Railroad passengers stopping in Dodge City had a quick meal and went on their way in less than a half-hour without being hurried.
Fred Harvey, who had a Dodge City connection, was the brain-child of this convenience.
Harvey’s wife was sister of Mrs. Richard (Margaret) Hardesty. These were the Hardestys who occupied Dodge City’s Hardesty House.
Fred Harvey immigrated to America in 1850 from England when he was 18 years old. After arriving in the U.S., he worked as a dishwasher, merchant, jeweler, postal clerk and as an agent for the Burlington Railroad. While an agent, Harvey discovered that passengers were forced to dine at restaurants at Burlington Railroad depots, which charged them high prices for awful food.
This inspired Harvey to devise a plan to open a chain of restaurants, which served good food at reasonable prices, along the passenger lines. When he brought this concept to Burlington Railroad Company, they steered him to their competition, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.
In the spring of 1876, Harvey began operating a restaurant in the Santa Fe Depot, in Topeka, Kansas. Seven years later, this endeavor expanded to 17 Harvey House Restaurants along the Santa Fe Railway. He demanded they serve the best food, in the best facilities, while providing the best service.
Harvey’s wait staff consisted of young women, the "Harvey Girls," who were required to live in dormitories and who had to obey strict rules of conduct.
Dodge City’s Harvey House, the El Vaquero, and a hotel opened in 1901. Located at the Santa Fe Depot, it was one of the largest Harvey Houses in Kansas offering the same conveniences and amenities of all the earlier Harvey Houses.
Fred Harvey is credited with helping civilize the southwest by providing fine dining and encouraging good table manners. The chain imported fine table linens from Ireland and, from England, Syracuse China and Sheffield silver. The Santa Fe delivered beef from Kansas City, and seafood and
fruit from southern California.
Harvey required all male diners wear dinner jackets. This rule was once violated in Dodge City when powerful Chicago mayor, "Big Bill" Thompson, brought some cowhands into El Vaquero and demanded they all be served coatless. Thompson had the reputation of being intimidating, so the staff
made an exception to Mr. Harvey’s coat rule and served the cowboys. However, the Mayor’s men met
with scornful glances from the Harvey Girls throughout their meal.
The Harvey Houses weren’t expected to make big profits — they often ran at a loss. The Santa Fe Railway’s goal for these restaurants was to increase ridership. Passengers appreciated how the staff served them and got them back on the train in about 25 minutes without feeling rushed.
When Fred Harvey died in 1901, he operated 15 hotels, 47 restaurants and 30 Santa Fe dining cars. Harvey’s heirs operated the company until the 1930s.
As railroad dining cars became more popular, demand for restaurants in depots along the rail lines decreased, which spelled Harvey Houses’ demise. Dodge City’s Harvey House closed in 1948.
In 1968, the Fred Harvey Company sold to Amfac, Inc. Following in 1973, Amtrak took over the Santa Fe Railway’s passenger service and the Harvey House Company ceased to exist.