With Old Vail Middle School Students

Our stories, local history, lore, and special places help us connect to each other and find our way in a changing world. They allow us to understand the place we live and the people whose lives and intentions shaped it. With the support of Arizona Humanities, The Vail Voice, and building on the 2018 documentary film Voices of Vail, the Vail Preservation Society worked with OVMS students in Mr. Travis Newton’s 8th grade Literacy Class and Ms. Shantaye McMorrow’s 8th grade Advanced Art Class who researched, interviewed longtime residents and experts, studied historic photographs and observed the landscape on site visits. They then wrote stories, and created illustrations about their local history. These middle school students are placemakers: storytellers and artists who share stories of Vail’s  past that can help us understand Vail today, and inform decisions for our future.

A Railroad Siding Called Vail

Connor Bingham, OVMS 8th Grade Student

The railroad is the reason Vail began. A railroad built across Arizona was part of growing the United States. Trains made it easier for people to come west and to do business. In 1880 the railroad reached Vail. It was being built east from California by the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) through Arizona. The Texas & Pacific Railroad had permission to build west from Texas. They never made it to Arizona. The SPRR was determined to build quickly. Railroads made money according to the miles of railroad tracks built. Laying more tracks would earn more money.

The SPRR stopped to build a siding so that trains going in opposite directions could pass because they found a good flat spot to build. Today this flat spot is between the railroad tracks on Colossal Cave Road, in Vail.  A little town grew around the siding. After the railroad came through some people decided to start a farm. It was built where Rancho del Lago is now. When the railroads came through there was a farm that was able to have their fruits and vegetables transported back to the railroad tracks and put them in the railroad cars.

Transportation was a lot faster and more goods could be transported once the railroad came through Arizona. More people moved to Arizona. Some of those people were miners. They mined copper south of Vail in the Santa Rita Mountains. They built a road to the railroad siding so that they could ship copper ore. This road helped Vail grow.

Railroad tracks define Vail Village c1910. The Vail railroad Section Forman home, and home of Otto and Evie Schley are framed against the Rincon and Catalina Mountains. Watercolor by Morgan Dormer, OVMS Advanced Art student.

 When the railroad was built across Arizona it was good for many people and made some things easier. The railroad tracks also caused changes to Cienega Creek. The railroad tracks caused the marshy places with tall grasses to disappear and some Native Americans moved out of the area that had been their home. Settlement of the land was really important to the United States and to Arizona. We have a very good place to live because the SPRR stopped and built a railroad siding called Vail.

Disappeared ― ‘Just Like That’! Night Operator Clough’s Escape

Aubrey Fatovich, OVMS 8th Grade Student

        January 28th, 1903 was a typical, cold winter night for young E. F. Clough the night operator in charge of communications at Vail Station. The Sunset Limited—a passenger train in route to San Francisco—was running a little behind schedule, but nothing out of the ordinary was happening to clue Clough into the disaster racing toward him.

        Clough’s task for the night was to make sure that conductor Sunset Limited’s conductor, G.W. Parker, received two different orders. The orders had come at different times and included different, seemingly contradictory instructions. The first said that the Sunset Limited would meet an oncoming train near Wilmot Station. The second ordered Parker to pull the Sunset Limited onto the siding track at Esmond Station to allow the eastbound Crescent City Express to pass.

Vail SPRR Depot where mishandled orders led to the worst train wreck in Arizona history. Watercolor by Elise Ala, OVMS Advanced Art student.

        Nearly everyone aboard the Sunset Limited must have been sleeping when Parker pulled the train into Vail Station. Behind schedule and likely in a hurry, Parker dashed into the station, to grab any orders waiting for him. There is no way of knowing exactly what happened between Clough and Parker, but the outcome is clear: there were two orders on the table waiting for Parker, but he only left the station with one. Clough doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to what was going on, and when he did finally notice the second order was still sitting on the table, it was too late to catch up with the train and give it to Parker. Clough knew Parker was steaming toward disaster, but what could he do?

        Only a few miles from Tucson, the Sunset Limited and the Crescent City Express—going full speed in opposite directions on the Northern track—collided just before 3:00 in the morning. The track had a curve in it that meant the trains wouldn’t be able to see each other until it was too late; each train would need at least a mile of track to stop. Once Parker pulled out of Vail Station, there was no way to avoid the crash.

        The impact was catastrophic. Oil tanks exploded. Train cars stacked and piled on top of each other. Huge flames blazed from the wreck of twisted iron, wood, and bodies well past sunrise. The next day people came to “help” clean up after the crash but really many of the people “helping” came just to try and get some of the gold or silver jewelry. 

        Later that day, there was a trial to determine who was at fault. At first the blame was on both train conductors then it switched to Parker because he admitted to not taking the second order. Ultimately, the blame was put on Clough because it was his responsibility to ensure that Parker received the orders. After Clough made a final statement saying that it wasn’t his fault, it was Parker’s, he ran.

      There was no warrant out for his arrest after he disappeared, but he never came back. Even to this day no one knows where he went.

Author’s Note: This is interesting to me because it is such a mystery and I really wonder where Clough went, and I wonder how he disappeared just like that?

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