Walter Vail stepped out of a stagecoach onto the dusty streets of Tucson in 1876. Twenty-four years old, with a keen sense of purpose, Walter intended to become a successful businessman and rancher. Walter left New Jersey soon after turning 21. His quest led him to Virginia City, Nevada where he worked as a time keeper in the silver mines. By all accounts he worked hard and above board but Virginia City was a rough and lawless place. It wasn’t long before his savings were stolen, and all his hard work had come to naught. After this devastating set-back, he sought advice from his Uncle Nathan who recommended he head to Tucson and look for land there.

Three days after arriving in Tucson, Walter penned this letter to his brother Edward, who was still in New Jersey, from Tucson’s Cosmopolitan Hotel.

John Harvey, Edward Vail, Walter Vail 1879 studio portrait. Arizona Historical Society #1705

“Dear Ned,

I was very much disappointed after I got here to find that it is impossible to buy any land unless you find a man who has been on his ground for three years. His title is of no account, and as the country is all new on account of the Indian trouble such places are very hard to find (I mean place with a good title). I can go out anywhere and settle on 160 acres and then I can homestead 160 more which if it was situated on water would command a large range of fine grazing country and might in time be worth a great deal of money. Then again it might be just as easy to pick up land three years from this before the railroad gets through as it is at the present time. I feel positive from all I hear that there is as fine grassland in this territory as there is in the world.”

Walter’s first acquisition was land owned by Edward Nye Fish located near the headwaters of Cienega Creek. From this beginning, Walter built up the Empire Ranch. Included in the deal were:
“…an old wagon and a little yellow dog. “Billy, the little dog, got to be quite a favorite on the ranch. He was very intelligent. …the only thing he [Walter] had to show a short time after the purchase, except the land, was little Billy, the dog.” — Edward Vail

The Empire became one of the most important ranches in southeastern Arizona. Eventually it stretched from the bridle-high grasslands near Sonoita, north to the Rincon Mountains, to the lower San Pedro River Basin, and east to the Chiricahua Mountains. By some estimates nearly a million acres was controlled by the Empire at its height, through ownership, grazing leases, and strategic use of water.

Walter and his business partners recognized the opportunities that the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad of Arizona main line would offer and plotted out land purchases that would support their business plans and provide necessary shipping points for cattle and ore from their mining interests. It was Walter and business partner J.S. Vosberg, who deeded a right-of-way to the Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) in 1880 and again in 1887 in exchange for compensation. A siding track built alongside the main line would provide a means for east-west trains to safely pass. This was one of many strictly strategic business decisions leading to the Vail brother’s economic success.
The 1887 agreement between the SPRR, Vail, and Vosberg stipulated that the Southern Pacific Railroad would build a wooden board-and-batten style building to be used for commerce in the town of Pantano. Vail and Vosberg negotiated a bargain rent of $5.00 annually (about $150 in 2022). The SPRR was also required to build a cattle corral that would hold 20 boxcars of cattle. The Southern Pacific was given 60 days to complete the projects at their own expense. It is very likely that the same arrangement was made for Vail’s siding in 1887. According to local tradition, the Vail Store and Post Office was constructed around 1890 for the Vail brothers. This collective memory may reflect the origins of the original wooden board and batten Vail Store and Post Office building.

That railroad service point became Vail’s Siding. Though neither of the Vail brothers, or their business partners, ever lived here, Vail, Arizona gets its name from Walter Vail and Edward Vail.

To be continued…
This is the first in a series about the Vail brothers, their adventures, and their role in Vail’s story.
J.J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society

Community Connections with Vail Preservation Society
Mark your calendar and join us at the Rancho del Lago Golf Course on Saturday, September 10th for the 2nd Annual Prickly Pear JAMboree and Corn Hole Showdown. It will be a full day of celebrating community, all things Prickly Pear and local heritage, starting at 8:00 a.m. with a Parade on Colossal Cave Road, 10:00 a.m. Door Busters Car Show at the Hacienda, and 4:00 Corn Hole Showdown and 5:00 p.m. Block Party with live music, vendor’s, Kids Zone and more at the Rancho del Lago Golf Course. Our theme is ‘We are Vail!’ and this year we will honor Vail’s Mexican American ranching heritage. For info email or go to

About author View all posts

Guest Author