorite site is “A Harvey House Home Page” at This contains photographs and information on the fate of virtually all of the Houses.


Bill has kindly offered to give one copy of The Rail Queen to the person who leaves the most interesting comment.  The winner is Alice Trego.  Thanks to everyone who stopped by.

The Rail Queen is available in paperback at the author’s website:, which contains excerpts from all five books.
It is available in paperback and ebook at, and, including ebook for kindle.
Paperback copies are also available from the author: write

lokomotive 4It was a time of vanishing cultures and rising empires. A time when there was much that needed to be done—much that could be done. And in the end it didn’t matter who did it.

Seventeen-year old schoolgirl Ryka Sundstrom dreams of doing what no girl ever has—build a railroad. Fleeing her home and an arranged marriage, pursued across four states by a vengeful father bound by tradition, Ryka unites with a childhood sweetheart in Kansas, only to suffer his later betrayal. Surrounded by people who tell her girls don’t build railroads, Ryka refuses to give up. When near defeat In the face of overwhelming odds, she offers herself to a potential backer. Will her new partner in business be her partner in love as well, or will he too turn against her? The truth will be told when ambition and boldness lead Ryka to a showdown with the feared Empire Builder of the Great Northern Railway—James J. Hill.

A Brief Reflection on the Holidays

christmas-clip-artRecently, I’ve had a few health issues, which are making me sit down and take stock and think about things to be thankful for—and there really is plenty at this time of year. I love the tree lighting, the scent of pine as I walk city streets past tree sellers, the buoyant mood of people rushing against chill air to join loved ones. I love the food, the games, the being together and the age-old decorations. I’m happy to see Santas on street corners collecting for charity and uniformed Salvation Army members ringing their bells. Displays in shop windows are a fascination, and the extra street lighting makes everything look so much more cheerful.

The holiday season now also unfortunately entails non-stop shopping, continuous ads on television for every sale going and blatant commercialism. Maybe it’s human nature to want the bargains, to hunt the deals, and Life has become so inundated with things, with stuff, any way to get it all at the best price is welcome. So many times I’ve been asked why I write western historical stories and what the appeal is. To me—and I know this is very personal—there is something far more appealing about that life. Their Christmas would have had simple decorations, homemade gifts, a joy in just being together rather than the mad rush to buy, buy, buy. SURELY it was more fun to pop corn and string it up with sour apples than to go out and buy colored balls, tinsel and various other little ornaments to hang on the tree—made in China? Surely, the hand-knit sweater meant more to the receiver than the latest iPad or phone?

Maybe not. Humanity hasn’t really changed; these items were simply not available so folks were happy with what they got. But happiness is still, pretty much, based on the same agenda. We’re happy to have our health, our home, our family and friends who support us. IMG_0804We still gasp at a breath-taking dawn and the beauty of a sunset behind majestic hills. We’re in awe at the variety of wildlife in a setting that stuns us into silence, while the laughter of loved ones and children and those close to us still tugs at our hearts.

At least that’s what I’m thankful for. What are you thankful for and what are you looking forward to in the New Year? Please let me know… I have 3 simple gifts to give away, and a cartload of good cheer.DSCN1497


There are 2 digital copies of my books to give away and 1 surprise gift.  The winners are Irene Bennett Brown, Mary M. and Vicki Batman.  Thanks to everyone who responded!


Mormon Row: Historic Site or Ghost Town?

What is the difference between a ghost town and a vacated  historic site? Is there one?

Recently, back up in the Tetons, I ventured with a couple of friends to visit

Map of Mormon Row drawn by Craig Moulton, courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Map of Mormon Row drawn by Craig Moulton, courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Mormon Row, a four mile stretch of homesteads and ranch houses just southeast of Black Tail Butte in the valley of Jackson Hole. Here were solid, but decaying, remnants of a community that once thrived, was vibrant with life, if not exactly prosperous by today’s way of understanding. The National Park leaves its historic buildings to decay naturally, which I daresay means that, with time, they’ll be gone. But for now, the buildings stand as a monument to what people do to secure a better life, to survive, perhaps also a monument to what really matters in life. Continue reading

The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly of Deadlines: Pt. 2

Sydney St. Clair continues:

Today, I’ll finish talking about deadlines, those necessary evil’s of life. Let’s look at:

Types of Deadlines Writers Face

Completed Manuscripts This is the most common and the most important. None of the other deadlines can happen until you meet this one, and no one else will be able to meet their deadlines unless you meet yours. If you are not published yet, you will never be published unless you finish that manuscript or two or three. As said earlier, being productive and making progress is the key to making writing a career. Continue reading

The Good, The Bad, & the Ugly of Deadlines

For the next couple of weeks, I have fellow author from The Wild Rose Press, susan picSydney St. Clair visiting and talking about that dreaded part of author’s lives:  deadlines!

Sydney St. Claire is the pseudonym of Susan Edwards, author of 14 Historical Native American/Western/Paranormal romances and the author of the popular “White” Series. Continue reading

Cunning Inspiration: Dearest Darling and The Cunningham Cabin

20131018_155648Nothing takes my breath away quite so much as the landscape of northwestern Wyoming. If I say it leaves me speechless, you will understand how very difficult it is for me to relate the love affair I have with this small section of our vast country, how I feel no dictionary is complete enough to supply words to describe this patch of land where the earth has struggled like an indecisive artist to create high plains that stretch themselves into the harsh, jagged peaks of the Tetons. One can only feel reverence, one can only feel a minute speck in the vast panorama; it makes you realize how tiny and inconsequential you are in the scheme of things. So now, imagine how envious I am of those who are lucky enough to live there year-round compared to my two, comparatively brief stays each year. Then you can realize both the awe in which I hold those who homesteaded this unforgiving country and the jealousy I feel that they were able to live here. This is a land that gives you a sense of history, a sense of destiny. It is a geography of hope, forged by nature and hard won by man.

One of the men who would put his mark on this country was J. Pierce Cunningham. A fellow New Yorker, he arrived in the Jackson Hole area of the Tetons around 1885, aged about twenty. A few years later, he and his wife staked DSCN1349a claim under the Homestead Act, and thereby laid the foundations for what would become the Bar Flying U Ranch. The cabin they built, which under the Act had to be at least 12 x 12, was what is commonly known as a dogtrot or double-pen cabin, encompassing two separate rooms with a dogtrot or breezeway in-between. Although a more substantial home was eventually built, along with sheds, barns and other outbuildings, it is the original cabin that still stands today.

When I first visited Cunningham’s cabin I was immediately struck by the isolation of this remote location, how lonely it must have been in the 1880s. Although more than four hundred claims were filed in Jackson Hole in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the vastness of the valley meant there could be little interaction, especially during the harsh winter months. And this was a hardscrabble life; rocky soil led to high operating costs as ranchers struggled to feed their cattle during the long winter. The horrendous winter of 1886/87, as I described in my book Loveland, put an end to much of the open range ranching.DSCN1348

One might think, why do it then? I can only answer for myself as to what I feel when I stand there, surrounded by a landscape so startling, so inspiring, you feel purified, whole, inconsequential and ephemeral. Not having been born there, I cannot fathom my own attachment to this place, why I feel the oft-repeated need to return there, but it somehow cleanses me, clears my head. It was obvious that I somehow had to employ this site as the backdrop for a book. You might think it a poor reckoning, to use a setting so magnificent in my modest western historical romance.   After all, I could not possibly do it justice.

The view from Cunningham's cabin

The view from Cunningham’s cabin

But I have tried…

Dearest Darling comes out Oct. 8th from The Wild Rose Press.  To celebrate, I’ll be giving out copies of both this new novella and my full-length novel, Loveland, to up to 5 people who leave a comment.  The winners are Liz Flaherty, Eunice Boeve, Roni McFadden, Susan J. Tweit, and Rolynn Anderson.  Congrats to all and I hope you enjoy the books.

DearestDarling_w8647_750Stuck in a life of servitude to her penny-pinching brother, Emily Darling longs for a more exciting existence. When a packet with travel tickets, meant for one Ethel Darton, accidentally lands on her doormat, Emily sees a chance for escape. Having turned down the dreary suitors that have come her way, is it possible a new existence also offers a different kind of man?

Daniel Saunders has carved out a life for himself in Wyoming—a life missing one thing: a wife. Having scrimped and saved to bring his mail-order bride from New York, he is outraged to find in her stead a runaway fraud. Even worse, the impostor is the sister of his old enemy.

But people are not always as they seem, and sometimes the heart knows more than the head.


Emily liked the sound of his voice, low but not husky, a slight twang he had cultivated, but not pretentiously so. When he spoke, she envisaged melting caramel, something delicious, the way it could be so appealing as she stirred, with a shine and slow drip from the spoon, before it gradually solidified. Soothing. A liquid velvet.

But he hadn’t spoken today. Not since first thing when he’d told her to get ready. Not through breakfast, or as he helped clear dishes, or gave her a hand up into the wagon.

“You haven’t seen her. You didn’t see her picture, did you?” The questions came sudden, yet without malice.

Emily straightened, alert. “No. No, I didn’t.” Would I understand better? Is that what he meant?

“I keep it with me.” Daniel began to fish in his pocket. “Would you like to see it?”

“No. No, you keep it, please. It won’t change anything.” Emily panicked. She would be beautiful, the other, that would be the answer. So stunningly beautiful that just her photograph had enthralled him, mesmerized him into loving her. Emily couldn’t bear to look, didn’t want to know the answer. Didn’t wish to torture herself further. “And I’m sorry. I’m sorry for reading the letters.” A rush of words, they flowed out of her. “I should never have done that. It’s not like me. But you…well, you understand it seems—”

“You’re probably wondering what I see in her. Or what she sees in me. As for that, what she sees in me, I have no idea. Maybe, like you, she wishes to get away.”

Emily studied his profile, the planes and contours of his face, the eyes set straight ahead, the slouch hat low on his brow. He gave nothing away, was a man in control of his emotions, thinking, maybe still wondering how he had won that woman. Or maybe set on keeping the answer to himself.

Overhead, clouds scudded, scoured the sky, leached the blue, threatened.

“Did you ever ask her? Why you?”

“I did. She never answered. I’m thinking what she sees in me is husband material. I guess. She tells me about her day, the people she knows, what she does. As you read.”

“She just seems so…so outgoing, so…so very social to ever want this life. I found it difficult to believe.” She jutted her chin out, then turned to him, waiting.

He gave the reins a sharp shake. “I don’t know. I never asked if she knew what she was getting into. I described it. I assumed if she wanted to stop the correspondence there, she would have. I was pretty damn amazed and happy she’d wanted to come, written back even though I described the cabin to her, the isolation.” His gaze slid toward her.

“And you think she’ll make you a perfect wife, do you? Be happy living here? Cook your meals, mend your clothes, keep your cabin, have your babies?” Exasperated, she tried to make him think, think of what he was letting himself in for, how long a marriage like that could go on, how it could end up being even lonelier than he was now. Emily would seem to him to be trying to win him over rather than making him see the truth, but push him she must, save him, stop him. She knew those sorts of women, the debutantes, the socialites. Not a one would last out here, not for a single day.

His head snapped around to stare at her. “She’s been writing. She hasn’t stopped.”20131018_155503

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Riches to Rags: The Men Who Found Gold

1849 poster ad for ship to California Gold Rush

1849 poster ad for ship to California Gold Rush

Anyone who has ever studied history of the United States will associate the words, ‘Sutter’s Mill,’   in connection with the California Gold Rush of 1849.   They may know John Sutter as owner of that mill, and they may even know that it was James W. Marshall, Sutter’s foreman at the mill, who made the actual discovery of gold. After that, most history books go off into the gold rush itself, and its effect on the expansion of the United States, and the development of California in particular. Sutter and Marshall, now as then, get pushed aside.   Continue reading

Before They’re Gone–The Work of George Catlin

George-Catlin-frontispiece-200There are many artists known for their paintings of the West, but the one whose work enthralls me the most is George Catlin.  Working somewhat in the ‘naive’  style, Catlin’s life work was to capture the American Indian before they vanished, and this he did:  his subjects came from over fifty nations.

Born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, later moving to upstate New York, Catlin’s fascination with American Indians started at an early age. His mother had regaled him with her tales of being a captive of the Iroquois during the Revolutionary War, and his cheek bore a scar from a ‘tomahawk’ thrown in a childhood game.

Ojibwa woman, ca. 1832

Ojibwa woman, ca. 1832

An encounter in 1805 with an Oneida may also have influenced him.   Although he initially studied law, Catlin was accepted by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and started his career as a portraitist. Successful enough to be commissioned by clients such as Sam Houston and Dolly Madison, Catlin spent time in Philadelphia’s museums painting tribal costumes, weapons and ornaments brought back by Lewis and Clark. When a delegation of Native Americans came to Philadelphia in full regalia, his ambition took root. Continue reading


Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

It’s a source of some amusement to me that John Howard Payne, lyricist of the immortal ‘Home Sweet Home’ (“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home…”) spent his youth in East Hampton. In fact, the small colonial residence of his grandfather, where he lived, is now a museum, sitting on Main St. amongst a line of colonial and Victorian properties. But East Hampton is hardly known for its history. Programs such as ‘Royal Pains’ and ‘Revenge’ as well as a plethora of films, including ‘Something’s Gotta Give,’ continue to perpetuate the image of ‘The Hamptons’ as the enclave of the rich and famous. That’s hardly true of the entire population! And it certainly wasn’t always true… Continue reading

A Question of Bounty

Back in October 2012, Paul Colt visited this blog with a post about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  Paul’s latest book, A Question of Bounty:  The Shadow of Doubt is published this month by Five Star.  Here he takes a second look at the death of Billy the Kid.


Paul Colt

Paul Colt

Two years ago Andi gave me the opportunity to share one of my favorite historical controversies. Pat Garrett claims he killed Billy the Kid, July 14, 1881. John Poe, Garrett’s deputy on the scene that night—and others—question Garrett’s claim. They suggest he killed the wrong man and covered it up. Continue reading