The Compass Blog

The Fred Harvey Company: The Original Seasonal Jobs

Kathi Noaker

Many of us who work seasonal jobs like to think of ourselves as pioneers of sorts. The seasonal work lifestyle is not mainstream, and we’re often the first person in our families or our hometown group of friends to venture forth and adopt this alternative lifestyle. We’re adventurous and bold! We cross the country to places we’ve never been, to live and work with people we’ve never met, leaving our homes, families, and friends in the rear view mirror. 

This sort of pilgrimage has roots going back over a century now. A notable group of early pioneers – the original “seasonal workers” – were leaving their homes and traveling across the county for seasonal jobs starting in 1880 for the Fred Harvey Company.  Between 1880 and into the early 1960’s, over 100,000 young women boarded the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad from their homes in the east and midwest to head further west to work as waitresses in the Harvey House Hotel/Restaurants that were located along the rail line. 

At the time, the only jobs for females were domestics and teachers, so Harvey, too, was a pioneer by recruiting and hiring women for something other than those occupations.

Fred Harvey, an immigrant from England, was a traveling salesman for the railroads and experienced how bad the food was, especially west of Chicago. At this time, ambitious travelers were boarding railroad cars to experience the southwest, and Harvey saw a need for good food and comfortable hotels along the way. And as we all know, you can’t have restaurants and hotels without employees! 

He advertised in newspapers across the east and mid-west. “In order to qualify as one of the ‘Harvey Girls,’ the women had to have at least an eighth-grade education, good moral character, good manners, and be neat and articulate. Harvey paid good wages, in the early years as much as $17.50 per month with free room, board, and uniforms. In return for employment, the Harvey Girls would agree to a six-month contract, agree not to marry, and abide by all company rules during the term of employment. In no time, these became much sought after jobs. When they were hired, they were given a free rail pass to their chosen destination.”1

Not only did The Fred Harvey Company provide work and travel opportunities not previously available for women, but his was “among the first companies to promote cultural diversity in the workplace by hiring Hispanic and Native American women to be waitresses along with their Anglo peers.”2

The advantage of being an early pioneer to the industry and the success of the business model allowed the Harvey company to grow rapidly. “Starting in Topeka, Kan., in 1876, the Fred Harvey Company would open 100 Harvey Houses by 1917 along the route of the Santa Fe Railroad — from Kansas to California — including convincing railroad executives to add a spur from Williams to the South Rim of The Grand Canyon and his crown jewel, El Tovar.”3

The Harvey Girls worked and lived in some of the most beautiful places in the southwest that are still a part of the American tourist landscape today. Not just El Tovar, but some of the other iconic Grand Canyon National Park properties – Bright Angel Lodge, Desert View Watchtower, Phantom Ranch, Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest and Lookout Studio. And if you’re ever “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona,” you might notice La Posada. 

Other Fred Harvey properties to note are two in Las Vegas, NM – The Plaza Hotel, which sits on the town square and has been featured in movies and TV shows, including most recently “Longmire” and “No Country for Old Men,” and the newly renovated La Castañeda, where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders held their first reunion in 1899.

With all generations, it’s always insightful to look back at those who came before us and pioneered the way. We still may be the first ones to head out into the unknown from our hometowns, and that’s no less adventuresome, but these Harvey Girls, well, they were definitely the pioneers of their time.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Harvey Girls, check out the book: The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, or documentary: The Harvey Girls – Opportunity Bound.

1 “Harvey Hotels & Restaurants on Route 66” – https://www.legendsofamerica.com/66-harveyhouse/
2 “The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound” – http://dev.assertionfilms.com/portfolio/harvey-girls/
3 “What remains of the Fred Harvey legacy in Arizona?” – https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix-contributor/2016/08/09/what-remains-fred-harvey-legacy-arizona/88434080/

Comments are closed.