By J.J. Lamb,
Vail Preservation Society

The Last Flat Piece of Land… Vail’s Siding.
“In the Cienega a large number of China men are engaged excavating, as they there encounter considerable elevation through
which cuts have to be made, and the grade has to be raised a number of feet above the low, marshy ground…”
— Arizona Weekly Star, April 15, 1880
The steady clang of sledgehammers striking iron spikes—wielded by more than 500 Chinese Southern Pacific Railroad workers—split the silence on the rolling grasslands bordering the Pantano Wash. The Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) had entered Tucson on March 20, 1880, and each day workers pushed the rails further east. It wasn’t long before the steel rails neared the last flat piece of land before the tracks would follow the old wagon road into the Cienega Creek bed. The marshlands in the creek bed supported tall, native grasses that bent to the will of the wind, but it would be challenging terrain for locomotives. Extensive excavation and construction of stone supports would be necessary to cross the marshy creek bed. To ensure traffic could flow both ways, a siding was needed. The siding would have a spur track built alongside the main line so the east and west-bound trains could pass before the narrow constraint of the Cienega Creek bed. The flat place in Section 16 of Township 16 Range 16 would do. The Vail brothers owned the land where the siding needed to be placed so along with money and construction concessions the new siding bore their name. The Southern Pacific Railroad of Arizona had no way of knowing, but the tracks between Vail’s siding and Dragoon Summit to the east would prove to be the most expensive and difficult to build and maintain along the entire route through southern Arizona.

A Southern Pacific Train steams through Cienega Creek on cribbing made of railroad ties. Arizona Historical Society #6946

Between 1853 and 1856, Lt. John Parke led an expedition to survey possible rail routes. His initial proposed route ran along the Gila River from Maricopa Wells through the Aravaipa Valley to present day Willcox. By the time the rail line finally become reality, later surveyors decided to follow the old wagon road into Cienega Creek. The old wagon road in turn followed along a trail created by the seasonal migrations of the Hohokam and later the Tohono O’odham. The establishment of communities along these seasonal migration routes would have a significant effect on the Tohono O’odham and their traditional use lands within the Cienega Creek watershed.

In a stunning oversight, Southern Pacific Railroad surveyors siting the route were unfamiliar with the region’s intense and unpredictable seasonal flooding. Subsequent washouts of the rail line caused major schedule hold-ups that plagued this section of the main line. Washouts occurred on a regular basis, sometimes two or three times a year. The rails were no match for the waters of Cienega Creek and local newspapers jumped at every opportunity to report the details.

In August 1881, the Arizona Daily Star reported the washout of Southern Pacific Railroad’s bridge at the town of Pantano. The March 7, 1884, Tucson Weekly Citizen recounted that a “Cloudburst flooded streets of Tucson to depth of 4 feet causing ~ $10,000 in damage. Rillito is a raging river, immense bodies of water coming down from the mountains, filling the water bed from six to nine feet deep. The Rillito is fully a quarter of a mile wide.” In September of 1885 tracks were “washed out from Pantano Station (next station east of Vail) to Cienega Bridge.” A train was ‘thrown into the washout’ by the cloudburst!

An 1887 flood in Cienega Creek flooded the Pantano Hotel and it was reported that “the Valley of Cienega was half full at a depth of 15’ from cloudburst in the Santa Rita Mountains.” Cattle and horses were washed away by a huge, roaring wall of water. It was estimated that between 100 and 200 animals were killed. More flooding in the same year carried railroad ties from Cienega Creek all the way to Ft. Lowell. 100 workers were sent to repair the Cienega Creek washout 9.5 miles of track and 2 covered bridges, one 60 feet in length was picked up by the waters and carried downstream. The Arizona Daily Star reported that, “it will take 3 weeks to repair washed out places so that trains can pass over the road […] The present is the most destructive washout yet suffered by the SPRR, and it will cost not less than $200,000 to repair the damage.” The initial 1880 rail line laid by Chinese workers would be repaired, cribbed, and finally, re-routed in 1888 when the tracks were brought out of the creek bed by yet another crew of 1,000 Chinese rail workers.
To be continued…
J.J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society

Community Connections with Vail Preservation Society
First Saturdays Between the Tracks on April 2nd will feature a special presentation by Sandy Chan, “The Chinese Railroad Workers of Arizona” (10:30 am- 11:30 am inside the Greater Vail Area Chamber of Commerce). Children will enjoy a free, special planting activity with Four Arrows Garden and create their own train at the VPS Make & Take booth. Shop at the Artisan, Artists and Antiques Marketplace and food truck from 8:00 – 1:00. 13105 E. Colossal Cave Road between the 1908 Old Vail Post Office and the Depot Thrift Store.

VPS Volunteer Orientation will be held on April 9th from 9:30-1:00. Take an active role in discovering and sharing local heritage. Email for more information. Register online at

J.J. Lamb is President & CEO of Vail Preservation Society. A U of A graduate, her family has lived in Vail since 1971. She was named an Arizona Culturekeeper in 2011 and an Arizona Friend of the Humanities in 2020.

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J.J. Lamb