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 had left New Jersey soon after turning 21. His quest first led him to Virginia City, Nevada, where he worked as a Time Keeper in the silver mines. He had a goal and was purposeful in working towards it, but Virginia City was a rough and lawless place and his savings were stolen. After this devastating setback and 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.

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, he built up the Empire Ranch. 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 were 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 made well thought out land purchases that would support their business plans and provide necessary shipping points for cattle and ore from their mining interests. A right-of-way easement was deeded in 1880 to the Southern Pacific Railroad of Arizona for the purpose of building a passing spur, or siding and railroad service point. This was one of many tactical business decisions leading to their economic success. That railroad service point became Vail’s Siding. Though they never 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 Vail’s story.



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J.J. Lamb