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Great Lodges

Great Lodges of the National Parks

Canyon Lodges: El Tovar

Lodge | Setting | Trivia


El Tovar was named for an explorer. Here you can explore some other facts about the history of this unique lodge and the surrounding country.

The Famous "Harvey Girls"
The Fred Harvey Company managed El Tovar and other Santa Fe Railway properties. Fred Harvey got his start with a restaurant at the depot in Topeka, Kansas, back in 1876, before dining cars were available on trains. His company's hallmarks were the consistency and quality of both food and service. Harvey began using waitresses in 1883. Collectively known as "Harvey Girls," the young women were well trained, smartly dressed, and very strictly chaperoned. They quickly acquired a reputation for impeccable service. In 1926, Harvey created a tour company. Again, he hired young, college-educated women, and trained them in Southwestern history, art and geology. The "Indian Detour Couriers" were dressed in long woolen skirts, Native American shirts, silver concha belts, and leather boots.

The Other Architect: Mary Jane Colter
With the exception of El Tovar, Mary Jane Colter (1869-1958) designed every significant structure on the South Rim; many are now National Historic Landmarks. Employed by the Fred Harvey Company, she rose to a position of unusual authority for the time. She was obsessive about materials and workmanship; once she made workers dismantle a wall to replace a single stone. She wore Indian rings on every finger, chain-smoked, habitually wore pants and a "disreputable Stetson" hat, and she could handle a pistol. She never married.

A Private Dining Room for an "Earthy" President
Lodge lore claims that El Tovar's richly paneled, private dining room was built in 1906 for President Roosevelt. The President had a reputation for coming to dinner in the "inappropriate" uniform of muddy boots and dusty riding clothes. He stayed at El Tovar again in 1913, later writing a book about his experience. "On July 14, 1913," he recalled, "our party gathered at the comfortable El Tovar Hotel, on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The dawn and the evening twilight were brooding mysteries over the dusk of the abyss; night shrouded its immensity, but did not hide it; and to none of the sons of men is it given to tell of the wonder and splendor of sunrise and sunset in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado."

A Dedication at El Tovar
In April 1920, the Grand Canyon was dedicated as a National Park and El Tovar hosted the festivities. As described in the NPS internal newsletter, the 2-day event included a pilgrimage to Powell Monument, "headed by a group of Hopi Indians in gay attire, and by father Cyprene Vabre, of Flagstaff, Arizona, who represented the Franciscan order. About two hundred visitors took part in the pilgrimage and as many more went by automobile." At an "informal" dance, one of the attendees proposed that he and other guests donate funds for a gateway to the Park. A visiting artist sketched a design on the spot, and $1,500 was raised to cover the cost of the structure, which still stands today.

Taking the Canyon to the Public
At the turn of the century, World Fairs and International Expositions were grand events, often lasting an entire year, and attended by millions. The Santa Fe Railway and Fred Harvey Company used several of these events to promote El Tovar and travel to the Southwest. At the San Francisco Pan-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, they built a grandiose 6-acre exhibit entitled "The Grand Canyon of Arizona." The display included a full-scale Indian village, plus a replica of the Canyon designed to be seen from cars that would carry tourists along the "rim" for 25¢ a trip.

Delighting Dining in the Desert
El Tovar had a reputation for elegant meals. The Fred Harvey Company had acquired an "Italian chef, once employed in New York and Chicago clubs," as well as a small army of kitchen assistants. But it took some ingenuity to supply fresh groceries to feed hundreds of guests in the remote location. The solutions included a private herd of Jersey cows, with a milking barn, to provide fresh milk, cream and butter. The hotel's poultry farm provided a steady supply of eggs. El Tovar also had its own bakery and butcher shop. Enormous cold storage rooms held the necessary imported cheeses, Pacific salmon, California fruit and Kansas beef.

Road Surveys, Car Trouble and Dangerous Dogs
This excerpt from the December 1919 monthly NPS report demonstrates some of the challenges and chores of early Rangers at Grand Canyon National Park. "Preliminary survey for a rim road from El Tovar to Grandview was pushed. A total of 547 miles was covered by rangers on patrols. Automobile traffic on the Hermit Rim Road is now under control; barriers have been erected to keep large touring cars from dangerous spots, and owners of private machines have boon forced to conform to schedule. Patrols were made to Indian camps on the South Rim, and foot trails along the Rim and in the woods were kept open. Owners of dogs in Grand Canyon have been listed and warned to keep them in yards or chained up. During the month rangers met the incoming trains to give visitors information and guidance. This service seems to be appreciated by the public."