I vaguely remembered a movie by the same name featuring Judy Garland, but other than that, I knew nothing about the real Harvey Girls. This non-fiction work by Lesley Poling-Kempe, is a fascinating account of these real-life women.
In the late 1800’s, when the railroads were on their march west, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was pushing through the American southwest – a virtual desert with few inhabitants. As businessmen and travelers made their way to the California coast, it was clear that a better variety of restaurants and hotels would be needed for this class of people. Fred Harvey, a former restaurant owner and railroad worker, came up with the idea that he successfully pitched to the Santa Fe railroad. It was an agreement that benefited both. Recruiting girls from the east coast, he created a higher class of restaurant, and demanded strict etiquette and elevated standards at his establishments. Harvey Girls, weren’t just waitresses, they were elevated to a new social class altogether.
The fascinating thing about the Fred Harvey and his Harvey Girls, was that they literally opened up the West. Before Harvey came along, there was nothing there. His restaurants and hotels established towns all along the line, and eventually, he helped to build the tourism that still exists today in places like the Grand Canyon and the spas of New Mexico. The Harvey Girls, more often than not, married railroad men, and raised families in the towns where they used to work.
I enjoyed the stories shared by former Harvey Girls, and appreciated the courage it took for these young girls to leave their families and head into an untamed country. It’s a wonderful part of US history.
3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1989