NEEDLES, California (Reuters Life!) - In 2008, one hundred years after it first opened its doors, local officials hope the El Garces will be back in business and once more lure tourists back to this small California town.
“I love Needles and this town sure could use all the help it can get,” said Dick Pyle, head of the town’s planning commission and site supervisor on the reconstruction of this former Harvey House - a combined hotel and restaurant for rail crews and passengers.
“The El Garces is part of Needles’ heritage as a railroad town,” he added, looking round El Garces’ gutted and dusty interior which was partially damaged by fire in the 1980s.
With the help of a team that has already renovated a Harvey House further east in Arizona, the Needles town council wants to use the El Garces as the cornerstone of a plan to revitalize this community of 5,600.
As the U.S. railroads spread across the country in the late 19th century and began running passenger cross-country services, Americans often faced rotting meat and week-old coffee at restaurant stops along the way.
English immigrant Fred Harvey opened up eating houses and hotels along the tracks of the Santa Fe Railway - now part of the No. 2 U.S. railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. The first one was in Topeka, Kansas in 1876.
At their peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses, many in towns like Needles that were founded by railroads. But it all changed as rail passenger services faded with the advent of the automobile and highways. La Posada, the last Harvey House built in 1929 in Winslow, Arizona, only stayed open until 1957. El Garces in Needles closed in 1949.
Now less than a third of the former Harvey House buildings survive. A number of towns like Needles, which based much of its business on Route 66 after railroad passenger services dried up until Interstate 40 meant travelers bypassed town at speed, have languished like their former Harvey Houses.
The El Garces, named after Father Francisco Garces, a missionary who visited the area in 1776 - faced destruction until locals persuaded the town council to buy it in 1999.
Now, with $9 million in federal and state grants, El Garces is the focal point of a plan to bring visitors back to Needles. It includes reopening the town theater and renovating another building in town to house a community college.
“After Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985, Needles didn’t have a plan,” Needles’ Mayor Jeff Williams said. “This comes very late, but at least we now have a plan.”
The project manager on the El Garces renovation - which includes building new 50 hotel rooms and a restaurant - is Allan Affeldt, who has spearheaded the reconstruction of La Posada since 1997.
“When Route 66 closed down, it was like turning a tap off for the businesses in Winslow,” Affeldt said. “More people now think our rail and road heritage is classic rather than just old, and they want to come visit.”
Affeldt said he hoped people reliving Route 66 would stay at the two Harvey Houses in Needles and Winslow on their way through.
Over in Needles, locals like Linda Lusk, who works at an insurance office near El Garces, just wants to see the building restored.
“I‘m glad they’re finally doing this,” she said. “It will be great to see El Garces restored to its former glory.”
Reporting by Nick Carey