In May 1931, Will Rogers — the movie star and newspaper columnist and arguably the most famous person in America — decided to take his wife on a vacation for Mother’s Day. Rogers was well known for his near obsession with flying and had just piloted himself on a cross-country tour to promote his new film, a homespun adaptation of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee.” But he and Betty, both 52, had decided to leave their kids at home and do a driving journey: a version of what had already become the quintessential American trip, which people called the “Southwest Detour.” They would explore America’s most recently added states, Arizona and New Mexico.
From their home in Beverly Hills, they went first to Tucson, Arizona, and then drove over 450 miles east along the Mexican border to Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico. There, Will gave “Ma” a white desert flower and then “walked her for seven miles” through what he described as “the Grand Canyon with a roof over it,” the caverns featuring “all the cathedrals of the world ... with half of ’em hanging upside down.”
From Carlsbad they drove to Roswell, which had yet to be visited by aliens; they went to check out the polo instruction at the New Mexico Military Institute for their son, Jim. And then they drove several hours north to get onto the nation’s newest, most talked-about paved highway: Route 66.
Where they got onto Route 66, the 4-year-old road was almost completely parallel to the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, the nation’s largest railroad, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles through the Southwest. So the best restaurants and hotels along the route were those in the major AT&SF train stations, run by a company — and a name — as well known as Will Rogers himself.
Fred Harvey, the British-born hospitality genius, had created the first national chain of quality restaurants, the first national chain of resort hotels, the first national chain of retail stores — in fact, the first national chain of anything — starting with a trackside restaurant in Topeka, Kansas, in 1876. He also had created one of the dominant social phenomena of the American West. By insisting that all his restaurants be staffed by single women recruited in the Midwest — the famous “Harvey Girls,” the nation’s first all-female workforce — he had become a matchmaking sensation, as waitresses married and settled down in all the restaurant towns, large and small. And the food in his restaurants and hotels was as good if not better than anything you could get in New York or Chicago or London, with the freshest ingredients shipped in by train; his company is credited with teaching much of America how to eat well, from local to international cuisine.
It is unclear how many Fred Harvey restaurants Will and Betty stopped at once they got on Route 66. Probably the first one they came to was La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because at that time Route 66 ran right up to the hotel, which is off the city’s historic main plaza. They most likely stopped at the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, which was a favorite for movie stars on their way to or from Hollywood, and the city also had an amazing Native American art museum — the famous Fred Harvey Indian Building — in between the hotel and the train station, with live demonstrations of rug making and basket weaving. They may have checked out El Navajo in Gallup just to see the stunning murals, which had been adapted, with tribal leaders’ permission, from Navajo sand paintings.
But we know for sure that they spent some time at Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, which were right off Route 66. And then they ended up in Winslow, Arizona, where something fascinating and counterintuitive had recently happened: Even though the country was going into its second year of the Great Depression, the Fred Harvey Company had just opened its most ambitious resort hotel, La Posada. It was the newest Fred Harvey stop on the way to the one that had become the most renowned — El Tovar, the Harvey hotel at the lip of the Grand Canyon.
As the couple ate at La Posada and toured the gorgeous sunken gardens and watched the trains go by bathed in the red-orange sunlight, Will Rogers decided to write about what this had inspired in him. He had a column that ran four or five days a week in pretty much every newspaper in the country; most of the papers ran whatever he wrote in a prominent box on the front page. And on May 12, 1931, he posted this populist paean to driving awed through the exploding colors of the Southwest and being taken care of by the holy host of American hospitality:
You folks that think a desert country is terrible should see Arizona and New Mexico. The whole states are covered now with hundreds of the most beautiful kinds of flowers. Saw the Petrified Forest again. What’s these Baptists that think the whole world started with Noah going to say about a thing like that? Just another miracle, I reckon. Wild buffalo fed the early traveler in the West and for doing so they put his picture on a nickel. Well, Fred Harvey took up where the buffalo left off. For what he has done for the traveler one of his waitresses’ picture (with an arm load of delicious ham and eggs) should be placed on both sides of every dime.
Like a lot of Americans, my wife and I reacted to 9/11 by shifting much of our travel to endlessly rediscovering the U.S. (something I suspect will happen again for many as COVID-19 travel restrictions abate). And while we’ve been all over, via our home airport in Philadelphia, it is that Southwest Detour we keep returning to. This is partly because of the unmatched scenery — the way you can see the next three weather systems coming toward you at a distance, sun then rain clouds with rainbows right behind them — as well as the incredible food, the long, astonishingly straight drives, the trout fishing. But it is also because the Southwest — especially northern Arizona and New Mexico — is the birthplace of American cultural tourism, living history.
It is home to the Grand Canyon, which began replacing Niagara Falls as the country’s favorite destination for natural grandeur as soon as a railroad line was built so people could get there. The Southwest is also where, in the words of the late Native American historian Frank Waters, “the Fred Harvey System introduced America to Americans.”
Waters, who was part Cheyenne and was raised visiting the Navajo and Pueblo reservations in New Mexico, meant this as a tribute but also a backhanded compliment. The Harvey company was in the Southwest to run quality hotels and restaurants along the railroad tracks — and later dining cars and union stations as trains got faster and the number of food stops was reduced. But the company was, along with its partner the Santa Fe, part of an ongoing effort to bring tourists to the area without completely commercializing it — an extremely delicate balance.
The company also began a process that was later joined by the National Park Service (which the Harvey company helped create) and continues to this day, attempting to tell an increasingly more perfect, more accurate, more diverse saga of American places with all the explanations and apologies necessary. As part of this effort, it was the Harvey company that lobbied President Theodore Roosevelt to pass the 1906 Antiquities Act to stop the looting of Native burial grounds and abandoned cities. And the company partnered with Native American artists and craftspeople to create better local and national markets for their work.
The Fred Harvey Company went on to create some of the first multicultural tourist materials and books, which explained, much to the surprise of many tourists, that white people hadn’t been the first or even the second to populate the area, and that the scars of what the government had done to Native people were not going to go away just because white people had forgiven themselves. It was tourism seasoned with some diversity tension, because the company’s goal was to teach and challenge visitors, attending to their creature comforts without placating them.
The company — which was simply called “Fred Harvey,” one of the first and most famous acts of brand marketing in business history — began during the height of Reconstruction in 1876 and reached the peak of its fame in 1946 when MGM released “The Harvey Girls,” starring Judy Garland as a plucky Fred Harvey waitress in New Mexico (singing an Oscar-winning theme song, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” by Johnny Mercer). It was a private, multigenerational family business partnered with one of the world’s largest public companies, and continued that way until the mid-1960s, when it was sold to a hospitality conglomerate.
Its ethos then remained alive at the three legendary Harvey hotels that not only have never closed but also remain true to their architectural and cultural history — El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge at the lip of the Grand Canyon (where ’60s staff began referring to themselves as “Fredheads”), and La Fonda in Santa Fe. But, for most, it became a lost story of Americana.
And then, starting in the 1990s, several Western museums began to rediscover Harvey, and entrepreneurs with really good and unique taste — in design, food, customer service and American cultural history — began restoring the existing buildings to their original architectural significance. Nearly a half-dozen have been saved, two of them as utterly delightful full-service hotels: first the one in Winslow that inspired Will Rogers and then, more recently, the one in Las Vegas, New Mexico — the Castaneda, which Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated in 1899 by holding the first reunion of his famous Rough Riders there.
The hotels have been through their own rough rides during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them, including those at Grand Canyon, had to close for a period of time and then reopen with limited capacity. But they have a long history of resilience during national emergencies. After all, the Harvey system had to accommodate World War I — during which the railroads were nationalized and consolidated by the federal government — as well as the 1918 influenza pandemic. It had to accommodate the Great Depression when many smaller locations were shuttered by the railroad while the larger ones quietly took on the responsibility of feeding Dust Bowl refugees. And then all the Harvey locations had to be reopened during World War II and retrofitted to serve troops crisscrossing the country.
So now is a perfect time to discover, or rediscover, the world of the Southwest Detour, as American tourism reopens — and long-distance travel, by car and train, returns as the best way to experience the continuing marvel and challenge of our nation. And to explore the saga of how Fred Harvey first made that possible.
Harvey came from Liverpool, England, to New York in 1853 at the age of 17 to get a job during America’s first world’s fair. He got a job as a “pot-walloper” — a dishwasher — at Smith & McNell’s, just a block or two from where he got off the boat. After 18 months learning the restaurant business there, he traveled to St. Louis, where he worked in a restaurant, became a U.S. citizen and then started his own place, the Merchants Dining Saloon, with a partner. It was popular until the Civil War erupted, causing Fred’s partner, a Southern sympathizer, to disappear with all their money. Fred was, by that time, married; he and his wife, Anne, had a young son and another on the way. But Anne died during childbirth, and Fred was left a penniless single dad with two little boys who would both soon succumb to scarlet fever.
He moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, home of the Pony Express, and restarted his life working for the railroad. He remarried to Barbara “Sally” Mattas, a young Czech seamstress, and they moved across the river to Leavenworth, Kansas, where Fred worked as a ticket agent for rail, boat and wagon train travel.
When the route for what became the second transcontinental railroad ended up going through Kansas City instead of Leavenworth, Fred and Sally remained in town to raise their family, but Fred became a railroad warrior — traveling the ever-extending train lines, selling tickets and booking freight.
At this time, railroads weren’t very concerned about passengers: Their motto was “freight doesn’t complain,” so they paid little attention to the comforts of humans. Dining cars weren’t allowed west of Chicago, so trains stopped every hundred miles and local people ran little restaurants in the train stations — usually awful restaurants, because most people were traveling to relocate. Even if they were dissatisfied, they were never coming back.
Harvey ate an enormous amount of this bad food, and since he already had some stomach ailments, he became acutely aware of the need for improved hospitality along the rapidly expanding western rail lines. He reasoned that if any railroad ever figured out how to make a long train ride across the country easier on your digestive system, and maybe even delicious, that railroad would succeed. So, at the age of 40 — with a full-time, full-travel job — he started a side business running trackside restaurants in small Kansas towns the way he learned they were supposed to be run in New York City.
He partnered with a new line called the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway — whose owners had dreams of one day replacing the historic wagon-train path, the Santa Fe Trail, with steel rails all the way to New Mexico (with a connection into Mexico). They let Harvey take over the dingy second-floor dining room at the Topeka station, which he reappointed as a big-city quality restaurant with imported silver and linen tablecloths, and food fresher than anyone else could serve because it came literally right out of the refrigerator cars into his kitchen.
Soon, the railroad let him try something more ambitious — its hotel and restaurant in Florence, Kansas, which he transformed by audaciously hiring away William Phillips, the head of food service from his favorite hotel in Chicago. As the railway added food service farther and farther west, Harvey and Phillips devised ingenious systems to instruct employees, maintain standards, plan menus and even signal ahead to stations what diners would be eating — by telegraph (this is all way before telephones) or train whistle codes.
Harvey had nothing but a handshake agreement with the AT&SF: The railroad provided the space in its depot buildings, took care of utilities and let Fred Harvey food and employees ride the trains for free. Harvey kept all the profits, and the restaurants were an immediate success.
When the AT&SF tracks reached New Mexico, Fred Harvey quickly tripled in size, opening in eight new towns in three years. And outside of its largest New Mexico location, Las Vegas, the railroad also built a huge health resort for Harvey to run, the Montezuma, taking advantage of the medicinal hot springs. But New Mexico presented unique challenges: It really was the Wild West, and the trackside restaurants were robbed often. There was also racial tension because most local waiters were Black men, many of the cowboys were embittered former Confederate soldiers and everybody had guns.
After a racial incident at his Raton, New Mexico, restaurant, Harvey experimented by moving the employees of color out of harm’s way into the kitchen and having the waitstaff be all single white women from the Midwest. “Harvey Girls” became the signature of his restaurants, especially as the AT&SF expanded from New Mexico across northern Arizona and all over California, and hundreds of waitresses had to be hired as quickly as possible.
Over the next decades, more than 100,000 single women would have the experience of being a Harvey Girl, traveling, escaping their hometowns and making new lives for themselves in the romantic West. Their training included innovations Harvey created to shave every possible second off the service, making a 30-minute food stop seem as unhurried for customers as possible. A “cup code” was invented so one Harvey Girl took your drink order, then moved your cup into one of several positions that told the pourers behind her what hot or cold drink to give you.
Fred Harvey was soon making the equivalent of $1.1 million a year personally, after all expenses (the country didn’t yet have taxes). But his health suffered. He had what today would be diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome and clinical depression, but at the time was described as the latest fad diagnosis: “Americanitus” caused by the pressures of being successful in America. So, he started living in England for part of the year as a treatment. And he asked his son Ford to leave college and start learning the business. Ford learned quickly and moved the company to Kansas City.
After the Depression of 1893, tourism in the West began to percolate, aided by an ad campaign with the slogan “See America First.” The AT&SF expanded south to Texas and finally added dining cars, maintained by Fred Harvey; it also made a big investment in resort hotels in the Southwest for the Fred Harvey Company to run. They started with the Castaneda in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in 1899, and soon after began construction of a new hotel and southwest hub in Albuquerque. They also created a new branch line to the Grand Canyon so a hotel could be built there. (The Union Pacific had branch line service to Yellowstone; the AT&SF wanted its own competing natural wonder.)
Sadly, Fred did not live to see this; he died in February 1901. The Alvarado Hotel complex opened in Albuquerque in May 1902; El Tovar opened on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in January 1905. Western tourism would never be quite the same.
The Harvey company had always worked with local tour guides, allowing guests to book trips to nearby natural attractions or Native American pueblos. In 1925, Ford and his son Freddy decided to invest in their own company that would take tourists along the Southwest Detour — between Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, New Mexico, accessing all the sites one could visit from there. They bought and expanded La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe as its headquarters, bought Cadillacs and buses to be “Harvey Cars,” hired a new kind of Harvey Girl — college-educated women, “Detours Couriers” who could lecture about archaeology and culture — and started advertising in magazines worldwide.
The Detours company itself was only run by Fred Harvey for five years. But during those years Route 66 opened and made the Detours route as drivable as it was accessible by train. It also became accessible by plane as Freddy insisted the company become a partner in Transcontinental Air Transport, the nation’s first cross-country air-rail service, in 1928. Small airports were built near the Harvey hotels in Clovis, New Mexico, and Winslow, Arizona; Charles Lindbergh, Howard Hughes, Will Rogers and other celebrity aviators were often seen there. With three ways to get to the Southwest, people came even during the Great Depression; after World War II, tourism soared to even greater heights.
It has been nearly 100 years since the Southwest Detour became America’s favorite cultural vacation, and a lot has changed. (I wrote a book about it — and the entire Fred Harvey saga — called “Appetite for America,” if you want to read the story or listen to the new audiobook while driving.) But the Southwest Detours route is still, today, teeming with energy, and awash in so many ways to access a uniquely American and startlingly diverse living history.
My wife and I have done the Detour more than a dozen times by car and twice by train. Every time we do it, we learn something new and meet fascinating people from around the world. (We especially enjoyed the fun-loving group from Australia who drank us under the table at the bar at El Tovar during their Detour, which they were doing in a caravan of red Ford Mustangs.)
The only thing you really should plan well in advance is hotel rooms at the Grand Canyon, which is where we normally start after flying into Phoenix and driving there. El Tovar and Bright Angel on the rim and tiny Phantom Ranch at the bottom (for hardcore overnight hikers) are the biggest reservation challenge and most smart travelers plan their whole trip around those room availabilities.
I still remember my utter disbelief when I was first told what people do to get these reservations a year in advance. On the first day of every month, at exactly 11 a.m. Mountain Time, Xanterra (the company that bought Fred Harvey and runs its historic hotels at the canyon) opens for reservation every room on the South Rim — for a one-month period exactly 13 months in the future. (You dial a toll-free number and keep calling until a reservation sales agent mercifully picks up.) The very best room is El Tovar’s presidential suite, which is one of only six suites that have balconies with canyon views. (Sleeping out on the balcony in a lounge chair under the stars — with full access to room service — is as close to “camping” as my wife, Diane, ever wants to get.)
At El Tovar, I relish being able to slip out of the hotel bar and stroll along the rim really late at night or flop out of bed at 5 a.m. to go watch what is arguably the greatest sunrise in America in my pajamas. During the day, we wander around the historic sites near the hotel. But the highlight is the scenic 26-mile drive to architect Mary Colter’s masterpiece, the 70-foot, stone, silo-shaped Desert View Watchtower — the Sistine Chapel of the Southwest — which has astonishing paintings by Native artists all along its curved interior walls and spiraling staircases. The views from the watchtower are just amazing, especially when thunderstorms are following the blue-green Colorado River toward you.
From the canyon, we try to spend some time in Sedona — and get the Southwest’s most scenic lunch among the red rocks at Enchantment Resort. But our main goal is always to get to Winslow in plenty of time to check in at the original Fred Harvey La Posada Hotel and begin our routine of doing spectacularly restful nothing. I have gone out with a cup of coffee to sit in one of the rocking chairs and watch the trains pass at sunrise and gotten lost for hours daydreaming. I have read, and occasionally written, parts of books sitting next to Mary Colter’s sunken garden.
From Winslow we head east — this road across northern Arizona is so absurdly straight I could make and eat a sandwich while driving and never have to move the wheel. There are endlessly stunning and colorful rock formations much of the way, and the magical Petrified Forest/Painted Desert National Park is right off the highway. Our gas tank is a constant worry. Not only are there long distances between filling stations, but some of them sell — besides gas, soda and chips — a full array of guns, big knives and, I’m not kidding, swords. (Diane has considered buying a sword on her way to the ladies’ room and returning the purchase on the way out.)
There’s nothing Harvey left to see in Gallup. More surprisingly, there’s nothing left of Harvey in Albuquerque either — the former center of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe universe in the Southwest let the Alvarado be demolished in 1970 and still hasn’t forgiven itself.
From Albuquerque it’s less than an hour to Santa Fe. When we get to town, we go immediately to La Fonda on the Plaza, as people have for almost a century. La Fonda has been restored with great Fred Harvey historical accuracy and loving hospitality by board chair Jenny Kimball’s team, and it still has so much amazing artwork from the 1920s and ’30s that the hotel gives docent tours.
Santa Fe is the eating and shopping and museum capital of the Southwest. I couldn’t even begin to tell you where to start, depending on your own taste. I will say we never leave town before we have eaten at La Plazuela at La Fonda, at Geronimo on Canyon Road (we go early to wander the galleries nearby), at Maria’s for New Mexico food, and at Harry’s Roadhouse for comfort breakfast, lunch or dinner. We always check out the New Mexico History Museum — which features the best permanent Fred Harvey exhibit in the country and holds the annual Fred Harvey History Weekend. And we often make the Harvey-themed daytrips to the charming Harvey House Museum at the old Belen train station and the newly restored Legal Tender Saloon at the old Lamy station.
From Santa Fe it’s just an hour’s drive east to Las Vegas, New Mexico, which was the first major Fred Harvey outpost in the Southwest. It can be done as a daytrip, but we always go and stay longer. That’s because Las Vegas is actually the most inspiring recent Fred Harvey comeback story, in terms of Western history and historic preservation.
By the late 1940s, both the railroad and Fred Harvey had abandoned Las Vegas and left its two most architecturally significant buildings to rot. One was the old Montezuma Hotel outside of town, which had burned down and been rebuilt twice in the late 1800s, by the same architects who created the famous White City at the Chicago World’s Fair. The other was the trackside Castaneda Hotel, the first of what became many Fred Harvey/Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Mission Style resorts. Both regularly made national lists of the most in-danger architectural landmarks.
Then two completely different kinds of preservation miracles happened. In the 1990s, the land around the old Montezuma was used to build a modern new American campus for United World College; in 2001, the school spent $10 million to dramatically and rapidly restore the grand Montezuma building itself. (While it’s a private campus, you can tour the buildings with the fine local guide service Southwest Detours.) Its restoration made the pathetic condition of the Castaneda even more painful, and for decades people in town yearned for someone to save it.
In 2014, Allan Affeldt and Tina Mion — who had miraculously saved La Posada in Winslow in the 1990s — came to Las Vegas’ rescue and bought the shell of the Castaneda. They also bought an older but still-working hotel in town, the Historic Plaza, which had been the setting for a lot of films (including the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men”), and went to work.
Four years, $10 million and a lot of historic tax credits later, my wife and I and lots of Fredheads from all over were thrilled to be there — with a crew from “CBS Sunday Morning” — at the opening of the Hotel Castaneda’s public spaces and the unveiling of its newly replicated sign. And in early November 2019, we were there for the grand opening of the hotel and its sumptuous new restaurants, Bar Castaneda and Kin. We stayed in one of the 20 perfectly appointed suites, created from the original 40 rooms (one of which Teddy Roosevelt slept in). And the very first dinner in the main dining room ended dramatically, as Fred Harvey banquets did during the company’s heyday, with flaming baked Alaska that lit up the entire Land of Enchantment.
The next morning we got into our car and continued on our Southwest Detour. We can’t wait to get back on that road.
Stephen Fried is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author who teaches at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania.