Before Interstate 40 arrived through the southwest, there was Route 66, and before that the railroad. And if you traveled any of them to California, Needles was that first city to welcome you to the Golden State. The connection to Route 66 makes Needles proud of its history, but there is much more, much of which is on display at the Needles Regional Museum. The museum sits directly across from a massive train depot, the El Garces Harvey House, which once held a grand restaurant, hotel, and even dormitory that housed a group of iconic women, the Harvey Girls. Today, it’s virtually empty, and we got to step inside.
Long before there was a chain of golden arched McDonald’s restaurants across the United States there were Harvey Houses, the brainchild of Fred Harvey, who is said to be the creator of the chain restaurant. Born in England, and immigrating to the United States at the age of 17 in 1853, Harvey started as a busboy on the east coast and worked his way through the ranks of food service. Eventually he began opening restaurants at railroad stops, and later hotels, building what grew to become an empire and household name.
Quality food and service were integral to Harvey’s brand, and he employed quite the gimmick for his waitstaff, which were to become known as the Harvey Girls. Harvey only employed white, clean-cut, well mannered, unmarried women ages 18 to 30. In addition to their wage, the women were given room and board, and required to remain unmarried for their first year of employment. Harvey placed ads in the newspapers of the East Coast and Midwest, and many women took advantage of this offer and moved out west to join the ranks of the Harvey Girls. In fact the Harvey Girls became so well-known that near the end of their rein a film was made based on them, the 1946 George Sidney picture, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland and Angela Landsbury. With stunning costumes the film showcases just how few women there were in rough and tumble mining towns, what life may have been like, and that love could be found in the wild west.
With the advent and subsequent popularity of the car, train travel began to decline, and with it, the Harvey House. While no true Harvey House remains in their original incarnation (perhaps the closest are the Fred Harvey Burger and Fred Harvey Tavern at the Grand Canyon), there are a handful of the buildings left, including the El Garces in Needles, California.
We arrived in Needles planning to take pictures for our California Route 66 post, and visit the Needles Regional Museum. Upon arrival at the museum we chatted with one of the volunteers and we talked about the Harvey House across the street. I asked if it was ever open, and she informed me there was a tour in just a few minutes if we wanted to join. Overjoyed at our luck we paid our $5 each and set out with our tour guide, Mike, and a few others travelers to step inside the El Garces Harvey House.
Built in 1908 by members of the Mojave tribe, the El Garces is named after Padre Garces, a Spanish Missionary who arrived in the area in the 1770s, and credited as the first non-Native to cross the Mojave desert. The lower level of the El Garces featured a grand dining room with chandeliers and lunch counter. The upstairs catered to travelers as well as serving as the dormitories for the Harvey Girls. Both rail and road travelers bustled in and out of the El Garces until 1949 when it shuttered. For decades it sat, becoming run down and subject to vandals, with only a small portion of it open for Amtrak passengers. In 1999 the city of Needles purchased the building for $130,000 and eventually it was gutted for a planned remodel. But that all came screeching to a halt a few years ago when private enterprise met the red tape of federal funds, and it has sat partially restored since, and sadly little evidence remains of the golden age of train travel inside. The former dining room was renovated to host events, but nothing to the glory it once was.
Below is a postcard I purchased at the museum of what the dining room once looked like, followed by images of what the same room looks like today.
Those wanting a quicker bite could stop at the lunch counter. The lunch counter was so popular, it employed three of the standard horseshoe shaped counters for hungry travelers. The counters themselves are long gone, but the footprint of them remains, along with some detailed tile and sconces on the walls.
As mentioned Harvey Girls also were given room and board, which was part of the upper level of the El Garces. Like the lower half, it has been gutted, the only reminders of the once iconic Harvey Girls are the floors showing where the dorm walls once stood.
Once our tour ended we returned to the Needles Regional Museum to take a gander at the artifacts from the region, which include many items from the railroad, and of course Needles’ most famous resident, Spike, among other items. The museum sits inside a former J.C. Penney’s building, built in 1948. This location originally sat on Route 66 prior to realignment in 1930.
Fans of Charles M. Schulz’ comic strip Peanuts will be familiar with Spike, Snoopy’s desert residing brother. Spike first appeared in 1975, rail thin, donning a hat, and long whiskers. Inspiration for Spike comes from two sources, Schulz had a dog named Spike, and he briefly lived in Needles as a child when the family moved for health reasons. Spike eventually became a reality for tourists to visit when a statue of him was built and put inside a a Subway/gas station combo of all places, but he was later relocated to the museum.
Visit the Needles Regional Museum at 929 Front Street and the El Garces Harvey House at 950 Front Street in Needles. Please note that the inside of the Harvey House is only available via guided tours by the museum. Tours are every Saturday at 11:00 am (unless an event is going on inside) but I was told that you may be able to request a tour when you visit the museum and they might be able to accommodate you. Visit the Needles Regional Museum’s website for more information.
As mentioned earlier, Patrick and I are slowly but surely traveling the California portion of Route 66 to create a post that showcases the various landmarks along the way. We were lucky enough to visit another museum along the route the same day we visited Needles, so stay tuned! In the meantime, if you want more Route 66 travels, click here!