The Harvey Girls

             Branding the West with Fred Harvey


In 1946, “everyone” saw The Harvey Girls film and walked out humming On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe.




By Megan McKinney


There is no doubt that Fred Harvey had more than a little PR in his soul. The man was many things, and branding genius was one of them.

To begin with, there is the unique signature that brought distinction to everything associated with Fred Harvey. Then we have such indelible labels as Harvey Houses and The Harvey Girls—but, most of all, there were the Girls themselves. The Harvey Girls are at the very core of what we’ve been led to remember about the Harvey brand. But don’t be quick to credit Mr. Harvey with dreaming them up. According to Fred Harvey biographer Stephen Fried in his superb 2010 book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time, the Harvey Girls came from a man named Tom Gable. And not as a marketing device.

A Fred Harvey pattern was to single out an individual and rope the man into his business without seeming reason. Whether the new recruit had food, restaurant or train experience didn’t matter to Fred as much as the man’s personal qualities, qualities that perhaps Harvey himself might not have been able to verbalize.

One of these men was Tom Gable, son of Leavenworth neighbors. Fred brought Tom into the organization in 1883 when the young man was a 31-year-old former postal worker without food service experience, and Fred almost immediately made him manager of his Harvey House in Raton Pass, New Mexico.

The Raton Pass AT&SF station.

Until that time, Harvey Houses, like most western restaurants, employed freed slaves as waiters and busboys. For the Harvey Houses it was a natural railroad extension of George Pullman’s porters. However, Pullman porters were safely inside moving trains; restaurant waiters were not and there was often friction between the former slaves and cowboys roaming the area, many of whom had been Confederate soldiers in the Civil War.

It was following a “midnight brawl” in the Raton Pass restaurant that Harvey hired Tom Gable and announced to him that he was to be its new manager. However, Gable refused the surprise employment unless Fred would replace the African American male waiters with young single women, imported from Kansas—or further east.


Gable’s demand came at the same time the Santa Fe was requesting more Harvey operated eating houses; therefore, bringing large numbers of women from afar fit in with a current urgent need.

The timing was also excellent for another reason. It was an era in which there were no “careers” for women. They could clean other people’s houses or teach school; that was about it. But there was also the aura of adventure about traveling out to the West in a chaperoned situation that maintained their reputations. And, most of all, every train town featured an abundance of unattached men, some of whom were eligible.

Fred advertised in Eastern newspapers (“more class”) for young women between 18 and 30, unmarried and “of good character.” Once the women were installed, there were serious rules to be observed.

The girls lived next to the Harvey House and were strictly supervised by the senior-most young woman of their group. And they looked marvelous, done up in attractive—almost theatrical—uniforms.


Wouldn’t Fred Harvey have loved The Harvey Girls, the Judy Garland film that “everyone” saw in 1946! In the scene above John Hodiak and Garland are on their way to becoming the film’s love interest. And, of course, there were marvelous songs for Judy and others to sing in the film, especially one great hit. The tune pulsating in everyone’s ears that year was Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe, which won the 1946 Academy Award for Best Original Song.

The Harvey Girls was typical of a popular film genre of the era, in which all action would abruptly stop for a song and dance number and, with Judy Garland reunited with “scarecrow” Ray Bolger for the first time since The Wizard of Oz, this happened frequently. Nobody seemed to mind.

The vital need for additional Fred Harvey eating houses and groups of Harvey Girls to be moved from one new restaurant to another as more eating houses continued to open stemmed from the explosive growth of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway during the dynamic 1880’s with William B. Strong as president.  After achieving his goal to extend the Santa Fe to the Pacific, Strong turned his attention to connecting Chicago and Kansas City in a 12-hour route that was both direct and luxe. His cars incorporated George Pullman’s new vestibules, which made walking through a moving train to a dining car serving sumptuous Fred Harvey cuisine, safe and relatively comfortable, as well as costly for the Santa Fe.

Chicago’s Dearborn Station in its heyday.

While he was transforming the small regional AT&SF into the world’s largest railroad, Strong amassed the 1880’s equivalent of $1.5 billion in debt—at a time when his competitors were price cutting. The dominance of the great William B. Strong was suddenly in serious jeopardy, and his friend, Fred Harvey, was there with him. Harvey owned none of restaurants and hotels that bore his name, he ran them. Furthermore, there was not a word on paper about his relationship with the Santa Fe, which was very much his friendship with William Strong.

Allen Manvel

Happily for Fred, Strong was a friend indeed. Before the high flying president’s ouster from the railroad, he arranged a formal contract with Harvey, which was reluctantly honored by Strong’s successor, the cost-cutting Allen Manvel, who did everything in his power to undermine Harvey.

It took a nasty and very public lawsuit for Fred to avoid being wiped out by a Manvel proposal to discontinue Santa Fe’s 30 minute meal stops at Fred Harvey restaurants and replace them with dining cars with which Fred no longer had a connection.


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.


Classic Chicago will continue with The Harvey Boys in Classic Chicago Dynasties as the Fred Harvey story moves into the lives of some Fred Harvey’s vibrant descendants.



Edited by Amanda K. O’Brien

Author Photo by Robert F. Carl