May 20, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).