“I can’t believe I’m actually doing this,” Steve Harvey says, for about the 10th time, as we thunder towards Kansas City in a black Range Rover sporting New York licence plates. But why not? After all, he says he has always dreamed of one day driving along the famous Santa Fe railroad – so, seeing as he lives in the United States and owns a car, why the disbelief?

“It’s just one of the things I thought would remain a daydream,” says Harvey, an archaeologist specialising in ancient Egypt. “But now I’m doing it! I wish I didn’t have to go back to New York so soon; if I had more time we could drive all the way to the Grand Canyon and have coffee at the El Tovar.”

I wish the same.

Driving from New York to Kansas City with Harvey has not only been fun and a visual feast, it’s also been an education in his family’s illustrious history, in which the El Tovar Hotel featured prominently. Situated a few steps from the edge of the Grand Canyon, it is probably the shiniest and most famous jewel in the crown, or rather string, of hotels, restaurants and shops established by Fred Harvey, Steve’s great-great grandfather.

Frederick Henry Harvey was born in England in 1835 and became a naturalised American soon after landing on Ellis Island at the age of 17. Intelligent, capable and possessing a furious work ethic, he started out as a simple “pot walloper” (dishwasher) in a New York restaurant and grew to preside over a mighty hospitality empire, revolutionising the way Americans travelled, ate and went sightseeing. He became known as the “civiliser” of an, at the time, extremely uncivilised and very wild west. Harvey developed the first restaurant chain, the first “fast food” outlets (although he used only the freshest, choicest ingredients – as opposed to the highly processed cuisine we associate with the phrase today), the first tourism industry in the American southwest, the first all-female workforce and the first company merchandise and postcards. He also organised the first guided tours into “ethnic” (native American) territories in the southwest.

His empire stretched over 80 cities and towns in 17 states and, by 1948, 47 years after his death, the name Fred Harvey (his signature was the company logo) was attached to some 200 establishments, 29 of which were hotels. He drove a wedge of starched tablecloths, folded napkins and polished silverware into the rough-andready world in which cowboys and Indians were shooting it up and in which baked beans and rock-hard bread were considered a gourmet meal.

Today, however, Fred Harvey is no longer a household name, except among the people who live along the railroad routes he was instrumental in transforming, Hollywood musical buffs and the group of Harveyana enthusiasts who call themselves Fredheads.

It is the latter, as well as assorted members of the Harvey clan itself, that Steve and I are dashing to meet.

A big exhibition about Fred Harvey’s life and work is being staged at Kansas City’s National Archives (the exhibition concluded on January 4) and this evening sees the world premiere of a documentary about the man’s iconic waitresses, the Harvey Girls.

It was said at the time that there were no respectable women west of Dodge City and no women at all west of Albuquerque, in New Mexico – so the army of demurely dressed, unmarried young women Harvey hired to work as waitresses in his expanding empire fell like much-needed rain on the woman-less desert of the American west. Harvey reckoned these young women, with their high collars and starched aprons (to be changed immediately if they suffered the small est stain), would have a calming influence on the rougher, tobacco-chewing, fist-happy types who frequented his trackside dining rooms – men who were unruly even when clothed in the required jacket.

Instructed to be friendly, but not too much so, the Harvey Girls lived in dormitories guarded by dragon-like female chaperones. They had to sign a contract promising they wouldn’t get married during the first six months of employment, after which they were free to become wives to the farmers, businessmen, gold diggers, immigrants and adventurers travelling on the fledgling American railroads.

In January 1946, Metro Goldwyn Mayer released The Harvey Girls, a comedy musical starring Judy Garland; its flagship song On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe had been the No 1 record in the US on Victory in Japan Day, a few months earlier, and the film became one of the highest-grossing American movies of its time.

How wonderful it must have been for Steve to watch the film in the Christmases of his childhood, knowing that it was one of his own ancestors who had set that world in motion. Now we are looking forward to watching another film in which that ancestor plays a prominent role – a film that may not make the whole country hum along to its soundtrack but will definitely tell the story more accurately.

KANSAS CITY SHINES LIKE A beacon on its hill in the afternoon sun as we do a Wizard of Oz in reverse: “Dorothy, I think we ARE in Kansas!” (Except that Kansas City is, of course, in the state of Missouri).

“I can’t believe I’ve come to the end of my journey already,” Steve remarks sadly, as we pass the spectacular Union Station, Fred Harvey’s headquarters, on the way to our hotel.

At the National Archives, some 220 Fredheads from all over the American southwest are waiting, many forced to stand in the corridor as the auditorium is packed to the rafters. Apart from the film, The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound, and its director, Katrina Parks, the star of the evening is award-winning journalist and Fred Harvey uber-zealot Stephen Fried, the man who probably, more than any other, has been responsible for breathing fresh life into the Harvey story.

A commanding presence, with flowing grey locks offsetting a pair of dramatically black eyebrows, Fried became hooked on the Harvey story in the early 1990s while staying at the fabled El Tovar (waiting list for rooms: one year). Since then, he and his wife have done the “Tour the Fred” – tracking the Harvey restaurants and hotels still in existence from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles – several times. All of that research resulted in the ultimate book about Fred Harvey, Appetite for America, which I dutifully buy at the screening. Leavenworth, just west of Kansas City, is smack in the middle of the US on a modern map but in Fred Harvey’s time it was the very last outpost of civilisation. It is where Fred settled in 1865 with his growing family.

Here, along with a collection of Harvey aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins, we view the great man’s house, a Harvey museum and his family grave, set among shady trees. The thought of being buried here one day makes Steve, who has been persuaded to stay another day, think of New York again.

“Look,” I say, “what about your life-long dream?” I point out that it might be a while before anyone else wants to come with him on a road trip, seeing as how New Yorkers recoil in horror when they hear the word “west”.

Still, I can understand Steve’s reservations about driving any further. One of my many shortcomings is that I don’t have a driver’s licence, so he has had to drive the whole way from New York while I have lazed the miles away. And with me flying out of San Francisco, he will have to drive back to New York alone. And before you wonder; no, taking the train was never an option.

This was always supposed to be a road trip, stopping wherever we wanted on the way to Kansas City. Besides, train travel is generally considered to be the choice of morons – Americans love their cars and the railroads have long suffered from neglect.) “If you do decide to go on, I could read aloud from Appetite for America as you drive,” I suggest airily, staring hard at the various Harveys drifting away from their future grave. “Well, it would be a shame not to see a couple of Harvey hotels at least,” he muses. “I can’t believe I’m saying this but, all right; let’s go to Dodge City. But then I really have to turn back.”

Dodge City? Home of … Gunsmoke?

Gunsmoke is my earliest memory of “adult” television and the show started in me a lifelong fascination with the Wild West. The women (I didn’t realise they were prostitutes) were so well dressed, despite all the dust.

The show’s hero, marshal Matt Dillon, sharp of mind and quick of hand, only needed to knit his brow to stop dead in their tracks evil men coming out of saloons to shoot each other at noon.

I hadn’t even known that Dodge was a real place. So the thought that at the time when Dillon was busy controlling the Wild West, Steve’s ancestor was strutting around the city in his buttoned-up Victorian coat made me quite giddy. He knew General Custer, for cussing out loud! I feel I know Fred now; his intense ambition to leave his mark on America, his singular ability to negotiate deals that benefited all parties, his scrupulous diary and letter-writing, his every little expense carefully written up in his black leather notebook.

Given that the world into which he stepped was so haphazard – the gaps between rail tracks would differ from one depot to the next and there were, ludicrously, more than 50 time zones (it was the railway owners who finally got together and decided to standardise time in the US) – it is easy to see why strictly enforced standards were so important to a man such as Harvey. His name became synonymous with the highest quality in everything.

The word “micromanagement” could, in fact, have been invented for Fred Harvey, a man who was constantly making impromptu visits to his establishments – if he saw as much as a smudge on a silver spoon, he would yank the tablecloth off the table and send the customised tableware crashing to the floor.

In Dodge City everybody knew who Fred Harvey was.

Steve is made an honorary marshal in a moving ceremony in the Longhorn Saloon and we are given a free guided tour of all the places connected to Fred, with photos of the cast of Gunsmoke thrown in.

“Let’s drive to Winslow, Arizona, and try to stay at the La Posada,” Steve says. “But that’s as far as I’ll go!” The state of Kansas stretches before us, hammered flat beneath the enormous burning blue sky, as the Range Rover makes mincemeat of the miles and I plough through page after page of Fried’s book.

After leaving the dishwashing business (he had quickly worked his way up to line cook in that particular restaurant), Fred started travelling on the railroads as a freight agent. There were no restaurant cars on the trains in those days, so passengers had to dash off, whenever the train stopped to load up on coal and water, to gobble down almost inedible food. If the food arrived at all, that is – often the catering establishments would hold on to the paid-for meal until the train whistle ordering passengers back on had sounded, then later re-sell it to another customer. The food invariably came from cans because, with no refrigeration, eating fresh meat would have been dicing with death.

This sad state of affairs had a deleterious effect on Fred’s already poor health, especially his stomach. He decided that the way to make railway travel more bearable – attractive even – would be to offer passengers proper, tasty, even luxurious meals.

The first Harvey eating house, a 20-seat lunchroom, opened in January 1876, in Topeka, on the newly established Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) railway line.

It immediately became a roaring success, offering fresh vegetables and meat brought in daily by train (Harvey had parlayed a deal whereby the owners of the AT&SF waivered the freight fee), a proper European chef and, most importantly for many, freshly brewed coffee.

In fact, one of Harvey’s many strict rules was that coffee should be made fresh every hour, no matter how much was left in the pot; the leftover brew was to be poured away in full view of patrons.

We screech to a halt in front of La Posada, in tiny Winslow, only hours after having read about the place in Fried’s book. Built in a mix of Spanish and southwest native-American styles by eccentric architect Mary Colter (another bold move by a Harvey – in this case Ford, Fred’s son, who took over the business on his father’s death – was to hire women as in-house architects), it sits almost on top of the tracks, its far side facing a mysterious, fairy talelike garden. Here elderly women dressed as the original Harvey Girls act as free guides, and they almost faint with excitement when they hear that Steve is a real Harvey.

As we sit sipping margaritas in the Mexicana-inspired dining room, Steve says: “I’ve decided to drive on to Santa Fe. There’s a museum there I want to see.”

Woo-hoo! In the ambitious Fred’s notebook, Fried writes, there was a newspaper clipping headlined “Maxims for Business Men”. “Do your business promptly and bore not a business man with long visits,” was one, along with “Do not waste time in useless regrets over losses.” At the New Mexico History Museum, we are allowed into the Harvey archives and I feel myself welling up a little as I hold that very notebook – with the yellowing clipping still attached.

The second time I am moved to tears that day is when Steve announces he will be driving all the way to the Grand Canyon – and that he has somehow circumvented the one-year waiting list to secure us each a room at the El Tovar. Despite the company not having been owned by a Harvey for almost 50 years (in 1968, Hawaii-based Amfac Corporation bought the Harvey Company) the name still has magical powers.

Soon we are sitting on the spacious veranda of El Tovar watching the sun set magnificently over the Grand Canyon, congratulating ourselves on having reached Steve’s dream goal. But we aren’t celebrating with coffee.

Considering how standards have declined, in coffee making as in so much else, since his great-great grandfather blasted his triumphant trail through America, we feel it safest to toast with champagne.