Monday, April 6, 2015

Santa Fe Trail and The Harvey Girls

Today we drove part of the Santa Fe Trail to Wichita Kansas. The Santa Fe Trail was a 19th-century transportation route through central North America that connected Franklin, Missouri with Santa Fe, New Mexico. Pioneered in 1821 by William Becknell, it served as a vital commercial highway until the introduction of the railroad to Santa Fe in 1880. Santa Fe was near the end of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro which carried trade from Mexico City.

I now have greater appreciation for the adventurous people who went West. They had to battle challenging terrain, lack of fresh food, Indian attacks, heat and lack of water just to name a few obstacles. The most distance that could be covered in a day by covered wagon might be 80 miles. But fast forward to 2015 as we cruise at 75 mph in our cars with AC. But note the landscape from Santa Fe through New Mexico into Oklahoma was desolate and stark.

Even traveling by car one needed to be prepared with gas and water. For some 75 miles there was NOTHING. Not even a rest stop!

Lucky for me I had the "Harvey Girls" to keep me company for the ride.
This book is such a fascinating read since I knew nothing about the Harvey Girls. 
"The Harvey Girls-Women Who Opened The West" was awarded the winner of the 1991 New Mexico Press Women's ZIA award.

The book also chronicles how the train systems developed from Missouri to California. Today we drove through many of the little railroad towns in New Mexico that are discussed in this book such as Las Vegas, Springer and Raton. The highway we were on ran alongside the train tracks with Southern Pacific, Santa Fe and Union Pacific trains rolling by us.

Even more interesting is to read how an English immigrant named Fred Harvey realized all those people traveling by train would be stopping at train depots and would need a place to get a good meal. He had high standards. He built restaurants and hotels, hired mostly young women as waitresses, and this book tells their story. It is a good book with a small slice of American history - the role railroads played from the late 1800s to about 1960, how small towns and cities sprang up along the rail lines, the opportunity the Harvey Houses gave young women to find jobs and strike out on their own, how the women lived and worked, the demise of the rail system with the building of roads, automobiles, and the advent of air travel.

The Harvey Girls demonstrated a dedication to their jobs. Most were prompted by economic necessity and the knowledge that the West had an abundance of single men. They left rural homes to seek employment with Fred Harvey enterprises. It is interesting to note only single white women were hired as waitresses. European women were acceptable but there never were black waitresses as Harvey Girls. Only a small number of Hispanic and Indian women ever served in Harvey uniforms. The ages of these women were between ages 18-30. 
At the Governor's Palace Museum in Santa Fe there was a great display on the Harvey Girls. 
The Harvey Girls worked at Harvey diners that were at located at railroad stops. Each girl wore the same type of uniform and it was enforced at all times to be clean and presentable. A cheerful and efficient countenance with customers was also encouraged at all times. 

I loved reading the story of adventuresome, mobile, young women and their dedication and life on their own in a society that was not ready for women to undertake what they did. It was somewhat repetitious in spots but these women are hailed as contributors to American history as spirited women who blazed a trail out in the western frontier.

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