Walking in the footsteps of my grandmother (a Harvey Girl) at the Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico

May 20, 2017

The Castaneda, a Fred Harvey hotel, opened in Las Vegas, NM 1899.

For years I longed to visit the historic Castaneda Hotel located next to the railroad tracks in Las Vegas, New Mexico. My maternal grandmother, Olga Berg, left the security of her Iowa home in 1928 and came to Las Vegas, NM to work as a Harvey Girl for the Fred Harvey Company. She spent two years at the Castaneda before transferring to the Harvey House in Belen, NM, now home to the Harvey House Museum. She also worked special functions at the La Fonda in Santa Fe and the Alvarado in Albuquerque.

In the lobby of the historic Castaneda Hotel with Kathy Hendrickson of Southwest Detours
Hotel lobby. Train passengers entered from the doors on the far right.

 

 

 

 

 

Grand staircase in lobby

 

 

 

Thanks to Kathy Hendrickson of Southwest Detours, I got to walk in Olga’s footsteps and imagine what it was like to be a young girl far from home, donning the starched black and white uniform, and serving hungry train passengers at all hours of the day and night. With my husband Tom by my side, we entered the hotel lobby with our tour guide and stepped into the past.

My grandmother, Olga Berg, sixth from left. Look for the deep-set eyes.

While Tom and Kathy Hendrickson chatted at the long counter, I was pulled across the room by a lone black and white photograph hanging on a wall to my right.

Olga Berg, second from left.

 

 

 

As I approached the photograph, my heart began to race as I honed in on the Harvey Girl with deep-set eyes and a quiet smile in the center of the photograph.

 

Dining hall awaiting renovation.

I knew instantly it was Olga, my beloved grandmother! But just to be sure, I whipped out my cell phone and took a picture and sent it to my mother back in Clovis, NM. Within seconds, Mother texted back and said she was certain the young woman was her mother. I also sent the photograph to my two sisters and both of my grown sons. We all agreed the young woman had to be Olga.

Dining hall from days gone by. Note the hardwood floors.

I spent the rest of the tour thinking about my grandmother and wishing I’d asked her more questions about her days as a Harvey Girl before she married a railroader and became the mother of a daughter and two sons.

Lunchroom where train passengers stepped off the train and were served immediately by attentive Harvey Girls.

 

 

 

Olga Berg Lamb passed away on March 17, 1978. Until her last breath, she was always waiting on others and she knew the proper way to set a table.

Back staircase used by staff.

As we walked up and down stairs and entered quiet rooms now occupied by ghosts of the past, I tried to tap into the Harvey Girl spirit. These women were more than glorified waitresses working at trackside lunchroom counters and dining halls across the west. They were risk takers! I wish I had half their gumption.

 

In the kitchen. Check out that giant mixer!

 

Author’s note: The Castaneda is currently under renovation. One day soon, this grand dame will shine again and welcome travelers looking for comfortable lodging and a link to the past when passenger trains ruled.

On the veranda after we took our private tour.

Olga’s younger sister Nellie Berg answered the Fred Harvey call and came to New Mexico and Arizona years later to work as a Harvey Girl. A large photo of Nellie graces the museum in Belen, NM.

On the veranda leading from the tracks to the hotel lobby.

To learn more about the young women who worked for Fred Harvey, I highly recommend The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West, by Lesley Poling-Kempes and Rosa Walston Latimer’s series of books, starting with Harvey Houses of New Mexico (Kansas, Texas, and soon-to-be Arizona).

Published by

kathleenmrodgers

Author of the novels The Final Salute, Johnnie Come Lately & Seven Wings to Glory. Former contributor to Family Circle Magazine and Military Times. Future work represented by agent Diane Nine, Nine Speakers Inc.

8 thoughts on “Walking in the footsteps of my grandmother (a Harvey Girl) at the Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico”

  1. Kathleen,
    What an amazing story about your Grandma Olga. Indeed she was a trailblazer, reminding me of my mother and her sister who went off to Buffalo, NY to work as Rosie the Riveters building airplanes for WWII. These fearless women were models for so many who came after. So very glad you made this trip to pay homage to the brave young Olga who became your grandma. Drema

    1. Drema,
      Yes, my grandmother and your mother and aunt were strong women who did what they needed to do to survive. Congratulations on the runaway success of Running On Red Dog Road! <3

  2. Kathy, what a beautiful tribute to La Castaneda and our grandmother Olga Berg, our Aunt Nellie Berg, and all the Harvey Girls who left their homes and dared to be adventurous

  3. Kathy, it is such a privilege to walk back in time and try to envision and experience the place as those who walked before us. Have you read, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. As I was reading I called my mother to ask if any of her Tennessee family worked at Oak Ridge. She began to name women cousins who worked there when it was first built, the time in the book. As I read the stories of the local women who worked there, I matched the women with my distant cousins and their families. My reading enjoyment was heightened knowing that these were real women who were given unbelieveable opportunities because there were few men available to do this important work. All part of the never-ending, changing status of women from chattel to wherever we are today and on. Thanks for providing me a framework for my thoughts.

    1. Hello Glinda,
      So very good to hear from you. Thank you for reading my latest blog post about the Harvey Girls and the Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, NM. After discovering my grandmother’s photo in the hotel lobby, it was almost like she was there on the tour with us. Our invisible guide as it were. 😉
      I have not read The Girls of Atomic City yet, but I will add it to my list. I can imagine how thrilling it was for you to learn about your female relatives who worked at Oak Ridge. I can imagine how this brought the history alive for you.
      Again, thank you for your lovely thoughts. 🙂

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