Residents taught me the history of the small Kansas town of Horton during a recent visit to the town library, where I helped present a check from Sisters in Crime and give a book talk about my Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series. The town’s recent population is around 2,000, but in the 1920’s, it held 5,000 souls, all because it sat at a junction of the Chicago, Kansas, and Nebraska Railroad.
Soldiers on horseback, cattle drives, wagon trains on tall-grass prairie trails, river barges, and pony express riders evoke images of nineteenth-century Kansas. However, that era had a short-lived existence. The Pony Express, for instance, lasted only eighteen months. Like black and white TV and eight-track players in the Twentieth Century, new technology took over faster than our forebears of one-hundred-fifty to two-hundred years ago could have imagined. Railroads brought goods and people along with the new technologies into the Sunflower State and caused a demand for new services.
Entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw the need and developed a vast network of eating establishment and hotels at train depots across the state and beyond. In 1875, he opened a café in Wallace, KS on the Kansas Pacific Railway. A year later, he contracted with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to build restaurants at its depots. He opened a restaurant in the Topeka train depot in 1876. It did so well that Mr. Harvey opened a Harvey House Restaurant/Hotel combination at the Florence, Kansas train depot.
With Harvey’s strict oversight, Harvey Houses provided good food, large helpings (pies were cut in fourths rather than sixths), fast service, and reasonable prices. More depot restaurants were built, and by 1883, there were seventeen along the train route. A Harvey House with ornate architecture built in Chanute, Kansas, the Santa Fe’s southern Kansas headquarters, opened in 1896 and now serves the town as its public library.Nine million dollars are being spent to renovate the grand El Vaquero Harvey House in Dodge City, originally opened in 1900. By 1901 there were forty-seven Harvey House Restaurants, fifteen hotels, and thirty dining cars.
One of the reasons for Fred Harvey’s success was his decision to replace rough, western male waiters with young females, later including Hispanics and American Indians, who became crews of well-trained waitresses.They were known as the Harvey Girls and are said to have brought a civilizing effect to the west. They were provided uniforms, room and board, and a better wage than many men of the day. In return, they gave fast, friendly service that drew customers.
At the Harvey Company’s peak, there were eighty-four Harvey Houses at depots along the railway from Chicago to California plus service on the trains and tourist destination hotels and eateries in Indian country, the most famous being at the Grand Canyon. The company was sold by a grandson in 1964, but the legend lives on in the grand old depot buildings that now serve as museums, restaurants, libraries, and town show places. The Harvey House at Union Station in Kansas City is gone, but hasn’t been forgotten. Photos are abundant. Also, Harvey’s Café in the station is named in honor of the former bustling Harvey House.
I live on the Kansas side of the Kansas City metro where my cozy mystery series is set. My husband and I take trips across Kansas in our fifth-wheel RV, with our cats in tow, and we’ve visited many of the towns that had Harvey House train depots. One can travel from the northeast to the southwest of the state and see some of the renovated buildings or the spots where they stood. The town, Harveyville, Kansas, sits along Route 335 between Topeka and Emporia. Landscape changes from the woodland east through the Flint Hills and tall-grass prairie to the rugged west makes the drive even more worthwhile.
Fred Harvey’s family settled in Leavenworth, Kansas. His home is now a museum.
The Arcade Hotel in Newton now hosts a law firm in the old Harvey House Restaurant area.
The original Harvey House Hotel in Wichita was most recently used as a Cox Cable office.
A hotel sits where the beautiful Harvey House in Hutchinson once stood, but the original is gone.
My current work in progress is set in part along I-35 in Kansas and Oklahoma where the railroads grew towns in the 1800's. The first three books of my Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series are: CATastrophic Connections, FURtive Investigation, and Nine LiFelines. The Audiobook of CATastrophic Connections is available here or at your favorite audiobook site.