From the wiving of the West to the depths of the Depression, the fate of the Fred Harvey company was intertwined with the nation’s history, as these scenes from Stephen Fried’s new book, Appetite for America, demonstrate.—J.P.

The Ritz of the Divine Abyss

Building a new luxury hotel at the Grand Canyon, some 60 miles from a dependable source of fresh water, was, predictably, a nightmare. The new hotel finally had a name: El Tovar, after Don Pedro de Tovar, the Spanish conquistador who first told his boss, explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, about this natural wonder, leading to its “discovery” by white men in 1540.

Construction on the building immediately fell way behind schedule, and Ford Harvey [Fred’s son, who ran the company following his death in 1901] was getting nervous. He was accustomed to delays—after all, he worked with the trains, so his life was all about delays and feeding people who were famished and cranky because of them. But the El Tovar delays were different. This was not another trackside hostelry in the middle of the desert or the prairie. This was the Ritz of the Divine Abyss, a monument to the new American pastime of “sightseeing” and a project whose progress the president of the United States, and the entire nation, were watching.

In the late fall of 1904, Ford went back to the Grand Canyon to oversee the end of construction at the South Rim. He slept in one of the rustic rooms at the old Bright Angel next door, which now looked like a run-down carriage house for his new hotel complex.

Regardless of the myriad delays and budget overruns, Ford was pleased with El Tovar. It was the ultimate Fred Harvey oasis, in every way honoring President Roosevelt’s plea not to deface the canyon. It was an intriguing combination of styles and materials, a cross between a log cabin castle and a Swiss chateau, its dark wood floors, walls, and ceilings decorated with an occasional Indian rug or moose head. The long, narrow building had 125 guest rooms, and a massive square-helmeted turret rose above its three-story center staircase—an architectural feature that served to hide the water tower inside the roof, which would be filled several times a week with water carried to the canyon by railroad car. But its architecture, ultimately, was less impressive and surprising than the simple fact of its location—it was hard to believe that a luxury hotel could be built so far from civilization, and so close to the edge of the Divine Abyss.

Just across the circular driveway from El Tovar was a similarly counterintuitive structure. It was a replica of an actual Indian building—a full-scale, brand-new, 800-year-old pueblo, authentic to the smallest detail, where the Indians who were hired to do art demonstrations and dances would actually live. Inspired by buildings in the nearby reservation city of Oraibi, it was called Hopi House.

The cost of the two new buildings—trumpeted in the promotional materials because it was higher than the price of the Union Pacific’s Yellowstone hotel—was $250,000 (the equivalent of $6.3 million today). Another $50,000 ($1.3 million) was invested in stables for the horses that guests would ride along the rim and the mules on which they would descend into the canyon. While the railroad owned the buildings, Fred Harvey was responsible for buying, training, and maintaining the livestock, as well as running the on-site farms where fruits and vegetables were grown for the restaurant.

But El Tovar and Hopi House, while extraordinary, were not the main selling points. The first Santa Fe ads, which started running across the country well before the opening, promised nothing less than the chance “to see how the world was made … deep down in the earth a mile and more you go, past strata of every known geologic age. And all glorified by a rainbow beauty of color.”

El Tovar made its debut on January 14,1905—a soft opening in the dead of winter when the canyon often got an abundance of snow, so there would be plenty of time to work out the kinks before the anticipated throngs of summer.

The large Fred Harvey staff immediately doubled the number of people living along the canyon. The influx of Harvey Girls was especially welcome. They represented more single women than had ever been seen in northern Arizona, and the tour guides and miners particularly enjoyed their regular Friday night socials, chaperoned by the large and formidable Miss Bogle, the housemother of the Harvey Girl dormitory. Miss Bogle always kept her eye on the Kolb brothers—Emery, Ellsworth, and Ernest—a randy trio who ran the local photography studio but were best known for their off-camera exploits with the ladies, which they referred to as “rimming,” their code word for finding a secluded place along the canyon edge to make out. When Ernest Kolb danced too wildly and too close to a Harvey Girl, Miss Bogle would simply walk over, lift him up, look him in the eye, and say, “Stop your jiggling, you hear?”

As the inaugural summer tourist season arrived, the first newspaper reviews were ecstatic. The Los Angeles Times called the hotel “magnificent”:

Reared upon the very brink of the dizzy gulf of the gorge, the view afforded the guests from its windows and balconies is something to live long uneffaced in the memory … To live in El Tovar is like enjoying the sensation of occupying a room in the top floor of a hotel more than 400 stories high, or in the pinnacle of seven Eiffel Towers piled one on top of the other, but fortunately without the inconvenience of having to send to China for a bell boy every time one rings for water.

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FEATURE: The History Buffer By John Prendergast
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette

EXCERPT: From the book, Appetite for America, by Stephen Fried. Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Marc Fried. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

Front entrance to El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon.







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