Smoke, framed by the Rincon Mountains, barely visible above the horizon was the first sign that the historic steam locomotive #844 pulling the Grand Canyon State Steam Special would soon pull in to Vail. Anticipation filled the faces of over 700 gathered waiting for the arrival. For children and students this was entirely outside their experience, for those whose hair showed well-earned silver streaks-this day brought back a flood of memories. The experience was so magnetic that the crowds fairly hugged the tracks in anticipation. Arizona Rangers, Pima County Sheriff Deputies and the Rincon Valley Fire Department ensured a safe experience.
Among the crowd was the entire 4th grade from Acacia Elementary and 7th grade students from Old Vail Middle School. What a great way to experience the excitement of history in real time as the past cutting edge technology that helped grow Arizona into a state met many of the sharp young minds filling Vail’s classrooms. Mrs. Burdon’s Acacia class had been doing special activities in preparation and following the progress of the Union Pacific Arizona Centennial Tour via Twitter as well as local history Tweets from the Vail Preservation Society. The class is equipped with enhanced technology, each student has an iPod at hand. The crew of Engine #844 who knew that students at Acacia and Old Vail Middle School would be greeting the train sent them the following Tweet on November 9th.
“Thanks to Mrs. Burdon’s 4th grade class at Acacia Elementary school in Vail Arizona for following UP#844. See you tomorrow!”
The Vail Preservation Society was so excited to be able to work with Mrs. Burdon’s 4th grade class providing some activities and information for the class. According to Mrs. Burdon, “The students loved it. Most of them said that they drove their parents nuts because they couldn’t stop talking about it. Having the Twitter page and the UP Steam app on the iPods really got them into the experience.
They would check every day to see where the engine was. When the day finally came to go see the steam engine they were thrilled. It was hard to contain their excitement. Once there, students were filming, taking photos, and cheering on the train. We loved the experience of hearing the whistle and feeling the water mist our faces. …students were looking for the various booths to learn more about local history.
These activities really helped to make the students feel that they were indeed a part of this community as well as part of history (attending the Whistle Stop). Having the iPods only made this experience more real. They were able to research UP, other Whistle Stop events, pioneer traditions, etc. The students took control of their own learning and they were completely engaged!!!! … One cool thing that happened right before we left for the event was the students were looking at how big and how much the engine weighed. They took it upon themselves to convert the weight from tons to pounds. This is a concept they learned in 3rd grade and it was great to see how proud they were that they used this skill for something “real-life” and not just for school. Students are continuing to use their experience to make a display for Vail Pride Day. This was truly an awesome and engaging experience. I cannot wait to see what they produce!!!”
Mr. Jackson of Old Vail Middle School was able to incorporate the Whistle Stop into the Social Studies curriculum. “The Whistle Stop excursion was truly phenomenal. Our 7th graders really enjoyed getting out of the classroom and participating in this historic event. Student’s comments regarding the train (and particularly that whistle), band, the pioneers, and the crowd were exciting for me to listen to. Social Studies teachers aspire to hear kids get this excited about our past. For one day history came alive for them. …we have not yet covered this aspect of Arizona history in detail, (but) we did spend time reviewing the Vail time line to learn more about our unique community. The students wrote questions that they would ask pioneers if they could. The result of all this was an enriching field trip that students will never forget.”
Vail was part of the Mail by Rail system from 1903–1967, the railroad and the mail have been very important components of our local heritage. The Whistle Stop crowd witnessed historic mail hand-off reenactments. Letters written by Acacia 4th graders and Old Vail Middle School 7th graders were placed inside an authentic Rail Post Office mail bag, the bag was then picked up the “Pony Express” with Pat Almon portraying an early postmistress. The canvas bag was then entrusted to Vail Pioneers for the final Mail by Rail hand off from Vail. George Monthan (Montan) helped his grandmother Vail Postmistress Evie Schley with the mail in the 1920s, Miguel Escalante and Max Allen both helped Postmistress Mary Jane Warner in the 1940s and 50s. After handing of the bag to UP Conductor Jim Coker, they climbed aboard with Acacia student Andrew and his mother to enjoy a ride to Tucson.
In 1880 the last flat piece of land west of Cienega Creek was needed for a railroad siding, a place for east and west bound trains to safely pass. Vail’s origins as a place began with the railroad and were grown by the dreams of ranchers, homesteaders and miners. The train rarely stops in Vail, the 1976 Bicentennial Train was our last Whistle Stop, but we remain the Town Between the Tracks. Vail knows how to pull together to celebrate our heritage while working towards a strong future that we are shaping for ourselves.
UP STEAM Tweet “Thank you Vail Preservation Society, for a wonderful Whistle Stop! We got your letter by rail!” According to the crew Vail put on the best Whistle Stop along the tour to that point.