Harvey House fed the traveling nation

Merced Sun-Star, Sat., Jan. 25, 1986

(photo courtesy of Lorraine Richards)

The Harvey House, a lunch room which catered to travelers on Santa Fe railroad trains, was located at K Street and the Santa Fe right-of-way. It opened in 1897 and closed in 1921 when dining cars began to replace local restaurants. All traveling was not done on trains as evidenced by a local means of transportation, the horse and buggy


By LEONA LEWIS Living Section Editor
When a mission-style building used as a warehouse burned in 1963, it marked the end of an era in Merced history dating back 66 years.

A Merced landmark, the Harvey House, was one of many such facilities situated at depots along the Santa Fe railroad to feed the traveling public.

When the Santa Fe began its trek across the United States, there were no provisions for feeding passengers. There were no dining cars and travelers could carry their lunch in a box or picnic basket and eat on the train.

Eating houses were established alongside large stations. The prevailing custom was to hold a train for about 20 minutes while passengers bolted whatever food was available.

Irregularity of train schedules and poor spacing of stops were a source of irritation. But the
greatest objection was the quality and price of the food.

There was little choice. The menu included black coffee, made once a week, and dry, salty ham. Eggs of questionable age fried in rancid grease were slapped between two slices of stale bread.

There was no pretence of good public relations since the trade was transient and could "take it or leave it." Some of it was left because the train did not stop more than about 20 minutes.

Then a gong rang, denoting time to reboard the train. Passengers ran for the train, their mouths full and carrying what they did not have time to finish.

As travel increased, George Pullman set up a small kitchen in a sleeping car to provide berth passengers with a light meal.

Then Fred Harvey, a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, was responsible for setting up the first restaurant that operated along the Santa Fe.

He had become ill from eating in the unsanitary lunch rooms. After developing an ulcer he sought permission to open his own restaurant in the local station.

Harvey was born June 27,1835 in London of English-Scotch parents. When he was 15, he came to New York where he became a busboy in a cafe. He earned $2 per week. He moved to New Orleans and later in St. Louis where he and a partner opened a restaurant.

Business thrived until the Civl War broke out, when his partner absconded with the funds. Harvey landed a job on a mail car on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad and eventually with several other railroads including the Santa Fe.

In the course of his travels he became disgusted with restaurants available to travelers and became convinced the opportunity was perfect for highly profitable operations if the right kind of food and service were available.

He presented a plan to the division superintendent who turned down his request, thinking Harvey was crazy.

However, Harvey did not give up but sought permission from the Santa Fe's railway superintendent to open a restaurant. This was greeted with great enthusiasm and the first such restaurant opened in an unused freight station.

Eventually Harvey headed a string of 47 diners and restaurants, 15 railroad hotels and 30 dining cars.
To his Harvey Houses he added a new attraction waitresses. His stipulation for hiring them was they be of good character, 18 to 30 years old, attractive and smart.

They were paid $7,50 per month, plus board, room and tip. They lived in a dormitory on the upper floor of the restaurant which was furnished with a "courting parlor." They had a
10p.m. curfew.

A Broadway Musical "The Harvey Girls" was patterned after the waitresses. It has been estimated 5,000 Harvey Girls met their future husbands while working in a Harvey House,
The Harvey House in Merced, of mission-style architecture, opened m 1897 and closed in 1921. In 1935 it housed the WPA (Works Projects Administration), a government agency designed to in crease the purchasing power of people on relief by employing them on useful projects. It officially went out of business in 1943.
During World War II, the federal government's rationing board was headquartered there and after that it was used as a warehouse for C.E. Prince Furniture Store until it burned in 1963.

The Sun-Star of March 12, 1963 carried this front page account of the Harvey House's last days, written by reporter Durward Grissom: "Six firemen were injured, none seriously, as they fought a midnight blaze which chewed away the interior of one of Merced's landmarks, the old Harvey House on K Street.

Damage soared to an estimated $55,000 to the building and contents of furniture.
"Chief George Coolures suffered a wrenched back as he led the battle that busied 38 firemen, including all off-duty men and volunteer firemen.

Others injured: Thomas McCully, hand injury when a splinter went through it; Clarence Evans was taken to a hospital for a cut on the left leg caused by falling glass; Capt. J.L. Kimbro was sidelined with a nail hole in the foot and a wrenched back; Gordon Lobdell, volunteer fireman, also g suffered a wrenched back; Capt. G.B. Alien was treated for excess smoke inhalation.
"The alarm was sounded at-11:27 p.m. by the night clerk at the Santa Fe depot who was informed by an unidentified woman who detected the smoke billowing out.

"Four pumpers and one ladder rig were rolled to the scene: from the four fire companies. Firemen fought their way through walls and windows to reach the central location of the fire inside. The blaze was brought under control at 1:30 a.m.

"The old Spanish structure went up in smoke bringing to a close a colorful history which began as the Harvey House in 1897. Among the many renowned guests through the years was the King of Belgium.

"It was operated as a restaurant with well-remembered Harvey Girls who made their home on the second floor. The restaurant operation ended in 1921.

Contributed by; Lorraine Richards