Biographies & Memoirs



BEFORE FRED LOST HIS RESTAURANT, ONE OF HIS FAVORITE regular customers was Captain Rufus Ford, a veteran boatman who lived upriver in Quincy, Illinois, but often stopped in during his regular runs between St. Louis and St. Paul. Ford had become successful in the 1850s skippering “packet boats”—regularly scheduled steamships carrying people, goods, and mail—on the upper Mississippi. During his years as captain of the lavish one-hundred-berth ship the Die Vernon, he held the record for the fastest trip between St. Louis and St. Paul making all stops: only eighty-four hours.

Now in his late forties, Captain Ford had been telling Fred about the company he had recently started—a packet boat business farther west, on the other side of the state. There was a new railroad across the northern part of Missouri, connecting the eastern border at Hannibal to the small, bustling western river town of St. Joseph. The owners of the new Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad had hired Ford to set up a packet boat service along the untamed Missouri River—allowing people and goods to cross, continuing on to Omaha and points farther west.

At the time, nobody could have imagined what a valuable route it would soon become. But then came the prospect of war, which brought railroad construction around the country to a screeching halt, leaving the East fairly well served from the Atlantic Ocean to just beyond the Mississippi, but nothing else in North America except a handful of small, isolated railroads in California, Oregon, and Texas. Suddenly the H& SJ—nicknamed the “Horrible & Slow-Jolting” for its rickety tracks and frequent derailments—mattered far beyond Missouri. And little “St. Joe,” as locals called the town, was now the end of the line: the last train stop in America, the westernmost point on the entire eastern railroad system.

So the town quickly became famous nationwide for a burgeoning new industry: the mail.

The U.S. government made St. Joe the hub for the entire nation’s transcontinental mail—which, after being sorted there, headed farther west on stagecoaches or packet boats. The city was also the end point for the Western Union wires from the East, which is why, in April 1860, it became home to the fabled Pony Express. St. Joe was the starting gate for the mad tag-team gallop to the West Coast by riders who responded to ads calling for “young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18; must be expert riders willing to risk death daily; orphans preferred.”

When the Civil War started, the H&SJ was so important that Ulysses S. Grant’s first assignment for the Union army was to guard it. But in September 1861, it was attacked; the Platte River Bridge that the H&SJ crossed just before reaching St. Joseph was sabotaged, and an entire train, with over one hundred passengers aboard, flipped over and fell thirty feet into the water, killing seventeen and injuring dozens of others.

In such a challenging business environment, Captain Ford needed all the help he could get to keep his packet boats running on time. And he knew his friend Fred needed a job. So they made a deal, and the young Harvey family moved to the tiny postal boomtown of St. Joseph: population 8,932, one-eighteenth the size of St. Louis.

Fred quickly learned about life on the silty, temperamental Missouri River, “the Big Muddy,” which was prone to freezing every winter, indiscriminately flooding or drying out every summer, and generally presenting endless challenges to Captain Ford’s packet boats. There were passengers to feed and entertain—many of the boats had impressive restaurants and saloons—as well as cargo to care for and schedules to meet. It was a demanding and intriguing business, which showed Fred a world—worlds, actually—he had never seen living in two of America’s largest cities. The Missouri River was the border between the fast, new, hulking trains, billowing with smoke and soot, and the squeaky stagecoaches and horse-drawn carriages—and the Missouri packet boats shuttled back and forth between the future and the past. Messages came into the Western Union station in St. Joseph using the fastest technology known to man, and left in the satchel of a Pony Express rider on horseback.

Life along the Missouri was full of such fascinating, dizzying extremes. There were also plenty of risks, including disease, and soon Fred became gravely ill, diagnosed with typhoid fever. There were no effective treatments available, and he came close to death. His recovery was slow, and he was lucky to be working for a friend, Ford, who was so patient. Yet while he survived the worst of the typhoid, it wreaked permanent havoc on his body, especially his gastrointestinal system. In a photo taken of him after his recovery, he appeared to be a different man—alarmingly gaunt, even a bit haunted, with chin whiskers dangling beneath his flat-lined, expressionless mouth. His wavy hair was combed forward on the sides and swept up in the front, in an attempt to obscure his receding hairline and widow’s peak. He looked as if he had been riding packet boats on the River Styx.

By the time Fred finally returned to work, life in the fast-paced world of St. Joe had changed dramatically. The Pony Express had shuttered its stables after only eighteen months in business. Its demise was blamed on Western Union’s historic new telegraph line from St. Joseph all the way to Sacramento; it was completed on October 24, 1861, enabling telegrams to be sent instantaneously from sea to shining sea. But in fact the Pony Express had been doomed for some time. It wasn’t a business so much as a publicity stunt, meant to help its financially strapped parent company—the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express—snare from another firm the $1 million ($25.2 million) government contract to handle all the stagecoach mail delivery to the West. While the Pony Express lost money, as expected, the service attracted huge national press attention, and papers regularly published news stories “from California by the Pony Express.” But after the government decided not to fire its current carrier, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company, the challengers were grateful for any excuse to put the Pony Express out to pasture.

Regardless of the new telegraph capabilities, letters were still the main form of communication, so the operation of the St. Joseph post office remained vital to war-torn America. As Fred’s strength returned, he went back to work for Captain Ford and even took on a second job—because Ann was pregnant again and they would need extra money. He was hired as a government postal clerk in February 1862, and soon found himself involved in an experiment that proved much more important than the Pony Express: the nation’s first traveling post office.

Since the United States began postal service in 1776, mail was allowed to be sorted only when it reached a local post office. But Fred’s boss, assistant postmaster William Davis, convinced his government bosses to let him test a specially equipped train car on which mail could be sorted en route. Fred was assigned to the project, and the new mail cars were first tested in late July 1862 along the Hannibal & St. Joseph.

The railroad had grown even more “Horrible & Slow-Jolting” as the war limited supplies and materials for proper repairs. There were no more of those breakneck runs from the early days of the Pony Express, which one roadmaster fondly recalled because “it simply rained hogs. The engine would hit them, knock them in the air and pass them before they struck the ground.” But the H&SJ could still be a pretty wild ride. Fred and his fellow mobile mail clerk, John Patten, were glad their boss had thought to have iron rods attached to the ceiling of the car so they could hang on.

Once the kinks were worked out, though, the postal-sorting car was a huge success, dramatically reducing the time it took to get mail to California. It became the prototype for the national Railway Mail Service, a model that prevailed for over a century.

With his postal service job and his ongoing work with the packet line, Fred was developing a sense of safety and security again. Even though the Civil War was raging, there had been no violence in St. Joe since the tragic Platte River Bridge sabotage, and the conflict’s main effect on life in St. Joseph was to provide steady business.

He and Ann could feel cautiously optimistic about bringing another child into the world. Charles Harvey, named for Fred’s father, was born on October 6, 1862. Like his older brother, he had blue eyes and tufts of curly blond hair. He was apparently a healthy baby, but there were complications with the delivery, and Ann became gravely ill.

At that time, almost one percent of all births in America resulted in the death of the mother, mostly from puerperal fever or unstoppable bleeding. In the fall of 1862, Ann Harvey became part of those tragic statistics. She was only twenty-seven years old.

WITH AN INFANT and a twenty-month-old to care for, Fred had little time to mourn. He had learned some things over the years as a businessman—important jobs, he knew, should not remain unfilled. So, despite his grief, after being widowed for only four months, he married again.

His new wife was Barbara Sarah “Sally” Mattas, the eldest child of a large working-class family recently emigrated from the town of Pilsen in Czechoslovakia, first to Montreal and then to St. Louis. Just nineteen years old—eight years Fred’s junior—Sally Mattas was a lively, diminutive woman with big, pinchable cheeks, kind gray eyes, and a sturdy build. She had been working in St. Louis as a seamstress, spending much of her time helping her mother take care of a brood of five young children.

Little is known about how Fred met Sally, because he purposely fictionalized their past for the sake of his children. He even went so far as to write a fake wedding date in the Harvey family Bible to make it appear that Sally had been Eddie and Charley’s mother. In fact, the couple actually married on February 20, 1863, at the St. Joseph courthouse. According to their marriage record—only recently discovered, in a weathered, handwritten St. Joseph city ledger—ex officio Justice of the Peace M. L. Harrington officiated at the ceremony.

Fred first got to know Sally in St. Louis, where she may have been a waitress in his restaurant. But how they came to be married in St. Joseph is unclear. Perhaps he had been fond of her in St. Louis and returned for her after being widowed; or she may originally have been hired to help Fred with his children and saw her role in his life mushroom over those challenging months. Either way, there was some economic aspect to their union, because Sally’s family was in desperate straits. Her father, Martin, a day laborer, had volunteered at the age of forty-one to fight for the Union with the Second Regiment of the Missouri Infantry. He served for a year and was discharged with a battle-related disability and pneumonia—and he was on his deathbed when Sally married Fred.

It was hardly an ideal way for a young couple to start their life together: more like a desperate business deal than a love connection. Still, it was a good deal. And within the confines of those staid Victorian times, Fred and Sally developed a certain affection for each other. Somehow, they made it work.

In the great tradition of celebrated Americans who started out in the mail room, Fred was able to parlay his time aboard the H&SJ postal-sorting car into a position with the railroad itself: as a sales agent for passenger tickets. It was a job better suited to his talents, and to the contacts he had already made working with Captain Ford’s packet boat business. Even with the war raging in the East, the H&SJ was doing a small but steady business carrying passengers on trains that, for the most part, existed to transport the mail and other freight.

Fred sold passenger tickets for the H&SJ from St. Joseph for over a year, developing a reputation that caused railroad executives to take notice. In early 1865, he was offered a better job as a sales agent for the North Missouri Rail Road, a sister line of the H&SJ. But the North Missouri insisted he relocate. In anticipation of the war ending, everyone realized that St. Joseph, Missouri, wasn’t going to be the last stop on the railroad too much longer. The North Missouri wanted Fred to work from Leavenworth, the first city on the Kansas side of the river, and the one most likely to be the first connected to the East when the war was over and railroad construction began again.

Leavenworth was only fifty miles downriver from St. Joseph. But in many ways it seemed like another country.

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