Historic Structures

El Garces Hotel - Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Depot, Needles California

Date added: June 17, 2022 Categories: California Restaurant Hotel Train Station

In 1883 the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad at Needles established a West Coast link for the critical railroad freight line, and founded the City of Needles. One of the first buildings erected was the original Southern Pacific Railroad depot, considered to be a major stop on their Mojave to San Francisco line. Conducive with the design parameters of other first generation railroad depots, the depot was a single story wood frame construction. Often there was little distinction between the design of a depot and other auxiliary buildings used throughout the railroad lines, so the design primarily reflected the utilitarian and functional spaces dictated by the usage. In 1884, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line bought the rights to the Southern Pacific Railroad line through Needles, as part of their Arizona line, and the Southern Pacific Railroad discontinued its service along that portion of the line. Once established, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad added second story hotel rooms and a Harvey House to the original building in 1898. The need for a significant number of hotel accommodations stemmed from the steady stream of weary travelers, as well as the permanent staff of the Harvey House and hotel. Unfortunately, the wooden buildings such as these were particularly susceptible to fire and often destroyed by errant sparks or cinders from the steam-powered locomotives. The original depot in Needles followed the fate of many others, as it was destroyed by fire on September 6, 1906 and claimed two lives.

As the wood construction depots were eventually rebuilt or replaced, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad turned toward architectural tradition for their design inspiration. The image of the railroad depot began to change from that of a utilitarian structure to an important public building. As passenger rail travel increased, many travelers embarked on recreational trips and were therefore able to see towns and locations that were previously inaccessible to them. Accordingly, these towns wanted to make a good first impression and so, wanted a prominent railroad depot. There was a time in the not so distant past, before buses, planes, and trucks replaced railroads as the principle transporter of travelers, freight, and mail, when the railroad depot was considered an important building in the community as was the city hall, general store or post office.

Intent on constructing a new depot that would propagate the desired new image of the city as a major transportation route, as well as an unparalleled destination on the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe line, the railroad spared no expense on the new Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad depot. El Garces opened in 1908 at a cost of $250,000. The first built, and grandest of only two Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe "combination depots" in the State of California, El Garces became known as the culmination of advanced architectural design, modern construction materials, and amenities dedicated to luxury, comfort, and cultural interests.

Considered to be the finest on the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad lines for its time, it was also the first concrete depot built by the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. All structures were of frame construction except the newer 1908 reinforced concrete depot and Harvey House built at Needles. The local Mojave tribes supplied the majority of the labor in building El Garces, many of whom climbed the tall ladders to place concrete into forms for the walls. The building was named after Padre Francisco Garces, a noted Spanish priest, who journeyed through the area in the mid-1770s and first contacted the Mojave tribe. His name is found on the prestigious north facade (track side) and is visible to travelers as their trains stopped to load and unload.

Architect Francis Wilson designed El Garces, as well as four other railroad depots during his career. The first of his designs was the 1905 Southern Pacific Station in Santa Barbara. El Garces was the first of three Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad depots designed by Wilson. The other three depots; the Casa del Desierto in Barstow, the Fray Marcos Hotel and Depot in Williams, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon Depot also in Arizona, were completed after El Garces. Each of the five railroad depots designed by Francis Wilson were of varying architectural styles, as was the emerging custom for the railroad industry. The 1905 Santa Barbara Southern Pacific Station was designed in the Mission Revival style; the 1911 Casa Del Desierto was a blend of Spanish and Moroccan elements; the 1910 Grand Canyon Station, adjacent to the El Tovar Hotel, was of a log construction using Ponderosa pine from local sources, and the 1908 Fray Marcos was Italian Renaissance style. Both the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and Francis Wilson envisioned a depot architecturally and aesthetically unique to the expanding commerce district of Needles.

Due to the formal nature of the style, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad did not commonly use the Classical Revival style for any of their depots or ancillary buildings within the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Arizona or California lines. Most depot designs followed the then current design trends that, in California, emphasized one of the Mission or Spanish-influenced styles, and in Arizona leaned toward southwest styles based on Native American design principles. From the beginning, the style choice and classical lines of El Garces embodied a distinctive and expressive ideal, and placed it firmly within the context of American railroad history as one of both national quality and excellence.

The Classical Revival style, considered to be an expression of progressive ideals, experienced a resurgence of popularity due to the influence of the nationwide City Beautiful Movement of the early Twentieth Century. The City Beautiful Movement heavily influenced many east coast railroad stations during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as the Pennsylvania Station in New York City and Union Station in Washington, D.C. A direct and visible expression of the belief in the creation of a moral and civic virtue in the urban population by early reformers, the City Beautiful leaders, mostly made up of upper-middle class, white males, believed the emphasis should be made on creating a beautiful city, which would in turn inspire its inhabitants to moral and civic virtue. The reform movement in America, which had largely been concerned with corruption in local government, exploitation of the laboring classes by big business, improvement in housing conditions in large cities, and other social causes, quickly embraced the concept of the city beautiful as an American goal. The choice of Classical Revival style for El Garces, furthered the prominent reputation of the small town of Needles that might otherwise be seen as a cultural backwater when compared to other larger towns up and down the railroad.

The May 1908 issue of Santa Fe Magazine announced the facility's grand opening:

El Garces, the new Santa Fe hotel at Needles, was opened for business on April 3. It was erected at a cost of almost a quarter of a million dollars and is one of the finest station hotels on the Santa Fe. It is constructed of reinforced concrete and is 518 feet long and two stories high, the architecture being colonial. It will be managed by Mr. Riley, who will have almost 150 employees to help him. Mr. Riley is one of the youngest and most popular of the Harvey hotel managers and is fully capable of doing El Garces justice.

Primarily used as a dining house for the passenger trains passing through, the dining facilities at El Garces were considered to be the most beautiful on the rails and had both a large lunch room and dining area. The dining room was first class, with linen table cloths, real silver, and finger bowls. Not only was the Dining Room elegant, but boasted of being the largest in the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line with a total dining capacity of 140.

According to Donald Duke in Santa Fe... The Railroad Gateway to the American West, the distinctive architecture of the depots that contained Harvey House facilities were important factors for the Fred Harvey Company and their reputation as the "Civilizer of the American Southwest." Frederick Henry Harvey (1835-1901) formed the Fred Harvey Company in 1876 and began what proved to be a long time agreement to provide quality food to the passengers of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Beginning with a small lunch room in Topeka, Kansas, the company grew west along the new rail lines. In Arizona and California, the Fred Harvey Company began by taking over the "saloon-like" establishments located in or near a railroad depot, and, as the newer and larger depots were built, incorporated their modern and elegant dining and lunch rooms into the design. Their choice to establish the largest and most opulent Fred Harvey restaurant and hotel at Needles directly attributed to the scale and elegance of its architecture and design. As the most noteworthy of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe's hotels, it was labeled the "Crown Jewel" along the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe line.

The Hotel and Harvey House, both ran by the Fred Harvey Company, employed over 150 workers. The majority of which, were the famous "Harvey Girls." Hired to work as waitresses, they were between the ages of eighteen and thirty, single, white, and largely from the east coast or mid-west. Over one hundred thousand young women followed the railroad west to work for Fred Harvey over the years. The large laundry, located in the west wing of the Harvey House, was in charge of washing and ironing all of the linens for the Harvey Houses and the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe on the West Coast, and employed an additional 15-45 people to run the laundry. At the height of popularity of railroad travel through Needles, the majority of the locals were employed either by the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe to work at the depot, roundhouse and shops, or by the Fred Harvey Company.

Viewed as a highly cultured environment, El Garces remained popular among the Harvey Girls. "Josephine worked in Hutchison for two and half years before asking for a transfer to Needles, which, she remembers, was much like going to Europe today." Several Harvey Houses--those at the Grand Canyon, the Castafieda in Las Vegas, and El Garces in Needles, California--had the reputation of being enjoyable communities in which to work and live. Requests for work positions at these houses were frequent, and employees often remained for years.

The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line and Fred Harvey carefully cultivated the image of the southwest and the indigenous people. Intent on providing the tourists with a true southwestern experience, many depots in conjunction with the Fred Harvey Company, hired the local indigenous people to give demonstrations on weaving and basketry for the tourists. Many local Mojave Indians, including those who helped in the actual construction of El Garces, provided their famous beadwork for sale to travelers at the Depot. Needles station was remembered far and wide for the brightly dressed Mojave ladies who brought artistic beadwork to the platform to offer for sale to passengers when trains stopped for dinners at El Garces Hotel.

Initially, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line to Needles was part of the Arizona line, not the Los Angeles Division as it is today. El Garces is the only Classical Revival style depot built on the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad line through Arizona. Seen as the gateway to California on the rail lines for both tourists and freight, the close proximity to State Route 66 automatically increased the stature of Needles as a tourist destination. Many who traveled by automobile across country on Route 66, as well as by rail, planned in advance a stay at El Garces for a much needed break from their travels. With the increase of El Garces' popularity and reputation of opulence grew, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe built the Redlands Depot in 1910, in the neighboring Los Angeles Division hoping to enjoy success similar to that of El Garces. While the design mimics the same Classical Revival elements, the Redlands Depot lacks the size, grandeur, and interesting architectural vocabulary of the El Garces. By way of comparison, the unique design and scale of El Garces juxtaposed against the Redlands Depot serves as a blatant reminder as to El Garces' prestige as the last stop in Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe's Arizona line as it entered California and ventured through the Cajon pass to California.

The town of Needles remained self sufficient prior to World War II, largely due to the positive influence of El Garces and the Fred Harvey Company. It was a major railroad town, with plenty of people surrounding the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, but it had little contact with other nearby communities. As a result of this, the railroad was seen as the "angel" to the community of Needles providing comfortable housing, and a recreation center where many different functions were held. El Garces was commonly thought of as a desirable destination, or travel landmark, for rail and highway travelers as well as the local population. Similar to many other small western towns, it was the most respectable place to dine for both travelers and the local citizenry.

In order to weather the Depression years, the Harvey Houses actively found ways to reduce costs. Most employees, including the Harvey Girls, incurred a substantial pay decrease. During World War II, the Fred Harvey system faced the challenge of feeding service men who were on their way to the Pacific. The Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe lacked the dining car facilities to serve all the special military trains, so the Harvey House restaurant experienced a happy revival. Thousands of troops enjoyed lunch and dinner at the Harvey House Dining Room and Lunch Room in El Garces during the World War II era. Due to the influx of the constant troop trains passing through Needles, the Fred Harvey Company hired local high school girls to help serve their meals, which also helped sustain the local economy.

The ice cream room/soda fountain was very popular with the soldiers who came through on the many troop trains and by those camped in the surrounding desert for desert exercises. General George S. Patton, in the area conducting the war games which were believed to have made victory possible in the African part of World War II, often checked in at the Harvey House on weekends. For relaxation, he is said to have played poker with some of the local "card sharks."

After World War II, automobile and airplane travel became the primary mode of transportation in American society. As passenger travel dwindled on the railroad, so did the customer demand at Harvey House hotels and eating houses. The houses that reopened during World War II closed again. By 1949, many of the large elegant houses -- El Garces in Needles, El Vaquero in Dodge City, and the Castafieda in Las Vegas -- all declined and then permanently closed. Although the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad continued to occupy El Garces, its former grandeur was lost when Fred Harvey closed its doors. In 1988, less than 380 employees were working for Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe compared to almost 2.400 in the area during the 1940s.

"Standing at the Santa Fe passenger station in Needles, California, one afternoon, I looked with interest at a large, impressive building that dwarfed the small ticket office and waiting room. The massive structure was built in the style of the old neoclassical Greek, with a plaster exterior, wide outside verandas and a partly enclosed courtyard. The shadows beginning to invade the courtyard had already crept across its fountain, but sunlight still struck the sign reading El Garces. At that moment the Santa Fe streamliner, the Chief, arrived from the west at 3:15 p.m. for its three-minute Needles stop to change train and engine crews. As the Chief began to pull out of the station, someone on the platform stated: "They served good meals here at one time." Another passenger went on to say. "The El Garces was one of the finest hotels in the country in the old days."