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 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.

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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 scotts2294@att.net

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.

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42 responses to “The Girls Who Civilized the Old West

  1. Fascinating – about the eateries along the Santa Fe line! One of the possible story lines I am considering in the next few years is a tale of a proper (but impoverished) young lady from Boston coming out West and discovering that her grandfather was a bigamist with a whole ‘nother family. I was considering making her a schoolteacher, but that’s kind of boringly conventional – being a Harvey girl would be much more daring, and likely better paid…

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    • Sounds like a great idea to me Celia. Go for it and good luck with the book

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      • That will likely be about three books out from now … but it was one of the possible plot developments I set the foundation for in Daughter of Texas. I was coming down the home stretch of the book, and dreading writing the death of the heroine’s husband from TB. Blinding flash of inspiration – have him escaping a loveless first marriage, returning to Boston to procure a divorce and voila! Dying offstage, as it were.

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    • Thanks for your comment regarding my guest post. Glad it has given you some ideas for plot.

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  2. Bill, I read the Harvey Girls series several years ago. They all were very good. I love historical history and was really taken with all the eateries and what the girls went through. I was so excited to know that it was continuing to this day…. the Harvey houses. Thanks for giving us the insight to them. I was a bit sad to realize they no longer exsist.

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    • Carol, I found, like you what the girl went through of particular interest. It certainly was a bit more than waitresses today. Thanks for stopping by.

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    • Dear Carol,
      Thanks for your message. Most people today don’t know about the Harvey Girls, but it would sure make a good subject for a movie. Something better than that Judy Garland version many years ago, which I’ve heard was horrible.

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Carol,
      Didn’t know there was a Harvey Girls series. I think Fred Harvey’s system would still endow a transformative experience on young women today. Too bad indeed that they’re gone, but society changed and their time was over.

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  3. What a great post, Bill and Andi! I loved reading the background about the Harvey Girls — I learn something new about the subject each time! — and as I read, I wondered what your story, The Rail Queen, was all about. Where would Ryka fit into all of this? How would a young girl manage to have her own railroad? You have definitely given your heroine an insurmountable task, Bill! I’ll have to put the book on my TBR list to find the answers to my questions…

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    • I guess we’ll have to read the book, Alice, to find out those answers!

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Dear Alice,
      Thanks for the wonderful message. I’m particularly pleased that what seems an insurmountable task for a teenage girl is achieved in the book in logical, believable fashion. Not that she doesn’t face failure and setbacks at every turn! So pleased you’ve put it on your list. Thanks for reading.

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  4. My husband and I just got back to Lincoln, Nebraska after an exhausting two-day road trip from Montana on snow packed highways. Late at night, we stopped at a MacDonalds in Buffalo, Wyoming. I ordered a hot chocolate. I’m not sure what I got (perhaps a mocha coffee drink?) but it was not hot chocolate. My husband’s latte was awful, but kept him awake to push on to the motel in Wheatland. After reading this post I wonder, how did travel in the U.S. go so wrong when it was once so right?

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    • I wonder if the answer is that we all want to get places quicker, have things–including food–faster and generally live in the so-called New York minute. Having said that, from what Bill describes, the railroad lunches weren’t exactly a two hour meal. Thanks for your comment.

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Thank you for reading. One of the reasons the U.S. doesn’t have the fine public transportation system of European countries is the sheer size of the country. In Europe you cross an entire country in one day; here it takes several. That discouraged the building of public transit; there seemed an infinite space to put sprawling freeways. Another clue is found, oddly enough, in the film, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Los Angeles once had a fine public light rail system called The Red Car line. As depicted in the film, it was bought out and suppressed by corporate interests determined to build freeways in its place.

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      • Yes, we had street cars all over, even going outside Los Angeles County. I think it was the 1950s when they were scrapped for the reason Bill says. We who know about the old Red Cars are still disgusted about the dismantling, even those of us too young to remember. Sitting on the freeways and fuming, and paying for new light rail lines.

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  5. I’m thinking who in the heck would want to start a railroad? But then I’m machinery challenged, so my brain won’t wrap around that. 🙂 What I’ll read the story for will be for the emotions, the interactions between Ryka and her father, her love interest, etc. I have read quite a bit about the Harvey Girls as they began, as you stated, in Topeka, and although Missoula, Montana, where Ryka started from, is only a 150 miles from my birthplace and once my home, I’ve been in Kansas so long it is more my home, now, than Montana, and it does have a rich history. And oh, yes, I do love history.

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    • I’m sure Bill will be pleased to know that you’ll read the book for whatever reason that impels you, Eunie. 😉 As for me, I can’t wait to get to KS and drink in all that history next summer.

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Thank you so much for stopping by, Eunice. Railroads were a gigantic advance over horses and covered wagons. What had taken four months to do in traveling from St. Louis to California could suddenly be done in four days. It was an astounding thought at the time. Steam locomotives required a great deal of heavy maintenance, and were terribly inefficient compared to the diesels that took their place. But modern machinery will never replace the romance of the steam engine, for their sheer earth-shaking, heavy-breathing presence. There’s nothing like them today. I believe the book has a good mixture of the physical presence of steam locomotives and the people who ran them—including, strangely enough, a teenage girl who simply will not be denied.

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  6. The Harvey girls story is one of endless possibilities. Glad to have more people reading and learning of this wonderful institution, if you could call it that. They truly did have something to offer the Western Traveler. Thanks for letting everyone know. Doris

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    • Doris, my first knowledge of the Harvey Girls was through the Judy Garland film on TV (I hasten to add that –not quite old enough to have seen it in the theatre!) It’s always had a fascination for me and it was a pleasure to have Bill write this brief history.

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Dear Doris,
      Thank you for reading my post. The Harvey Girls were amazing, and most people today know so little about them. Time for a Ken Burns documentary!

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  7. Thanks for this interesting post about the Harvey Girls. I did not know there is a Harvey House near me, open for tours! Brigid, I have eaten good food in Buffalo, Wyoming. The problem is you ate at McDonald’s. Harvey had the right idea. Good luck with the Rail Queen, Bill. Sounds great.

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Dear Pamela,
      So glad you stopped by. As depicted in the book, the Harvey Houses were merely a means to an end for my heroine, Ryka. When I began to research them, the enterprise was so fascinating that I had a hard time stopping. The topic adds a richness, I believe, to the book, that seems to have sparked widespread interest. Thank you for your good wishes.

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  8. Bill, for a novel that is not “about the Harvey Girls or the Harvey Restaurants” you have certainly told a fine tale about them. I was reminded of my first waitress job at a truck stop in Cholame, CA. I was alone on a Sunday morning when an army convoy stopped outside and about sixty young, famished soldiers crowded in. They ordered steaks, burgers, drinks. I raced to keep up and managed to get some of them served (but not their money collected), when the signal sounded and they all raced for their trucks. I was left with total chaos, unpaid meals, food on the grill and a very angry cook. My boss arrived and let me know I was lucky to still have a job. But I never figured out what I did wrong. Love your writing and I’m looking forward to reading The Rail Queen.

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Dear Anne,
      Yes, the whole Harvey House thing was so rich with lore that I certainly could have done a whole book about it. Those were amazing women, and the jobs they had were the best thing going for young women in the west. The pay and benefits were good, and they were well-cared for. As I have noted, men of the era soon found out the Harvey Girls were a big cut above the saloon girls they were used to romancing. They learned in a hurry they’d better act like gentlemen around them, as their status as Harvey Girls had given them self-confidence, independence, and a sense of power. It was truly a transformative experience.

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  9. Bill, I was introduced to the Harvey Girls last year by WWW author Sheila Wood Foard. I had never heard of them. So I’m super excited to see your book as well and it is on my to read soon list. Congratulations on a wonderful post! Carmen

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Dear Carmen,
      Thank you for your kind reply. I wish you good reading. Yes, the Harvey Girl phenomenon deserves to be better known by today’s audiences. It was a life-changing experience for young women who otherwise might have settled for subservient roles. Fred Harvey gave his girls independence, self-confidence, and a strong “don’t mess with me” spirit. It’s something that still has value today. I’ll have to see if I can get together with Sheila Foard at this year’s WWW conference.

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    • Thanks for visiting once again, Carmen!

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  10. Loved this post! I confess I’d never heard of the Harvey Girls but will definitely be doing some reading up on the subject. Plot bunnies are hopping around already! Thanks for sharing, Bill!

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    • Hi Sharon, Glad to know Bill was able to give you some inspiration and sure he’ll be happy to know that, too.

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    • Sharon,
      Thanks for reading. So glad to know this post is sparking considerable interest in a largely-forgotten phenomenon of the Old West. There is a lot more about the Harvey Girls I didn’t put into the book. They were a fascinating bunch of ladies. Hope those who like this post will explore the subject further. Maybe it’s time for a new Harvey Girls novel!

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    • lightonadistanthill

      Sharon,
      Thanks for reading. I’m glad to know this post is sparking considerable interest in a largely-forgotten phenomenon. There is a lot more to learn about the Harvey Girls that I didn’t put in the book. They were a fascinating bunch of ladies. Maybe it’s time for a new Harvey Girls novel!

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  11. Great post! My first introduction to the Harvey Girls was the musical with Judy Garland. The history behind that is fascinating – innovation and options for women at a time when they were limited. Very interesting post.

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    • I remember the film as well, Abigail–not exactly history but certainly interesting to have the Harvey Girls used in that manner. Glad you enjoyed Bill’s post.

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    • Dear Abigail,
      Thank you for stopping by. The Harvey Girls were indeed ahead of their time, learning independence and self-reliance in an age when that generally wasn’t available for women.

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  12. I loved this post. What a fascinating glimpse into the lives of women in the old west.

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    • Dear Marlow,
      Thank you for your kind comments. Fred Harvey’s vision provided spark and confidence to the lives of thousands of young women in the Old West. Kind of wish I’d been there to take a meal at a Harvey House. From what I’ve learned, the service and the food would have been top-notch. They practiced what we don’t see much anymore in today’s restaurants.

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  13. Two of my favorite topics: trains and the American West! Okay, maybe my three favorite topics (women) or four (eating).

    There is much more needing to be done to capture the role of women in the American West as much of the telling of their stories have been to pigeon hole them into “teachers (sometimes also missionaries) and bar girls. Yet, there are numerous books by women who went west for other reasons. Two examples which I can recall without look is Matthew’s “Ten Years in Nevada” and a collection of women’s journals on the trail to California. Also, the New Western Historians have, at the forefront, women scholars.

    Thanks for this review and I am glad to know of a man writing fiction about a woman in the West–I have played around with an idea of telling a story on the Comstock Lode around the experiences of a woman.

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    • Sage, thanks so much for visiting here. I’m going to look up the Matthew’s book for sure. And I hope you get to write your Comstock Lode book; it definitely sounds like an interesting idea.

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  14. You might also want to check out a collection of articles titled “Comstock Women” There were two editors, one of whom was Ronald James. I tried to find my copy of that and Mathew’s book and didn’t see it (but not all the books have been unpacked after my move in August.

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