24 November 2013

The Englishman Who Brought the Grand Canyon to the World

When the first US government survey team set eyes on the Grand Canyon its leader reported that the region was “altogether valueless”. When Fred Harvey saw it less than forty years later, he knew it would make him a fortune.

Fred Harvey was a man of vision. He left England in 1850, a fifteen year old seeking his fortune in an America gripped by gold-rush fever, but he got no further than pot-washing in a New York restaurant. He learned fast, though, most notably how the emerging middle class aspired to a luxury lifestyle, and he became determined to provide it for them. 

His own first restaurant fell foul of the American Civil War, but with the cessation of hostilities he joined one of the new cross-continental railroads, immediately seeing how the provision of good quality fare at restaurants and hotels enroute would benefit passengers, the railroad and, most importantly, himself. The Fred Harvey Company was born.

A fastidious man, Fred Harvey was appalled by the conduct of his male waiting staff drawn from the cow-towns of what, in the 1880s, was the height of the Wild West. He advertised in eastern newspapers for young women, 18 to 30 years old, of good character, attractive and intelligent and paid a stunning salary of $17.50 a month, all found. His specially trained ‘Harvey Girls’, attired in black with a white apron, reminiscent of the staff attendant in an English tearoom, brought a sought-after decorum to long distance travelling just as the West was opening up to a new industry – tourism.

Fred Harvey understood the merits of preserving the landscape and the way of life of its indigenous peoples, even to the extent of organising ‘Indian Detours’, a forerunner of the cultural tourism we know today. If the participants weren’t always authentic, few patrons knew the difference.

The Grand Canyon, the prize of the Southwest, beckoned. By the late 1890s it could be reached by stagecoach from the nearest railhead at Flagstaff, but that took a bone-jarring eleven hours with little in the way of comfort to greet travellers who managed to reach the south rim. When a spur line was mooted, Fred Harvey decided he’d have a hotel of splendour to meet it. Alas, he died in 1901, not living to see it open. 

El Tovar, early 1900s
The rustic El Tovar, built in the style of a European hunting lodge in stone and spruce, remains the Grand Canyon’s most prestigious hotel, its elegant entranceway a few steps from the rail terminus and a mere 20 feet from one of the most awe-inspiring views in the world. If you want a room there mid-season, you’d better consider booking it two years in advance.

The Fred Harvey Company finally took possession of all concessionaires on the rim when the Grand Canyon was granted National Park status in 1919, and the ethos of its founder has been preserved ever since. There are no garish billboards or signage, no tacky gift shops or litter. Even the pernicious automobile, just beginning its ascendancy when Fred Harvey died, has been contained by some judicious planning and the use of a free low-emissions shuttle bus service. 

There are still horses, of course, or at least sure-footed mules, waiting to take the adventurous down to the Colorado River. Even in Fred Harvey’s time Bright Angel Trail had enough of a draw for a photographer’s studio to be sited on its lip. Kolb Studio still stands guard and is now a bookshop and exhibition hall showing many of the Kolb brothers’ early photographs.

Every visitor, then or now, wants to witness a sunset over the Canyon, to try to capture on camera the changing colours of the buttes and mesas as they turn through pinks and reds to hues of mauve and purple.

If dusk is full of shared murmurs of awe and the clicking of digital cameras, a dawn is full of silent reverence as small groups gather on the overlooks for the first glimpse of the Canyon bathed in the light of a new day. No one says a word. Hardly a breath is taken as the ambient light rises to reveal skeins of pale mist woven around the ghostly shapes of rock formations millions of years old. In a diamond flash, sunlight breaks the horizon and the piercing rays slowly make their way one mile down to illuminate the hiking trails and ultimately the Colorado River.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fred Harvey gives you… The Grand Canyon