Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter was born one month after the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met in Utah to join and create the first transcontinental railway in the United States.

Her life paralleled the rise and fall of passenger railways. From 1902 until her death in 1958, her life was tied to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, and the Fred Harvey Company, which operated restaurants, hotels, and sight seeing services along the Santa Fe line.

Colter was called upon to design and decorate hotels, restaurants, and Indian buildings alone the line, and especially at the Grand Canyon. The Santa Fe introduced the American public to the Southwest’s scenic wonders in style. Travelers found comfort and good service supplied by the Fred Harvey Company wherever the Santa Fe went. All through the 1920s and into the early 1930s passenger traffic boomed.

Colter also saw the decline of passenger traffic in her senior years, to the point some of her favorite projects were torn down or closed. She commented that “There is such a thing as living too long.”

I have recently finished a Colter biography for middle school children, and am working on a picture book biography for younger children.

Colter is a fascinating woman introduced to me by Virginia Grattan. Another lengthy biography of Colter by Arnold Berke is also available. Both are excellent books about a fascinating woman, who defied tradition, worked in a man’s job, which included bossing the men in hard hats and demanding superior workmanship from them. She got it.


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