The steady clang of sledge hammers wielded by 500 mostly Chinese Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) workers striking iron spikes split the silence on the rolling grasslands bordering the Pantano Wash. The steel rails neared the last flat piece of land before the tracks would follow the Old Immigrant Wagon Road into Cienega Creek. The landscape merged eastward into succeeding layers of marshland that supported tall, native grasses swaying in response to the wind. Perennially flowing water provided a different promise to each pioneer. Crops to homesteaders, fuel for mighty steam locomotives, cattle to ranchers and to miners a means to process ore.
The SPRR had entered Tucson the month before on March 20, 1880. Just west of Cienega Creek rail workers would need to put in a siding, a spur track alongside the main line about 1,100 feet long. This would allow east and west bound trains to pass. The flat place in section 16 would do. It was the last flat piece of land before the tracks would enter the Cienega Creek bed. The main line between Vail’s siding, as it would be called, and Dragoon Summit to the east proved to be the most expensive and difficult to build and maintain along the entire route through Southern Arizona. As workers entered the Cienega Creek bed they had to undertake a significant amount of excavation and build stone supports across the marshy ground. The Western Union Telegraph line was installed simultaneously, enabling reports of construction progress to be sent back to those monitoring the work. The telegraph was a marvel of technology, decisively establishing and communicating the United States’ westward expansion as espressed through the steady progress of the railroad tracks across the southern rail route. Vail is a part of that story.
Surveyors siting the route were not familiar with the region’s intense, unpredictable, seasonal flooding. Washouts delayed trains and held up the schedule. They would plague this section of the main line. There were two washouts in 1880 alone. As a result, the initial work of the Chinese railroad workers would be repaired, ‘cribbed’ or strengthened, and finally re-routed in 1888 when a fresh crew of 1,000 Chinese workers brought the tracks out of the Cienega Creek bed closer to a route we would recognize today.
The first mighty steam locomotive carrying passengers chugged its way past tiny Vail’s siding and on to the more important town of Pantano, nine miles east on April 24, 1880. Business wheeling and dealing, wrangling over water rights and interesting characters like Boxcar Annie, Miss Rose, Walter and Edward Vail of the expansive Empire Ranch and an Apache named Naicho who rode with Geronimo and lived with his son Gabriel near the tracks, punctuate our history. Each generation has written a new chapter for the succeeding one. As we approach the 132nd Birthday of Vail I know that this generation, together, will write a memorable chapter for the future of our community. In honor of Arizona’s Centennial the Union Pacific Railroad will be bringing steam engine #844 through on the Sunset Route and making a Whistle Stop in Vail. Just like the old days!