I have been well acquainted with the Cieniga {sic} from 1880 when the Southern Pacific Railroad reached there …there was no deep wash through the bottom as at present, but a succession of meadows  thickly covered with sacaton and salt grass.  A number of springs fed the main stream that ran down the valley. 

Edward Vail

Nestled between two sets of railroad tracks, Vail’s original town site is located west of Punta de Agua, where Cienega Creek becomes the Pantano. Speeding cars race over a modern bridge, most drivers not observing how the Rincon, Santa Rita, and Empire mountains fade into a broad valley. Not many stop to imagine how the landscape that greeted Walter and Edward Vail and other early settlers has changed. Most of the year parched sand lines the creek bed where tall grasses once swayed in the breeze. Cienega Creek created a natural route that was old when the prehistoric Hohokam created a well-worn path along the waterway. Called Tuwo Kuswo by the Tohono O’odham, the Vail area is part of their ancestral homelands. The Morman Battalion passed through in 1846, followed by the San Antonio and San Diego Stage Line in 1857, and the Butterfield in 1858. Still, later Tulley and Ochoa’s Freight Company wagons rumbled through along the old wagon road supplying Tucson with goods. The Cienega Stage Station, built to serve the Butterfield Stage Line, and later operated independently, provided what passed for amenities in the west for weary travelers. Cienega Creek’s ribbon of life-sustaining water welcomed early settlers who grazed sheep, goats and cattle.

Arriving in 1876, Walter Vail soon purchased meadow land at the headwaters of Cienega Creek, near Sonoita. His purchase also included:  “an old wagon and a little yellow dog.  “Billy”, the little dog, got to be quite a favorite on the ranch (Empire Ranch). He was very intelligent, and comical in appearance with short legs and a long body like a dachshund, and my brother told me that the only thing he had to show a short time after the purchase, except the land, was little Billy, the dog.”  

Edward Vail

Billy the dog may have been intelligent and beloved by Walter and the wranglers, but Billy also had a strong sense of himself. Dogs who crossed Billy’s boundaries risked a tangle. On one occasion this almost caused a gunfight on the streets of Tucson between the offending dog’s owner and Walter, whose cool head narrowly avoided the canine caused confrontation.

The late 1870s and early 1880s was a time of transition, speculation, turmoil, and opportunity. Walter, Edward, and their partners were up for the challenge. The approaching Southern Pacific Railroad main line added to the mix. The Vail’s and partners made strategic land purchases.

This Indenture, made the Eighth day of December in the year of our Lord one thousand and eighty-seven.  Between J.S. Vosburg…and Walter L. Vail…and the Southern Pacific Railroad Company…in consideration of the sum of fifteen hundred Dollars, ($1,500.00) to them in hand… all of these certain strips or parcels of land lying being and situated in the County of Pima in the Territory of Arizona…  A strip of land one hundred feet wide, being equally on each side of the located line…Township 16S, Range 16E.  …that none of the lands herein granted shall be rented or leased for the sale of liquors or for any business purposes except for warehouse business, and that the grantor be allowed to erect a warehouse at said station grounds adjoining a side track, for five dollars grounds rent per annum, and that a cattle shipping corral shall be provided…of sufficient capacity to hold twenty car loads of cattle…

Strategically located, Vail became the major shipping point for copper ore from Helvetia Mining District and for cattle from local ranches. A small railroad town grew up around the Vail Station. Pantano, about six miles to the east was the nearest Post Office until 1901. Walter served as postmaster there for a short time and shipped silver ore and cattle from Pantano. Edward Vail received shipments of goods at the Vail Station to support his Vail Ranch in the Santa Rita Mountains. Vail’s siding, like other railroad towns, had maintenance structures, a water cistern, housing for railroad employees, cattle corrals, a cemetery, ice cream shop and even a pool hall!

 …to be continued

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J.J. Lamb