Along Railroad Avenue in Las Vegas stands a monument to the extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit that built Las Vegas and the whole of the Southwest. It’s La Castañeda Hotel, fondly known as the ‘Queen of Las Vegas.’ After more than 118 years, the Queen is not only still standing, she’s in the process of being restored to her former glory.
In the late 1800s Las Vegas enjoyed a surge of economic prosperity brought on by the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The original 40-room La Castañeda was built in1898 to accommodate a growing need for a comfortable and luxurious stop for passengers traveling through the Southwest.
La Castañeda is the oldest Mission Revival Style building in New Mexico. It is also the very location where an ambitious entrepreneur by the name of Fred Harvey launched an enterprise, which would change rail travel for decades to come, and usher in the “restaurant chain” concept we know today.
Good Food, First Class Service … What A Concept
What sounds simple idea proved to be a recipe for great success in the early days of passenger train travel. In undeveloped areas like the Southwest long trips meant occasional stops at “eating stations” where one could expect few choices and poor food. Rancid meat, cold beans and week-old coffee were not unheard of.
The fledgling AT&SF Railroad knew well that to open the Southwest to travel and tourism they needed more than engines, railcars, stations, tracks and the land underneath them. Attracting long distance customers to debark and linger along the way meant offering amenities to keep them comfortable and content. For starters, a station-wide system of eateries offering decent food would be essential.
Lucky for AT&SF, a solution arrived right on time in a young ambitious Englishman named Fred Harvey.
A Perfect Marriage
As an employee of the Burlington Railroad, Harvey proposed a plan to build clean, quality eating houses along the Burlington routes. When his plan was rejected, he made a proposal to the young and ambitious AT&SF Railroad who enthusiastically accepted.
In exchange for the goods and facilities needed to operate quality trackside “eating places”, Harvey would serve a good meal at a reasonable price at trackside facilities along the railroad’s major routes.
The railroad delivered, and so did Fred Harvey. Impeccably.
La Castañeda Hotel was the first trackside gem of the Harvey House chain, one of three anchor hotels built by the railroad. Harvey was hired as its manager, eagerly getting to work on what would become a legendary style of hospitality excellence
Fresh fruits and vegetables, refrigerated meats and all manner of delectable ingredients were prepared into hearty mouthwatering meals, served in clean, pleasantly decorated dining rooms and served by well mannered, hard working young ladies in conservative starched service uniforms. Together the food, the service and the “Harvey Girls” as they became known, could pacify the fussiest of passengers and quickly became an invaluable component of the ATS&F travel experience.
In his first 15 years with ATS&F he created 17 trackside restaurants. At his peak, he operated 84 restaurants throughout New Mexico, Arizona, California, Kansas and Texas, and created what became America’s first restaurant chain.
La Castañeda Today
The story of Fred Harvey, his Harvey Girls and the success of AT&SF is only one of many stories the ‘Queen of Las Vegas’ has to tell.
La Castañeda’s period architecture and timeless charm has made her a perennial favorite location among the many film companies shooting in and around Las Vegas.
In 1899, while still brand new, she was hostess to the first of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Rider reunions.
And to those who have reported numerous sightings, La Castañeda is still home to ghosts of the past who continue to enjoy the luxury, charm and hospitality of her majesty the Queen.