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A History of Fred Harvey

Those who know Fred Harvey, know that he was a successful entrepreneur. Mr. Harvey created the world’s first chain of restaurants and hotels called Harvey Houses in association with the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe railroad. He contributed greatly to civilizing the American Southwest. He also established The Harvey Girls -- a team of young women, age 18 to 30, who brightened the Harvey House restaurants with cheerfulness and impeccable service.

Mr. Harvey lived from 1835 to 1901. Let us now take a walk through this man’s fascinating life. We’ll also learn about his Leavenworth, KS, residence that is being restored and converted into the National Fred Harvey Museum.

Fred Harvey Timeline

  • Born in London on June 27, 1835
  • Immigrated to the United States in 1850
  • Found jobs in restaurants in New York and later in New Orleans
  • Moved to St. Louis in 1855 where he married Barbara Sarah Mattas
  • He and Barbara moved to St. Joseph, MO, where he worked for the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad
  • In 1865 they moved to Leavenworth, KS
  • The H&SJ railroad became the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad, and Harvey became a ticket agent, then general western freight agent. He also recognized the deplorable lack of decent meals and lodging for railroad travelers.
  • In 1876 he convinced the manager of the new Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe (AT&SF) Railroad that he could provide quality food in pleasant restaurants inside railroad stations
  • The first Harvey House restaurant opened in the Topeka Santa Fe Depot Station in 1876 and became an immediate success
  • That success led to other Harvey House Restaurants -- and later to Harvey House Hotels along the entire Santa Fe route
  • When dining cars were added on the Santa Fe railroad, "Meals by Fred Harvey" were featured
  • Mr. Harvey insisted on the: "Maintenance of standards, regardless of cost"
  • Young women were recruited to become Harvey Girls -- efficient, poised waitresses.
  • When Mr. Harvey died in 1901 there were 47 Harvey House restaurants, 15 hotels, and 30 dining cars on the AT&SF Railroad

The Fred Harvey Residence

The three-story, 12-room mansion at 624 Olive Street was constructed in 1869 for Mr. A.A. Higginbotham, a wealthy real estate broker. In 1883 Fred Harvey paid nearly $25,000 to purchase the mansion for his family. The Harveys filled their home with the finest furniture, art objects, and comforts of the era. The family remained in the residence until 1944 when they donated it to nearby Cushing Hospital to become a dormitory for nurse candidates. In 1949 the building was turned over to the Leavenworth Board of Education, which spent two years converting the space into meeting rooms and offices. In 1984 the Board of County Commissioners received the property and used it for various county services. In 1997, the structure was deeded to the Leavenworth Historical Museum Association, Inc. but actual change of possession did not occur until 2001. The building is being restored and will live on as the National Fred Harvey Museum.