LAS VEGAS, N.M. – Who knew the famous Harvey Girls, those “respectable young women” in black uniforms and white-starched pinafores who served the tourists eating at Harvey House restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway throughout the West during the first half of the last century, were spawned in Raton, New Mexico?
The Harvey Girls are making a comeback here in the form of the Las Vegas Harvey Girls, an effort tied in with a Las Vegas “renaissance” trifecta of the under-renovation La Castañeda and Plaza hotels, and the United World College with its venerable Montezuma Castle.
Fred Harvey, the Englishman who founded the hotel and restaurant chain, had to shut down his Raton lunchroom because of brawls that broke out between local cowboys and the male waiters, according to a Las Vegas Harvey Girls brochure. The brawling led Harvey to switch to women as waitstaff and the Harvey Girls were born.
Kathy Hendrickson, who is on the board of Citizens Committee for Historic Places in Las Vegas, and who organizes the Places With a Past historic tour during the town’s annual Heritage Week in August, recently decided to launch the Harvey Girls tours with five local women dressing as the originals did.
Hendrickson got an email last summer from La Castañeda and Plaza Hotel owner Alan Affeldt, a California entrepreneur, asking her if she would start the Las Vegas Harvey Girls and include La Castañeda on the Heritage Week tour.
In Winslow, Ariz., where Affeldt rehabilitated the former Harvey House La Posada Hotel, a local Harvey Girls group has been in existence for about 20 years.
“It (the 2014 Heritage tour) was the biggest tour we ever had in 25 years,” said Hendrickson. “We had over 800 people come to Las Vegas from Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and all over the state of New Mexico for the tour. A big part of that was that La Castañeda was featured.”
Dee Clark and Martha Johnsen, owners of a local antique store, are two of the five Las Vegas Harvey Girls. Johnsen, a life-long resident of Las Vegas, is excited about the history that being a Harvey Girl brings with it.
“I love Las Vegas, I love the history, I’m ecstatic about the sale of the Castañeda and the rebirth of the Railroad Avenue District,” said Johnsen. “For some many years, we have had nothing but dismal news regarding the drought, and no growth and families leaving town. … The sale of the Castañeda made Las Vegas’ glass look half full rather than half empty.”
Hendrickson hopes the town’s new buzz will makes its way on to outsiders’ radar screens.
“It’s difficult to get people to come to Las Vegas. There are some people who live in New Mexico …. who have never been to Las Vegas,” she said.
Even though La Castañeda is not yet rebuilt, you can still get a Harvey Girls tour of it, the Plaza Hotel and the Montezuma Castle, or all three, said Affeldt.
The “castle” east of Las Vegas was also a Harvey Hotel and was considered a luxury resort.
“We want people to rediscover (Las Vegas). This was the biggest, richest town in New Mexico and it’s just been forgotten,” he said. “It’s the renaissance in Las Vegas and that’s what everybody’s looking at this (La Castañeda) as the catalyst that will help people rediscover the town,” said Affeldt.
The Harvey Girls are still formulating their price schedule depending on the size of the group and length of time, said Hendrickson, but they do public appearances on a volunteer basis.