Thousands of years of history

After thousands of years of Native American presence in the American Southwest, the first Europeans – as part of Coronado’s legendary expedition – arrived at the canyon’s south rim in 1540.

Following another 300 years of missionaries, trappers, explorers, government surveyors and soldiers, Major John Wesley Powell and his party of nine made the first successful boat trip down the Colorado River through the canyon in 1869. By the late 1800s, the spectacular beauty of the canyon began to draw both visitors and businessmen alike. In 1901 the first Santa Fe passenger train arrived at the South Rim. Grand Canyon became a national monument in 1908 and on February 26, 1919, it was designated as the seventeenth national park.

Fred Harvey the “Civilizer of the West”

Until 1968, the principal concessioner and provider of Grand Canyon visitor services was the Fred Harvey Company. Founded in 1876, the Fred Harvey Company became the “civilizer of the West” and the company that “made the desert blossom with beefsteak and pretty girls.” Fred Harvey left his native London at the age of 15 to later become the legendary entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to provide better dining facilities along the route of the Santa Fe Railroad. Using modern technology – the telegraph – and employing bright, young and congenial employees, Harvey provided significantly better dining facilities and services than were previously available to western travelers. The first Harvey House opened in Topeka, Kansas in 1876 and expansion reached a high of 100 Harvey Houses by 1917.

Rivaling the good food and modern accoutrements that Fred Harvey brought to the West were his comely, well-trained waitresses – his “Harvey Girls.” Most of the girls were recruited from good homes in the East and had no little part in taming the West. To the frontier outposts of the West, where stampeding buffalo herds were as common as attacking Indians, train robberies and horse thieving, the Harvey Girls brought culture, refinement and romance. The same pioneering spirit that sent restless young men into the West drew the Harvey Girls. Young, intelligent, and well-turned out in their crisp white aprons and bows over well-fitted black shirtwaists, the girls were a sight to the eyes of lonesome western males. They were housed in dormitories presided over by sensible, mature housemothers. They were looked after as carefully as boarding school students in “female seminaries” in the East. Of Fred Harvey, Will Rogers once said: “He kept the West in food and wives.”

Although Fred Harvey died in 1901, he envisioned Grand Canyon as a major tourist attraction and convinced the Santa Fe Railroad to run a line from Williams, Arizona to this natural wonder. With his sons and grandsons carrying on the business, the company kept pace with service and facility needs as Grand Canyon visitation steadily increased during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1905 the El Tovar Hotel opened at the South Rim, at the end of the railroad line.

Architectural Visions

It was the Fred Harvey Company that hired the gifted female architect Mary E. J. Colter. A perfectionist in a male-dominated profession, Colter’s talent and perseverance were realized in a succession of unique Grand Canyon designs that reflected her vision of natural constructions, often modeled after Native American themes. Among her South Rim Grand Canyon works are the Hopi House in 1905; Lookout Studio and Hermits Rest in 1914; Phantom Ranch in 1922; the Desert View Watchtower in 1932; and in 1935, Bright Angel Lodge. Today all of these buildings, along with the El Tovar, are still in use and are nationally recognized historic landmarks.

During the latter half of the 1900s, as annual park visitation began being measured in the millions, the Fred Harvey Company continued to expand visitor facilities at Grand Canyon. Yavapai Lodge – a modern motel complex – opened in 1958, with Maswik Lodge and the Kachina and Thunderbird guest rooms constructed a few years later.

In 1968, Xanterra purchased the Fred Harvey Company. Xanterra Parks & Resorts is currently recognized for its leadership, creativity and innovation as the largest parks management company in the country. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, Xanterra has national park concession operations at the North and South Rims of Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Everglades, Bryce, Zion, Death Valley and Petrified Forest.

Today, as five million people a year visit Grand Canyon, the genius and spirit of Fred Harvey and Mary E. J. Colter live on. The train arrives every day, the view from the El Tovar dining room is as it was in 1905 and the hospitality of the modern-day Harvey Girls still beckons. Come join us.