Reinventing the West with Fred Harvey


Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive #18 racing a stage coach.




By Megan McKinney


The year was 1865. The Civil War was over, the tragedies plaguing Fred Harvey’s young adulthood had ended and it was time to get on with an amazing life.

During Fred’s first dozen years in America, he had held numerous jobs, frequently two at a time, in such fields as food service and river boats but now he was moving more and more into various areas of the burgeoning railroad industry. For a while he had even sorted mail for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad in one of the nation’s first traveling post offices.

Remarkably industrious and personable, Fred increasingly attracted the attention of railroad executives. In 1865, those at the North Missouri Rail Road offered him a position as a sales agent, a job that would require the family to move to Leavenworth, Kansas.  

Leavenworth, 50 miles downriver from their current  St. Joseph home, was a larger and more sophisticated community with greater diversity than St. Joe, partially because the presence of Fort Leavenworth.

Planters’ House, pictured directly above and upper right in the higher image, housed the city’s finest hotel and restaurant; Fred installed his ticket counter in an office on the lower level. He continued to hold multiple jobs, not only increasing the train lines for which he sold tickets but also branching out to newspaper advertising sales. He seemed always to be traveling around the Midwest—invariably by train—selling as he traveled and continually bringing in new activities. This meant it was necessary to hire employees carry on the businesses he was continuing to develop; these men remained in the Leavenworth office.

It was definitely a happier time for the Harveys; on March 7, 1866, Sally gave birth to Ford Ferguson Harvey. The name Ford, in honor of Fred’s friend Captain Rufus Ford, quickly became “Fordie” within the family. Five years later, there was a little sister, Minnie. Then, in 1873, Marie Jeanette Harvey—or May—followed. Byron Schermerhorn Harvey, named for another great friend, was born in in 1876, and finally–in 1879–the baby, Sybil, arrived. This meant a larger, more elegant house, and servants. Fred’s incessant train travel made him aware on an almost daily basis of the dearth of edible food for rail travelers. Dining cars were nonexistent and no one had put serious thought to depot food. His first exploration into remedying this was a partnership with his friend and landlord Colonel Jasper “Jepp” Rice, owner of Leavenworth’s Planters’ House. The two took over management of three trackside restaurants along the Kansas Pacific line, but it was not a happy arrangement; Harvey and Rice were on the verge of becoming former friends and Kansas Pacific was a difficult employer. The association would end, but not Fred’s growing certainty that there was a need to be filled and if he didn’t do it someone else would, and grow rich in the process.

The Topeka depot of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe  

In 1875, Fred met with Santa Fe Railway Superintendent Charles F. Morse, who shared his dismal opinion of railroad food and Morse agreed to let him take over a tiny facility on the second floor of the line’s Topeka, Kansas depot to open a lunchroom. The 20 seat space was as small and as ambitious as the little train line itself. Yet both were on the verge of realizing the dreams of those guiding them. Fred’s Topeka operation opened on January 5 of the Centennial year and was a success.

The powerful, colorfully bearded William Barstow Strong, who would later guide the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe as president through its explosive 1880’s, was gaining ascendency within the company and making elaborate plans to extend the line to the Pacific Ocean. Harvey wasted no time in meeting with him and pitching proposals to work his magic on additional AT&SF operations in Kansas. Strong agreed that Fred could operate the Santa Fe restaurant and hotel in the Kansas town of Florence, if he bought the building and everything in it—at an amount that would be half Fred’s current savings. Strong assured him the company would buy the building back later, after it paid for current construction of tracks, but for now it would be a Harvey investment. It was a gamble for Fred—a big one–but he accepted it.

Thus, Fred opened his first full scale Harvey House in Florence, Kansas, and turned it into quite a showplace, with elegant European fittings. He even recruited an English-born celebrity chef, William H. Phillips, who “currently held one of the top jobs in the hotel world, running the food service at the Palmer House in Chicago.” Harvey gave this boutique hotel–with its destination restaurant in a town of no more than 800 souls–a name as pretentious as the establishment itself. It became The Clifton Hotel.

Amazingly, he pulled it off. Soon, according to Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time,  “The Clifton” in Florence, Kansas, was regularly receiving raves in a London sporting newspaper, The Field, from its American correspondent. And other guests were fighting rail passengers for rooms and tables. In addition, Fred so carefully nurtured his relationship with the AT&SF giant of the next decade, William B. Strong, that they became partners in a ranch with a herd of 10,000 cattle bearing the XY brand.

About a third of the former Clifton Hotel continues to exist today, scrubbed up, brightly painted and repurposed as a Harvey House museum.  

This was just the beginning, and a powerful one. Travelers, as well as townsfolk throughout the American West and Midwest were not accustomed to the fine food the new Fred Harvey eating houses were now serving. Celebrity chef Bill Phillips had become such an asset that Fred gave him a contract and a level of compensation that made him the richest man in Florence, Kansas. As the Harvey restaurant chain grew so would the influence of Phillips, who continued to oversee the food throughout the company. Most notable was the Harvey coffee, a special blend roasted for Fred by Caleb Chase and James Sanborn, which was served at all of his restaurants. The freshly ground coffee, shipped directly from Chase & Sanborn in Boston, was brewed every two hours. There was none of the usual reheating of existing coffee at a Harvey establishment.

Despite Yellow Fever-related poor health, which would linger for the rest of his life, Harvey kept goingand with gusto. In addition to the Lakin Hotel in Lakin, Kansas, where Fred himself often stayed and which gave employment to an English niece and nephew, there was a fourth restaurant in La Junta, Colorado. It was at this point that Fred’s relationship with Jepp Rice, and the three properties they managed together for the Kansas Pacific line ended. One reason was a massive project the AT&SF was setting up next to natural hot springs in Las Vegas, New Mexico. 

This rendering of the New Mexico Las Vegas in 1882 (long before the Nevada version) indicates its scope. AT&SF purchased the hot springs, with its surrounding land and existing buildings, and was constructing an immense new resort/spa/sanitarium to be known as The Montezuma. Harvey was to supervise construction of the 270 room monster. When completed, his company would run it.  It was then Fred committed completely to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

In preparation for the project, the Santa Fe asked Harvey to set up a temporary restaurant in three old box cars on a nearby siding. When guests entered the intentionally seedy looking cars they were stunned by interior walls of brilliant Native American colors and crisp white linens. It was a short-term situation but, like everything Fred did, it was both striking and pleasing.

The completed Montezuma was magnificent and it opened with great pomp in April 1882, but the Santa Fe had over-hyped the curative value of the hot springs; Fred and those at the AT&SF realized too late that the sanitarium aspect of the grand resort overwhelmed any hope of a luxury spa image and it was generally perceived as a place inhabited by invalids.

The Montezuma was the nation’s largest wood structure, as well as New Mexico’s first with electric lighting, a combination that may have led to a disastrous fire in January 1884; however, the scant number of guests, 62, were safely evacuated. The Montezuma was rebuilt, to a design by the great Chicago architectural team, John Wellborn Root and Daniel Hudson Burnham; however, it burned again. There was a third—and charmed—version that stands today.  Fred Harvey had been so exhausted first time around that he was to have no more to do with further incarnations of the fabled, yet ill-fated, Montezuma.

For Fred, it was time to take his brand to the historic heights of which we know today.


Classic Chicago readers who are enjoying our Fred Harvey series will be interested in the 2020 Fred Harvey History Weekend. Here is the link to  learn about the annual November event–virtual this year–which is hosted by Fred Harvey authority Stephen Fried.


Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago Dynasties’ story of Fred Harvey will continue next with the The Harvey Girls.

Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F.Carl