What is a Harvey House?

Harvey Houses, which were hotels and restaurants, served train travelers and locals for years along the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) Railroad lines across the United States. Founder Fred Harvey came up with the idea while providing food service in railroad dining cars.

El Tovar Hotel in early 1900s.jpg
El Tovar Hotel, a Harvey House, opened in 1905.

Our first Harvey House experience was the fabulous El Tovar Hotel at Grand Canyon National Park. A second Harvey House at the Grand Canyon is Bright Angel Lodge. Another one closer to home is located about 15 miles away from us in Slaton, Texas and is now a bed and breakfast. Though with that said, we are dedicating this post to the Belen Harvey House Museum in Belen, New Mexico. We would also like to recognize Heide, our lovely guide who taught us so much about Harvey House history.

Historic photo of the Belen Harvey House, built in 1910.

Where is it?

The Belen Harvey House Museum is located at 104 North 1st Street in Belen, New Mexico. Belen, which is the Spanish name for Bethlehem, is 34 miles south of Albuquerque on I-25. Access the museum’s website here.

Belen Harvey House Museum today, though this is a side view from the parking lot. The front of the building faces the train tracks located on the right.

Fred Harvey

Having immigrated from England in 1853 at the age of 17, Fred Harvey got a job as a dishwasher in a New York City restaurant. The restaurant’s owners taught him the complexities of the food service business, and he eventually became a busboy, waiter, and then a cook. Later, after working for a few years in a jewelry store, Fred and a partner opened their own restaurant, but the Civil War interrupted the venture. When the partner absconded with all of the profits, Fred was left holding the bag. Harvey eventually went to work for the Hanibal and St. Joseph Railroad in Missouri. After several promotions within the company, he was transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas where he remained for the rest of his life.

Fred Harvey, known as the first chain restauranteur and the man who civilized the Wild West.

In 1876, Fred made a deal with the superintendent of the ATSF Railroad after noticing there were few accommodations and no restaurants near most of their depots. The railroad would buy or build the buildings and lease them to the Fred Harvey Company. In turn, he would provide restaurants, workers, and hotel accommodations in or near the depots. A simple handshake sealed the deal, and the first Harvey House opened in Florence, Kansas in 1878 ushering in an era that would span almost 90 years. Fred Harvey died of intestinal cancer in 1901. After his death, his children and grandchildren ran the company into the 1960s. Harvey’s home in Leavenworth is now a museum.

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter

Full length photo of Mary Colter sitting in an elaborate wicker chair that wraps around her.
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (National Park Service photo)

Fred Harvey hired Mary Colter, an architect and designer who designed many of the buildings at Grand Canyon National Park, to design his restaurants and hotels across the southwest. She remained the Fred Harvey Company’s chief architect and designer for 46 years, retiring in 1948 at the age of 79. Colter designed 21 hotels in addition to other buildings for the Fred Harvey Company, however, the Belen Harvey House was designed architect Myron Church.

Desert View Watchtower, Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park was the railroad’s most popular destination, so Colter was hired to design several buildings for the park. She designed the Desert View Watchtower, Hermit’s Rest, Phantom Ranch, and Lookout Studio, among others, all of which are still in use today. Mary Colter also designed the dinnerware that was used exclusively in the dining cars on the ATSF Super Chief, which ran from Chicago, Illinois to Pasadena, California.

Colter’s love of the southwest shines through in the designs and colors of this dinnerware on display at the Belen Harvey House Museum.

Harvey Girls

Women aged 18 – 30 were hired to serve as waitresses in Harvey Houses and to bring hospitality, beauty, and refinement to those establishments. Upon being hired, all Harvey Girls were sent to a one-month training program at the Vaughn, New Mexico Harvey House which no longer exists. Paid $17.50 per month plus tips, they worked 12-hour shifts six days a week. Uniforms plus room and board were perks of their employment. Free train travel along with Harvey House accommodations and meals during their one week per year vacations was another perk.

Harvey Girls with Mr. and Mrs. Porter who were the Belen Harvey House managers.

Recognizable by their black dresses and white aprons, these hard-working ladies lived in a dormitory in or near the hotel and even had a dorm mother. House rules were fairly strict. Men were never allowed to visit the girls’ living quarters, and the girls were strongly advised against fraternizing with the male railroad workers.

Example of a dorm room in the Belen Harvey House.

Nor could Harvey Girls converse with or flirt with the patrons. Their employment contracts purportedly contained an agreement stating that they would remain unmarried for at least one year after being hired. However, according to museum information, between 1883 and 1905 there were 8,260 marriages of Harvey Girls to railroad men, ranchers, cowboys, and fellow employees. Throughout the Harvey House era approximately 100,000 women worked as Harvey Girls.

Nothing But the Best But No Bathrooms

Insisting on nothing but the finest, Fred Harvey imported his table linens, dinnerware, and silverware from Europe. Although, interestingly, most of the Harvey Houses didn’t have public bathrooms. This was to prevent a passenger from missing or delaying a train.

Home | Belén Harvey House Museum
Belen Harvey House lunch counter and shiny coffee pots.

Travelers had limited time in which to have a meal before reboarding the train – usually about 25 minutes – because it took about a half hour to refuel the trains. Harvey House lunch counters were casual and were great for a quick sandwich, piece of pie, or cup of coffee.

Belen Harvey House Dining Room

Dining rooms, on the other hand, were formal. Because time was so limited, an ingenious system was developed to ensure that travelers had time to enjoy their meals. The 1955 menu below is from the La Fonda in Santa Fe. We have eaten there, and though it’s no longer a Harvey House they were still serving fabulous food at the time of our visit. We’re including the menu to show the delicious-sounding meals of the time.

Just look at those prices! Hot pineapple fritter with brandy sauce anyone? We had to laugh at the Postum and Sanka. Do they even make those anymore?

The Harvey House Legacy Lives On

At their peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses. The Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge are former Harvey Houses that are still in operation. La Posada opened in 1930 in Winslow, Arizona as Mary Colter’s self-proclaimed masterpiece. It is the only Harvey railroad hotel left in operation on Historic Route 66. In 2014, La Posada’s owner, Allen Allfeldt, bought the Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which was Harvey’s first trackside hotel. After some rehabilitation, the Castaneda Hotel has reopened for overnight stays and dining.

Former Harvey House, Castaneda Hotel, in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Castaneda Hotel’s beautiful dining room.
The Castaneda Hotel was built in 1898 and sits adjacent to the Las Vegas railroad depot which still serves Amtrak.

Visiting the Belen Harvey House Museum

  • Hours: 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm, Wednesday through Saturday.
  • Admission is free but donations are greatly appreciated.
  • Last admission to the museum is at 4:00 pm.
  • Grab a bite to eat in the new Whistle Stop Cafe.
  • Buy a souvenir in the gift shop.
  • Watch the trains rumble by on the adjacent tracks.
  • Tell Heide we said hello!
A glimpse of the front of the Belen Harvey House Museum.

Thanks so much for joining us on our visit to the Belen Harvey House Museum. If you enjoy history and museums, you may enjoy these other wonderful destinations:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.


79 thoughts on “What is a Harvey House?

  1. Oh, I love this one! I learned about the Harvey House through Kimberly Woodhouse, the author of historical fiction, and following her research for “A Mark of Grace,” one of a Grand Canyon series set in the hotel in the early 1900s.

  2. Wow, thank you for the great photos and information, guys! I have never heard of this company, the man was amazing, very driven. I love the dinnerware, it’s beautiful! I am glad that I found your blog, always so interesting. 😊😎

  3. Mike and Kellye, thanks for this interesting post. I never heard of the Harvey Houses before. I had to laugh at how many of the Harvey girls married railroad men, ranchers and cowboys!

  4. Brad M

    Great bit of history. We had the opportunity to visit the El Tovar, but not as a guest, just passing through, so to speak. Grand Canyon also offers a Fred Harvey spiced tea mix in glass jars. Simply add hot water and stir.

      1. Brad M

        And if I remember right, the Bright Angel Trail starts/ends very near there. We only went a little ways along just to say we were on it. 😉 And to catch photos of the California Condors.

      2. Brad M

        Definitely need a trip back there. We saw at least four tagged birds, and several others just flying around.

  5. What a fabulous post Kellye. Harvey was a real self made man and a genius. We saw the hotels in Grand Canyon area without realizing the history. The menus and prices are most interesting to see and the way they got diners in and out was run with railroad precision. I wonder how the Harvey Girls contract would work today. Not very well, I suspect. Thanks for this history lesson. Have a great weekend. Allan

  6. What an interesting history. Roy and I had breakfast at the Bright Angel Lodge . It was delicious and service was superb. I bought two of their bowls on sale. Now I know why it was so special. The GrandCanyon was spectacular from its windows. Thank you.

  7. We recently stayed at another Harvey House: the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. Highly recommended! Besides the architecture and history, this hotel features a gallery of paintings by Tina Mion (who is one of the current hotel owners).

  8. That’s so cool! Never heard of a Harvey House, but they appear to serve as the precursor to the standard hotels and B&Bs we have today. Glad you explored a lesser-known part of US history!

  9. Railway (railroad) history is always of interest to me, including of course those businesses inextricably linked to the railway industry. So this is just fascinating, especially the communication systems in place to enable the Harvey House to be ready for diners as the train pulled in. Who needs technology huh!? This was such a good read of a railway subject I’d never heard of before.

  10. What a fascinating story, Kellye. The details you included (menus, old photos and your wonderful descriptions) really evoke that distant era. Harvey Girls did not have an easy life at all. It makes sad to think how little free time they had in their lives. I love how well organised the whole operation was and ‘the best cup of coffee in town’ would certainly be something to look forward to on the journey. The menu is delightful, roast spring lamb and chocolate cake for me, please. La Posada would be a place to stay while exploring Route 66. Hope you are enjoying the weekend!

  11. Lovely interesting post Kellye, I enjoyed reading about the Harvey Girls. Sounds like a very coveted job. Despite the strict rules they managed to slip in a flirtation here and there!

  12. I knew that Mary Colter designed several of the stone buildings in the Grand Canyon National Park, but had no idea she was connected with the Harvey Houses. Glad to hear that a few of these houses remain as it’s a neat way to learn more about their history. I still can’t get over the fact that the Harvey Houses didn’t have public bathrooms! They have about 25 minutes to eat, but apparently not enough time to use the facilities! Thanks for sharing. Linda

  13. That menu from 1955 looks delicious and a total steal! I love the Harvey Houses, what a great idea…also interesting they gave guests enough time to eat (for a price), but not go to the toilet!

  14. Fascinating! An enjoyable read 🙂 They took pleasing their short-on-time customers to a new level by having them order their meals ahead of arrival. And what a varied and enticing menu! Smart thinking, too, in not having public bathrooms.

  15. What a fascinating story of Harvey House, he was quite the entrepreneur and of his association with Mary Colter. The tableware designs are beautiful and to learn about the training of the Harvey House girls and their duties was so interesting too Kellye. It’s so nice that the Harvey House connection lives on.

  16. An interesting slice of US history! The small details, like the menu, really bring it to life 🙂 I’d heard of Harvey Houses but hadn’t realised I’d ever been in one, however we had a drink in the La Fonda in Santa Fe so I have!

  17. That is a really brilliant idea of setting up these places along the route- not only providing food and a place to rest for travelers but also providing a job opportunity and a place to live for those who work there. What a great and fun museum! 🙂

  18. This was such an interesting post. I loved reading and learning about the history which I had never known before. What a great man to come up with such a wonderful idea. Not sure I would have liked to work 12 shifts for 6 days but I’m sure they had fun too.

  19. Wow! I learned so much reading this! I had to smile at all the marriages of the Harvey girls. 🙂 Thank you for sharing all of this information with us!!! 🙂

  20. I had never heard of Harvey Houses – how clever! And I giggled at the amount of marriages between the Harvey Girls and railroad men 😄. Wow, the way the dining rooms worked on time is quite amazing … I’ll be waiting right here for my ‘Roast spring lamb rack’ (at that price)!

  21. Great post! I first learned about the Harvey House when I stayed at El Tovar a few years back. What a great part of history! I did not know there was a museum and it looks fascinating!

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