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.
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 http://www.oerm.org/harvey-girl-historical-society, and the City of Florence, Kansas website. My favorite site is “A Harvey House Home Page” at http://www.harveyhouses.net/. 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: bjscotthistoricals.wordpress.com, which contains excerpts from all five books.
It is available in paperback and ebook at createspace.com/5028104, and amazon.com, including ebook for kindle.
Paperback copies are also available from the author: write email@example.com
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.