You’re lying on your back, all alone in the shack you share with a few
other men here in the high Sierra, circa the mid - 1800’s. The bed
upon which you are laying is simply an old burlap sack which once held
a hundred pounds of beans, now stuffed with dry grass and placed
across a few splintery planks held up off the floor by four rounds of
a young cedar tree which serve as passable posts, leaving you more or
less level and a foot or so above the floor. There’s a shirt gathered
into a ball beneath your head; a flannel one which now has too many
holes in it to any longer serve as clothing; a shirt whose red and
black pattern has faded together into a dirty orange. A single candle
visible from the corner of your eye casts gloom over the room, leaving
most of it in shadow. But that really doesn’t matter to you since you
had a bad accident today and now can’t move your head to look around
this room even if you wanted to do so. As it is, you really can’t move
anything since the pain in some parts of your body is so great that it
makes you want to scream while other parts of your body are strangely
numb. In fact, it would probably have been better if your friends
hadn’t wadded up that old shirt and raised your head onto it, trying
to make you more comfortable, since that simple action most likely put
even more stress on your damaged back and neck. But they were only
trying to be nice; only trying to make you rest a bit easier before
they all went outside to talk about you where you couldn’t hear them.
And you know that can’t be good. So now you’re stuck, all alone with
your own thoughts, unable to move, wondering just how badly you’re
hurt, how long you have left to live, and how painful the dying part
is going to be. They might decide to try to send someone for a doctor,
but since you’re this high up in the Sierra any doctor is going to be
several days away. You’re up the creek without a paddle and you could
almost laugh at the hopelessness of it, except that laughing hurts
So, just what is medical care like in the mid-nineteenth century in
the higher elevations of California? It’s scary. But before we return
to our patient who is patiently waiting for either recovery or death,
perhaps it might be interesting to sample what medical treatment
consisted of when a logger or a miner or a trapper got sick or injured
when he was up in the mountains; when doctors were too many miles and
too many days away to be of help. And perusing some helpful medical
literature of the day may just prove enlightening. So pour yourself a
tumbler full of laudanum and sit back. Or, if you don’t happen to have
any of that liquid opium laying around, whiskey will do almost as
Let’s start with a simple problem – say, a fist fight. Two men trade
punches until one of them lands a lucky shot and his opponent’s nose
is broken. Blood flows freely and the fight stops. What advice is then
offered to the fighter’s friends who must apply medical treatment?
“When the bones of the nose are broken in they may be raised to their
place by means of a quill introduced into the nostril.”
This sounds potentially painful as a quill is the hard, pointed end of
a feather, so tough that it had been used as a durable writing
instrument for centuries.
Or perhaps the men fought more violently and drew knives against each
other. Every logging and mining camp had its source of contention -
usually drinking or gambling – and the men involved would sometimes
choose to settle the issue permanently, just between themselves. But
what if a man didn’t die in that knife fight but was only wounded?
“The most effectual treatment of a deep stab is to enlarge the wound.
If painful swelling takes place relief must then be afforded by even
further enlarging the wound. If a deep stab wound causes violent
inflammation, blood must be taken from the arm.”
So, the theory here seems to be that losing some blood in a knife
fight can be cured by losing a lot more blood under subsequent medical
care from another part of the body. But what if the two disputing men
instead picked up guns? Then the following advice is offered:
“Should a ball have passed into the belly or chest, there is little
hope of recovery. Supply cooling drinks of barley water or gruel with
additions of lemon juice or cream of tartar. The sufferer will often
bleed to death in a few hours.”
But it is not explained - since the poor man was going to die anyway
in just a few hours - just why his last few hours should be spent
sipping barley, gruel or cream of tartar. If the patient with the
bullet in his belly were asked and able to respond, it would seem
fairly certain that he would have opted for something a bit more
alcoholic than cream of tartar for his last moments on this planet.
“When a ball has struck the head, the head should be shaved and
covered with a linseed poultice. Give salts to keep the bowels open.
Avoid drawing blood unless he has a fever. Return of the senses is a
favorable sign, otherwise death is to be apprehended.”
Yes, removing blood always helps a man with a fever and a bullet in
his head. And it was apparently considered of utmost importance to
begin the journey into the Afterlife with open bowels.
“When a ball passes through fleshy parts the chief danger arises from
wounding some large blood vessel or nerve. If there is much pain, the
patient should be bled and freely purged."
So, if a large blood vessel is damaged, it helps to bleed the victim even more?
“When the end of a limb is carried away by a cannon ball the loss of
blood is seldom alarming. But you must not depend on this and wounded
arteries may thus prove fatal.”
Hmmm. Cannon ball wounds may prove fatal. Do you think?
Yet, although bullets often flew freely, there weren’t many cannon
ball injuries in the mountain camps of California. The men here were
generally not looking for a fight. However, other things sometimes
plagued those who were new to the mountains, especially the high
altitude and thinner air which often brought on headaches. For those
who were prone to migraines the brightness of the sun, especially
reflecting off the snow, could trigger a migraine. But a migraine,
unfortunately, was not recognized as a type of headache. It was
something worse – it was Brain Fever.
“The symptoms are very severe pain in the head, extreme sensitivity to
light and sound, hard and rapid pulse, flushed face, wildness of talk.
Firm but temperate restraint must be used to prevent mischief.”
Most migraine sufferers then, as they would today, probably objected
to that part about firm but temperate restraint.
“From one to two pints of blood should be taken at the first bleeding,
repeating this operation at intervals of a few hours till the delirium
is overcome. Active inflammation of the brain usually terminates
fatally within four days. In few instances it ends favorably.”
Let’s see: one to two pints of blood every few hours would result in
eight to sixteen pints of blood being drained from the patient the
first day. If that were to be continued for four days, no wonder the
patient died – the human body doesn’t hold that much blood! The only
curious part of that medical instruction are the words, “usually
terminates fatally”. As bad as the migraines may have been, it would
seem doubtful that anyone survived the cure.
The men in the Sierra were, to a man, all very hard workers. And, to a
man, when they weren't working, they (almost) all sought the company
of the opposite sex. But that could also lead to problems, and
venereal disease often came back home with the men as an unexpected
bonus of a romantic encounter with an attractive stranger. The
symptoms were always unpleasant and usually quite painful.
“When there is much inflammation draw blood from the arm pretty freely
and open the bowels with Epsom salts. Local bloodletting is not
“After bloodletting it will be necessary to immerse the yard in warm
water.” (‘Yard’ was a term for male genitalia. An overly optimistic
term, perhaps.) “Add laudanum to a pint of hot water, afterwards
applying linseed oil and an oatmeal poultice.”
All such patients most likely welcomed the appearance of laudanum.
Oatmeal and linseed oil probably were not greeted with an
overabundance of enthusiasm.
“If the patient is obliged to move about he should support the yard up
to the belly by means of any bandage.” (Tie a yellow ribbon around the
old oak tree?)
Unfortunately, the above problems also seemed to frequently led to a
“The swelled testicle frequently happens, particularly when the
running has been unseasonably checked.”
That is indeed an eloquent description, even poetic.
“In the inflammatory stage the patient should lie on his back and a
dozen leeches should be applied.”
Perhaps a comment is not really necessary here, rather just a pause to
allow the mental images to form clearly.
Yet what about other non-violent injuries; the kind of unexpected
event which might befall any man without the slightest warning? Such
as a kidney or bladder stone; a stone big enough to block the flow of
urine? Under the heading of ‘Gravel & Stone’, this advice is offered:
“When an obstinate case of retention of urine takes place it will be
necessary to make use of a catheter made of silver or elastic gum.
Elastic gum catheters are safest for inexperienced hands – there is a
wire inside for keeping it stiff during insertion.”
Squirming yet? Crossing your legs, perhaps?
“Place the patient on his back. The catheter should be well oiled.
Hold the Yard in one hand and pass the instrument into the orifice,
keeping the urethra stretched. The forefinger, passed into the
fundament (anus), will sometimes guide the instrument.”
Sometimes? What does that finger do all the other times?
Returning to our friend who still lays quietly on his cot in his shack
in the mountains with the feeling in his limbs fading away and his
mind contemplating all the myriad possibilities while slowly accepting
the inevitable, we see his friends frantically flipping through the
well-worn pages of the only medical book in camp to see what advice,
what hope, it may have to offer their companion. Because that advice
is all they have. Doctors in California are relatively few and, like
their professional compatriots in the eastern and southern states,
they have so far mostly settled in the cities where the trade will
provide them with a multitude of patients complaining of mostly common
ailments requiring little effort and resulting in quick payment. After
all, isn’t it far more desirable to treat Miss Scarlett for a case of
the Vapors and get paid in gold coin rather than to treat a trapper
with venereal disease and get paid with a couple of dead squirrels?
And so, as our friends leaf through the faded pages in the dim light
they determine what they must do:
“Severe contusion of the spine is generally known by the loss of
sensation and motion below the injured part. The patient may be unable
to expel his own stools, or they may escape from him unconsciously.”
The men pause in their reading, their eyes meet, and they nod in a
knowing way. Yes, this is the correct diagnosis.
“Apply a large poultice of Jalap and Cream of Tartar along the
backbone until a purge of the bowels is obtained.”
The men nod sagely. It is apparently well known that empty bowels help
to heal just about everything, including a broken back.
“Recovery may not take place.”
It would seem that is a somewhat conservative statement.
“But while there is life there is hope, and every attention and
kindness should be paid to all sufferers from this accident.”
Actually, there is no hope; not for this patient in this place at this
time. His destiny is pretty much confined to the shallow grave which
is already being prepared for him by the wiser members of the
community, and our friend is comfortable with his fate. Because he
knows that there are far worse fates which could have befallen him.
And as his spirit floats away to greet whatever awaits him in the
approaching Afterlife he smiles, for he is happy to have escaped
without leeches being applied to his testicles or that Fundamental
Finger making its entrance into his backside to (sometimes) guide his
treatment. There are far worse fates than that of having to navigate
between Heaven and Hell, and medical treatment in the California of a
century and a half ago was one of them.
Finally, there is care given to describe the symptoms of determining
death should it be deemed necessary to execute a man by hanging.
“From the return of the venous blood being stopped by the action of
the rope around the neck the face is rendered black, the eyeballs
start from their sockets, and the nostrils are wider than in a natural
This sounds pretty final. However, if there is still some doubt:
“After the rope has been removed, the taking of blood from the jugular
Or, if the hanging party sobers up and realizes a mistake may have been made:
“The bellows may be considered the most important agent.”
Well, perhaps not. If his face has gone black and his eyes are bugging
out then pushing a bellows down his throat and pumping madly probably
wouldn’t have helped too much.
So if you were one of those adventurous men of a century and a half
ago who determined that being a pioneer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
of California was just the career hinted at by your high school
guidance counselor, then it would have indeed been best for you if
you’d been born with elastic bones, a stout genetic foundation, and an
enviable resistance to all things which crawl, fly, and bite.
Otherwise, in most cases, those friendly care givers who offered you
medical help would probably only have succeeded in speeding your
journey into the Afterlife as they probed the boundaries of known
medicine with one eagerly exploring forefinger.
But at least they would have made certain that you would have had very
clean bowels with which to begin that journey. You would also have had
a fervent wish never to be jump-started back to life with a pumping
bellows only to open your eyes and find your testicles being sucked by
a sack full of thirsty leeches who are slowly making their way up to
that “Yard” of which you were once so justly proud.
Kind of makes Medicare look good, doesn’t it?
For those of you who do not know what a Harvey Girl is – or was – the
following definition is offered to you, lifted from the pages of
history from the mid-1800’s:
A young woman, aged 18 to 30, white, single, educated, willing to
travel and commit herself to at least one year of work at a Harvey
Hospitality House. Financial compensation of $17.50 per month (about
$450.00 per month in 2016 dollars). Half of pay to be forfeited if you
leave before the end of the twelve month term. Lodging and meals will
be provided at no cost. All travel expenses to be paid by Fred Harvey.
Sounds a little strange, do you think? Not so! Women responded to the
ads by the hundreds to get away from their boring lives in Eastern
cities and their even more boring lives on mid-western farms, and upon
acceptance into the company they then flocked to the train stations
and headed West to start new lives. Most found happiness and
adventure. Few of them ever returned home in disappointment, for the
rough towns and the open spaces of the west were their new homes.
Fred Harvey, the man who started this vast westward migration of
femininity, was born in Scotland in 1835. At the young age of
seventeen he decided to leave the Highlands behind and hopped on a
ship for New York, where he quickly found a job at a very busy and
somewhat upscale restaurant, and over the next year and a half moved
from dishwasher up to busboy, then waiter, then cook. But even more
importantly, while his body was busy performing these physical tasks,
his mind was also busy learning the most difficult part of the
restaurant business - the importance of providing very good food at
very reasonable prices with impeccable service, and of making the
customer feel as welcome at his restaurant table as if he was in his
own home. After those eighteen months of intense education in the
restaurant business Harvey left for New Orleans and then shortly after
went on to Saint Louis, where he met a lovely young woman named
Barbara, got married, and happily settled into the process of making
the first of their six children.
But Fred missed the restaurant business, and with his new wife’s
cautious yet encouraging blessing he entered into a partnership with a
friend and started a restaurant in Saint Louis. But by this time the
American Civil War was looming up over the horizon, making people
cautious, even afraid, and Fred’s partner suddenly disappeared one
night, taking all their money with him. Financially destitute, Fred
abandoned the restaurant and got a job with the Hannibal & Saint
Joseph Railroad, then with the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad.
He did so well at his new line of work that the company promoted him
to a position in Leavenworth, Kansas, which was to become his lifetime
home. Yet Fred Harvey’s influence in the world of food service was to
continue expanding farther west, all the way to the Sierra Nevada
Mountains of California and beyond.
Fred’s employment with the railroad not only let him see the inner
workings of one of the largest and fastest growing industries of that
century, but it also left him feeling appalled at the way the
railroads treated their paying customers when it came to serving food
to the travelers. His first attempt to improve that situation came in
1873 when he opened three restaurants along the train lines of the
Kansas Pacific Railroad to serve hot meals to their passengers. Those
eating establishments soon failed, but they proved to be a valuable
learning experience for Fred. So when, in 1876, Fred met Charles Morse
who was the superintendent of the Atchinson, Topeka & Sante Fe
Railroad, he was ready to make a realistic and promising pitch for
food service that would profit both of them. Morse liked the proposal
he was hearing and, with a simple handshake, the two men sealed an
agreement that was to last for many years.
Harvey soon began opening restaurants along the lines of the
Atchinson, Topeka & Sante Fe in buildings owned by the railroad, and
was given their use rent free by Morse. It was at this time that the
above advertisement for young women began appearing in newspapers back
East and in the mid-west, and this began the mass migration of young
single women to the wilds of the west. The young ladies were housed in
railroad buildings close to the restaurants at which they worked. They
were supervised both on and off work by the Senior Ladies of the
Harvey Houses. There was a strict curfew on their going out at night,
and even more strict rules keeping male visitors at bay. Yet despite
the rules which governed them during the days and guarded them
protectively at night, most of the women seemed generally happy with
their new lives. And despite being watched so closely day and night,
marriage to an exciting young man whom she had met in this new
adventure was the most common reason for a Harvey Girl leaving company
employment. Fred Harvey was not only feeding the intestinal hungers of
western men; he was also satiating their needs in other areas as well.
Soon there were over eighty Harvey restaurants along the Atchinson,
Topeka & Sante Fe train lines, and Fred Harvey suddenly found that he
had successfully established the first American restaurant chain. They
were now known as Harvey Houses, owned by Fred Harvey, run by the Fred
Harvey Company, and staffed by the increasingly famous Harvey Girls,
each of whom was instantly recognizable in her long black skirt, full
white apron, and white bow in her hair. When the railroads decided to
add dining cars to their trains Fred was the first to move into that
area of service as well. Each dining room that Harvey opened, whether
it was in a spacious restaurant or in a rocking railroad car, had to
adhere to the same strict standards which had originally attracted
Morse’s interest in the endeavor – fine food, excellent service,
reasonable prices, and efficiency in feeding passengers quickly at
each stop on the line – sometimes an entire train load of travelers in
just a half hour. Yet such were Harvey’s meticulous standards that not
only was he able to effectively do this but he was often known to ride
the trains himself, traveling incognito, checking to see if each
restaurant was providing food and service up to his standards. And if
they were not he was often seen to descend into a tantrum and send
tables and plates scattering across the floor as he shouted at the
manager and waitresses in anger. It was, after all, his reputation
which was at stake. But the tantrums could get expensive, because each
table in a Harvey House was covered with Irish linen and set with fine
Harvey would always periodically return home to his beloved wife in
Leavenworth to continue making those six children, but his reputation
for providing good food served by pretty women continued to expand
westward, farther west than Harvey himself would ever go. An example
of the food which he served could be found in a ham sandwich which he
had made famous. It contained three slices of freshly baked bread
filled with several thick slices of ham and cheese. Really two
sandwiches in one, it filled the fist of even the biggest cowboy and
could be purchased for the reasonable price of fifteen cents. This
menu item alone made him so famous that it was rumored he was losing
money by continuing to serve it, but Fred was a man who knew the value
of word of mouth advertising, so he ordered that it continue to be
served at all Harvey Houses. It was said that when Harvey lay on his
deathbed years later knowing that his family would want to maximize
profits when they took over, the last words he uttered to his sons
were words of warning; “Don’t cut the ham too thin, boys.” Even
though he was dying Harvey chose the moment to send his sons an
important lesson he had learned from years of building the business,
and it was a message which had two levels – don’t tamper with what had
made them famous, and don’t get parsimonious and become like the
Perhaps the most famous item on the Harvey House menu was the steak; a
steak large enough to hang over the sides of a large platter, cooked
to order, and served with a large potato, pie, and coffee. Price: a
whopping seventy-five cents. The coffee was a bottomless cup, freshly
brewed all day long. And the slice of pie was actually one quarter of
a large pie, baked right there at the Harvey House. In that time it
was customary for restaurants to serve a slice which was one sixth of
a whole pie, and Fred chose to outclass the competition by making his
pieces a full one fourth of a pie. Today it would be a twelfth.
But after eating a steak the size of a stagecoach, who would have room for pie?
Fred Harvey passed away in 1901 and the difficult job of maintaining
his high standards fell first to his sons and then to his
grandchildren. As the era of the railroads passed away in the early
nineteen hundreds the Harvey Company was forced to adapt to the
changing times, catering to travelers who now toured the country by
car and bus in much smaller groups. The Harvey Company opened hotels
to accompany their food service. In a sideline which was perhaps
somewhat questionable they even brought their paying guests out into
the deserts on “Indian Detours”. These would provide “genuine”
performances of Native American dances, all performed by paid actors.
The tour groups were always accompanied by attractive young female
tour guides in clothing which might well have been a little too tight
fitting for desert ware. But sex always sells, as does a properly
formatted presentation of a different culture. Today it would be
called a Living History Presentation, and it would pass equally
unchallenged. But the decision to expand beyond the realm of the
railroad and into that of the automobile was a sound one and business
continued to grow.
In 1946 business got another boost from the MGM musical The Harvey
Girls, in which Judy Garland helped to promote the business model by
helping to Tame the Wild West, Stand Up to Bad Guys, Find True Love;
all the while maintaining her virgin purity until one of the Bad Guys
got reformed and married her. It was at about this time that the Fred
Harvey Company also expanded into the national parks, becoming
licensed concessionaires in parks throughout the west, including Kings
Canyon and Sequoia. Fred Harvey himself never established a restaurant
in California. He never followed the trains here, nor did he open a
single hotel room to a paying guest. But because his family kept close
to his ideals of good service, tasty food, and reasonable prices, the
enterprise which he started with just a handshake continued to grow
after his death and finally reached California. Fred was dead, but his
ideals lived on. So when the Harvey Company took over the job of
welcoming visitors to these national parks high in the Sierra Nevada
they did so with all of the grace and cordiality which had marked the
early decades of the company: good food on a table attractively set;
reasonable prices, and the Harvey Girl in black skirt and white apron
and bow in her hair to serve them. And when people sat down to eat
they felt welcome, as it should be.
The Fred Harvey Company continued to provide fine service to park
visitors here in Kings Canyon and Sequoia through the mid-1960’s. In
1965 the last of Fred’s grandson’s passed away and after the estate
was settled the Fred Harvey Company was sold in 1968 and passed into
the hands of other owners. Fred Harvey died in 1901, but his vision of
fine service; his vision of Hospitality; that vision managed to
survive for another six decades until Time took its toll and killed
it. The Fast Food portion of the business model was now an important
part of American culture (or lack thereof), but the rest was
idealistic and just got in the way. But for a while – for an achingly
brief moment in time – Fred Harvey brought Hospitality to this part of
California; this small area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And Fred
Harvey made this place a better place. There are few who remember that
time, but many who should.
Today, when one visits Kings Canyon National Park, the visitor arrives
in either car or bus. The days of train travel are gone. But these
things change, and perhaps that’s how it should be. Today, when that
visitor steps off a bus or out of a car and seeks to satiate his
hunger, he or she is no longer directed to a genteel and classy
restaurant where pretty and polite young women serve them fine food on
an attractive table. Today they are directed to the far end of a
crowded parking lot where, next to a long abandoned gas station, they
stand in line to get to a window in a trailer where they order a plate
of Mystery Meat served on a bun costing ten times the price of Fred
Harvey’s steak on a platter. Then it’s back on the bus, see a Big
Tree, and Get the Hell Out of the Park. And Please Come Again Soon. A
Roach Coach with a microwave oven has replaced Hospitality. Perhaps
that is not how it should be.
Now, if you have reached this point and are still wondering just what
the title of this essay has to do with its content, then let me
satiate your curiosity by affirming that I did indeed once date a
Harvey Girl; that ideal of western American womanhood dressed in a
black skirt, white apron, with white bow in her hair; that paragon of
feminine youthfulness and restrained attractiveness which has been
gone from the Sierra for far too long; too long for most to remember,
or care. And this historical event took place in Kings Canyon in the
1960’s while Fred Harvey still proudly dispensed a refined yet elegant
Hospitality to park visitors. The young lady was a fine waitress and
served the Harvey steak on a platter (by then costing two dollars)
with courtesy and efficiency that bespoke well of the Fred Harvey
legacy. And when she had finished her shift of dispensing happiness
and food to park visitors we would often go off to some remote part of
the park on my motorcycle, her now bowless hair waving in the wind, to
find some grassy spot and drink wine under the stars. Thinking of her
now, I must admit that I miss her.
Yet, if I were to be completely truthful, I must also say that I miss
even more that two dollar steak on a platter, served with Elegant
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501.c.3 nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy