This is the third of a series of posts on the history of Union Station that we are running this month. The station celebrates its 75th anniversary on May 3.
When English immigrant Fred Harvey opened the first of more than 80 restaurants serving rail stops from the Midwest to California, he could not have imagined the contribution he was making to a social movement that would outlive the restaurants themselves. Nor could he have understood how those restaurants would influence the character of the West.
But Harvey waitresses — made famous by the 1946 Judy Garland movie “The Harvey Girls” — contributed more than labor to what some call the first restaurant chain in America. They helped gentrify the West and took part in a movement of young women away from the home and into self-sufficient employment.
“The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound” — a terrific documentary by L.A. filmmaker Katrina Parks — tells the story of the women who worked as wait staff for Harvey House restaurants, including the one at Union Station, beginning in the 1870s.
Unlike other diners near rail, Harvey House restaurants were clean and sold good, reasonably priced food on table linen and china. For 75 cents (in a 1943 menu) customers could dine on broiled fish almandine, potatoes O’Brien and Hawaiian slaw. A slice of apple pie was 15 cents. And the restaurants guaranteed that patrons would complete their meals before their trains — often loading up on water and passengers — were scheduled to depart.
At first, the Harvey company hired men to serve as waiters, since women were in short supply in the West. But the men — both customers and waiters — could be rowdy. So Harvey began advertising in Eastern and Midwest newspapers, offering employment to clean-cut, well-mannered and attractive women between 18 and 30. The pay was $17.50 a month plus tips. Room and board were free. The Harvey Girls wore distinctive black-and-white uniforms, worked long hours and had to abide by strict rules, including curfews. But for many, it was the first taste of freedom and freedom can be delicious, as the above clip suggests.
For more information about the Harvey Girls, visit the Harvey Girl Historical Society at the Orange Empire Railroad Museum in Perris, Calif. Or watch the Katrina Parks video. The old Harvey House restaurant space at Union Station is currently vacant, but frequently used for special events and filming. Metro, the owner of Union Station, hopes to one day see another restaurant occupy the space although considerable and expensive work will be needed to rebuild the kitchen.