Sunday, May 17, 2015

Next stop: Chanute, Kansas

Men in solid white button shirts and derby hats help two ladies off the wagon. They slowly make their way to the double glass door. On the far left one of the ladies glimpses at a white brick building that reads Chanute Milling Company, Faultless Flour while the other leers to the right and noticed railroad equipment sitting atop two wagons.

After stepping inside they proceed to the left where they pick up an issue of McCall's at a newsstand. As they whisper about the cover of the magazine they walk over to the ticket booth. They ignore the sign on the upper right that offers them a chance to purchase imported or domestic cigars and quietly purchase their tickets. While waiting for the train they enter the dining room featuring black and white tiles with seven or eight mahagony tables and chairs. Harvey Girls draped in plain black, long-sleeved flour length woolen dresses with an "Elsie" collar and black shoes and stockings offer them an array of beverages. Each dress features a white apron that runs neck to ankle while their hair is tied back with a single white ribbon.

Initially, Harvey's staff featured African Americans. However. combine the racist proclivities of many travelers and Westerners (many of which were former Confederates) and an "accidental" shooting of a Mojave spectator in Raton, New Mexico that nearly ended in bloodshed and things changed. Harvey enlisted Tom Gable, a family friend from Leavenworth, Kansas, to move to Raton and manage the restaurant. One of Gable's decision's altered Fred Harvey forever.

Gable, according to author Stephen Fried, wanted to replace the African-American staff with women...single white women from Kansas. "He thought they would be easier to manage" as well as be unlikely to drink and start a raucous. Furthermore, Gable believed it could have a positive, sanguine effect on the men working at the eating house, the depot and the customers. The Harvey Girls helped romanticize the Fred Harvey brand along with the overall mystique of railroad travel.

For this reason, I want to start exploring more Harvey Houses and when I took a trip into Southeast Kansas a few weeks ago, I found Chanute to be the perfect spot. Unfortunately, time did not allow me to head up to Leavenworth and visit the Fred Harvey Museum or to Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri to check out the depot, but the Chanute stop was well worth it. I parked the truck by the depot and as I walked towards the tracks my heart began to race. Suddenly, the tennis shoes stopped as I began to seek the next Santa Fe train heading to Kansas City. After hearing loud sounds of silence, it was time to venture inside the depot. As I opened a wooden door, which sat to the right of the glass doors the ladies walked into a century earlier, it felt like I had been here before.

Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that there were no Harvey Girls there to greet and seat me, nor was there any issues of the Chanute Daily Tribune to be purchased. However, I did walk into the library where I was greeted by a friendly lady who helped give me a quick glimpse of the depot. After informing me the second floor was opened I ventured north where I performed some research on the depot and the Harvey House. One hour later, it was time to depart. The tennis shoes scrapped the rocks surrounding the tracks as I bid goodbye and began heading down Lincoln Ave, which happened to be named after a railroad lawyer who became president of the United States.

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