Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery
[Caution: If you are on a limited cellular data plan, you may want to avoid clicking on “more” to continue reading this post – it’s loaded with medium-resolution photos.]
Easily accessed but seldom discovered, the Pioneer Cemetery in the Grand Canyon National Park is the final resting place for several hundred people – and counting. The first burial took place in 1919, and if a cemetery can be popular, this one is increasingly so. The entry qualification is that you have to have lived at the Canyon for at least three years, and the only way to do that these days is to be employed there. Family members of those already in residence also qualify, as do those who have made a “significant contribution” to the Canyon in some way. At the current rate of four burials per year, it won’t be all that long before current capacity will be reached, and then some difficult decisions made.
On-site, there’s an aura of significance and history on these grounds. What would be a melancholy pursuit in any other burial place is here an absorbing exploration into lives lived, personal identification, and anonymity. The gravestones range from none, to bare unmarked stone, to faded wood, to purposeful simplicity, to charming, and to overworked reflections of our current worship of high tech. The bulk of burials seem to be “recent”, meaning newer than the turn of this century, so the cache of being buried in the Grand Canyon is, for better or worse, catching on.
In weeding through the photos for this post, I found something notable or compelling in far too many – otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered taking the snaps in the first place. So, rather than present a nicely-sized proper article here, one not too short or too long to be comfortably informed or entertained, you get a photo dump, and the opportunity to either discover and satisfy a curiosity for something interesting, or a chance to quit while you’re ahead. It’s there for the taking. These photos are small enough that you may have difficulty reading engravings, so I have kicked up the resolution so that clicking on any photo will present a larger one that is more easily read.
In 1875, Fred Harvey was a freight agent with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. He somehow managed to open two eateries in Kansas and Colorado along the Kansas Pacific railway. They didn’t last a year, but the experiment convinced Harvey of the profit potential of high quality food and service alongside railroad lines. Dining cars did not exist, since railroads were in the business of transporting people and cargo, so restaurants were scattered at various engine-related stops along the way.
The problem that made the wonder of cross-country travel miserable was that the usual passenger experience was to disembark to a local eatery whose staff would be overwhelmed at the mass of humanity pouring in. The food would be whatever was available, cooked hurriedly because of the train’s schedule, and regardless of its taste or lack of same, the end result might range from acceptable to hazardous. Stale or rancid food at every stop snuffed many a flame for exciting westward rail travel.
Harvey wanted to establish a system-wide dining operation, but his employer declined his pitch. When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad contracted for an experimental restaurant at their stop in Topeka, Kansas, the strict levels of service and food quality despite the onslaught, so impressed passengers and railroad officials alike that Harvey was successively given financial carte blanche to pepper nearly the entire line with restaurants about every 100 miles by the late 1880’s. This first restaurant chain created a uniformity of expectations across the entire run of stops, a feature taken for granted today. Older highway travelers might be better acquainted with the Howard Johnson line of restaurants, which were closely patterned after Harvey’s proven strategy, and faced less challenging circumstances. Even today, the motivation for Harvey’s plan can be experienced in small towns of the Great Southwest, where anything goes, and the finer points of dining civility are not just missing, but unacknowledged. When you travel and pick a restaurant out of the blue with no prior help, you may be delighted, or you may spend an active overnight. I’ve done both, haven’t you? For a train passenger who had to eat and dive back onto the train before it could roll off, a Fred Harvey restaurant was a welcome sight.
The end result was an expansion into hotels at larger stops, a few of which are still in business today. The Fred Harvey chain aggressively promoted tourism in the Southwest – and succeeded. The AT&SF had to joyfully expand to accommodate. The goal at that time was to make places like the Grand Canyon more available to people at a time when the car was the horseless carriage, and was barely able to break into the hobby category, let alone track down a whimsical series of utterly desolate trails. Now, no matter where you lived back East, you could hop on a train and see the magnificent Grand Canyon, a once in a lifetime experience, and go on to California if you wished, getting to know other travelers along the way, as well as eating and sleeping admirably.
This bargain so benefited the railroad that it carried all Harvey restaurants and hotels their meat and produce via dedicated refrigerator cars at no shipping charge. It operated two large dairies to supply them fresh milk. When dining cars finally came into play, AT&SF gave Fred Harvey the contract to operate them, and thought it unstoppable marketing to advertise “Fred Harvey Meals All The Way!” It succeeded because it actually worked in adding comfort, quality, civility, efficiency and safety into what had previously been so notoriously dismal an experience.
Though only given a very tight 30 minutes to cycle a train-load of passengers through, all meals were served on fine china and Irish linens. Harvey himself set very high standards, was a stickler for both cleanliness and efficiency, spent much time personally inspecting, and even required customer coat and tie at many of his more appropriate stops. The food was both good and plentiful for the price. Example: when you asked for a slice of pie, you got one-quarter of it, not a sixth.
What of Harvey Girls? They were a key part of the equation, and what would now be called the face of the organization, since it was up to the serving staff to make the experience pleasant and seamless for the customers. Harvey knew this, and in 1883 advertised in East Coast and Midwest newspapers for “white, young women, 18-30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent”. While that would cause an understandable uproar today, that was then, and this is now. For relatively good pay on a one-year contract, these young women wore a specific black and white uniform as befit the times, contained their hair in a hairnet, and were allowed no makeup or chewing gum on duty. The senior Harvey Girl acted as house mother for enforcement to terms, which included a 10 PM curfew. Failure to end the year resulted in forfeiting half of the base pay, and marriage was the most prevalent cause of a girl leaving her service. As far as potential young suitors were concerned, these bright young women had already been pre-screened for character and intelligence by Fred Harvey himself. What’s not to love?
The high standards were the source of pride in being a Harvey Girl, as it was tough to get in, and you had to be truly competent under pressure to stick with it – a bit like the jet fighter pilot’s saying, “hours of tedious boredom, punctuated by moments of stark terror”. For this, each started at $17.50 a month, in loose terms about $438/month today. Sound bad? It was damn good money for that type of work then, since they also kept tips (without governmental meddling) from relatively wealthy travelers on vacation, and were already provided room and board, which at a Harvey Restaurant was not exactly gruel.
There’s more than one former Harvey Girl buried at the Grand Canyon, all of who served at the El Tovar Hotel. Opened in 1905, it was built just as a collision in goals began to take shape. The Santa Fe RR had its Grand Canyon Railway branch to handle increasing numbers of visitors. This was the trend in all similar areas that would later become National Parks, as the only practical way for tourists to gain access. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Grand Canyon in 1902 and spoke of his hope to keep the Grand Canyon entirely free of commercialism – specifically free of buildings like cottages and hotels. Since plans for the hotel were already in development at that time, Harvey scented the wind and had them hurriedly completed for a 1903 start of construction and 1905 completion. Roosevelt expanded on protective orders the following year, with successive orders, until Congress finally designated it a National Park in 1916. Roosevelt himself stayed at the El Tovar in 1906 and again in 1913. The hotel was built just 20 feet from the canyon’s rim, and was located right at the end of the rail branch. Originally built as a luxurious 103-room signature hotel boasting 21 bathrooms, today it holds 78 rooms with baths. Again, our culture and expectations have shifted markedly.
The above photo reminds me that a lot of early adventurers here never made it to any cemetery. Whether broken bones, exposure, bullets, cave-ins, avalanche, rock blasting or drowning in the Colorado River a mile below got them, that’s where they stayed put and/or were buried, or were carried off by the river. Now and then today, some poor camper or would-be explorer follows his muse and trips over a weathered skull.