Steam and Steel Rails
The Arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad at Vail: Its Influence on the Development of a Community
The Last Flat Piece of Land… Vail’s Siding.
“In the Cienega a large number of Chinamen 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 wielded by more than 500 Chinese Southern Pacific Railroad workers striking iron spikes split the silence on the rolling grasslands bordering the Pantano Wash. 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. The Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR) entered Tucson on March 20, 1880. Each day, workers pushed the rails further east. A siding was needed; a spur track built out from and alongside the main line, so that 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 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 Southern Pacific Railroad route through southern Arizona.
Extensive excavation and construction of stone supports were necessary across the marshy creek bed. The Western Union Telegraph line, installed simultaneously, enabled updates to be sent back to those monitoring the progress of rail line construction. The transcontinental rail line along an all-weather southern route would open up new opportunities for commerce and further development of mineral resources. 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 instead to follow the old wagon road into Cienega Creek.
Arizona was considered a dangerous stretch of hot, dry land that had to be crossed to link profitable markets in California and the Midwest. Surveyors siting the route were unfamiliar with the region’s intense and unpredictable seasonal flooding. Subsequent wash-outs of the rail line caused major schedule hold-ups that plagued this section of the main line, two in 1880 alone. Wash outs occurred on a regular basis, sometimes two or three times a year (Figure 2). 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.
On April 24, 1880, the Pacific Improvement Company, an SPRR contractor, initiated passenger operations with an accommodation train ahead of the official May first opening. Passengers paid $2.75 to ride 28 miles from Tucson to the town of Pantano. National economic forces converged that day near the old wagon road along Cienega Creek. Vail’s Siding was the result. Brought to life by steel rails, Vail and other railroad stations/stops were required for the efficient and safe passage of Southern Pacific trains. Communications and maintenance along the main line were very labor intensive. The Southern Pacific built Section Houses, temporary housing for work crews, to facilitate work. These were placed every six to eight miles or so to support required maintenance. Vail’s Siding appears first on George Roskruge’s 1893 Pima County map.
Vail gets its name from Walter Vail. Walter stepped out of a stagecoach onto the dusty streets of Tucson in 1876. Twenty-four years old, with a keen sense of purpose, Vail intended to become a successful businessman and rancher. Only three days after arriving in Tucson, Walter wrote to his family from the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Tucson.
…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 places 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 a homestead owned by Edward Nye Fish. From this beginning, Vail and his partners built up the Empire Ranch. Located near the headwaters of Cienega Creek, the Empire was one of the most important ranches in southeastern Arizona eventually stretching from the grasslands near Sonoita to the south, north to the lower San Pedro River Basin, and east to the Chiracahua Mountains. Walter and business partner, J.S. Vosberg, saw the opportunities that the coming of the Southern Pacific rail line would offer and strategically purchased land along the proposed route. Land purchases would support their many business interests and provide shipping points for cattle and ore. Walter and Vosberg deeded a right-of-way in 1880 to the Southern Pacific Railroad for the purpose of building the passing spur that became Vail’s Siding.
Income from their mining interests provided the means to make additional land purchases, especially the Total Wreck silver mine. Walter, his brother, Edward, and other partners conducted business from multiple locations including Rosemont, Tucson, Vail’s Siding, and the towns of Total Wreck and Pantano where Walter served as postmaster in 1886. A 1900 Eagle Milling (figure 4) receipt for flour delivered to Vail’s station and signed by Edward Vail speaks to their business interests at Vail. In the railroad communities of Vail and Pantano, these interests centered around store buildings, corrals, and ore dumps.
Seasonal flooding affected rail traffic every year. Following yet another series of especially destructive washouts in 1887, the Southern Pacific Railroad relocated the entire section of track between Vail’s siding and the town of Pantano and brought the rails out of the Cienega Creek bed. Vail and J. Vosberg deeded a second easement. In the new deed agreement Vail and Vosberg stipulated that the Southern Pacific would build a wooden board-and-batten style building to be used for commerce at Vail’s Siding. They negotiated a rent of $5.00 annually to conduct commerce in the building. The SPRR was also required to build a corral that would hold 20 boxcars of cattle. They provided capacity for economic growth. Until about 1895, the population at Vail’s siding hovered around 25, mostly SPRR employees. By 1900, the population had grown to nearly 150 in the area surrounding the siding.
Commerce & Communication
We have always had a well founded belief that the Santa Rita’s(sic) when energetically
developed would take high rank amongst our mining districts… Arizona Weekly Star, December, 1878
Mining, as well as ranching, brought prosperity to those living along the tracks near Vail’s Siding. In 1875, Pinckney Tully and Estevan Ochoa mined, smelted, and then hauled 5,000 pounds of copper out of the Santa Rita Mountains to Tucson. Their find sparked further regional mineral development. Copper was an especially valuable commodity in the 1880s and ‘90s. When Thomas Edison improved the light bulb utility companies began to string copper wire lighting up the night in cities across the country. The price of copper spiked and copper mining became very profitable.
Tucson’s Loss, Vail’s Gain
Mr. Seager, general manager of the Helvetia mines, offered to bear half the expense of building
a fine road from Tucson to Helvetia. After giving the supervisors ample time, and no action being
taken on his proposition, a road was built to Vail’s station by the mine company. Tucson necessarily
losing by the loss of freighting. Arizona Daily Star, August 31, 1899
A road was needed to transport the copper ore from the mining town of Helvetia to a railroad station where it could be shipped to Globe, Arizona for processing. When the Pima County Board of Supervisors failed to act in a timely manner, the Helvetia Mining Company spent $10,000. to build a wagon road to the closest rail point, Vail’s Siding. Vail had become the break-of -bulk point for commerce from the Rincon’s Mountains south to the Santa Rita Mountains.
Copper ore was transferred from lumbering freight wagons to designated ore dumps along a rail spur installed by the Southern Pacific Railroad. This transfer from freight wagons to ore dumps to railroad cars required large numbers of men. Teamsters and laborers, wranglers, and those fleeing unrest in Mexico were drawn to the area to fill the need for labor. The cost of the additional track for the spur was $800. It was borne by SPRR Construction & Improvement Department. Shipping charges from the busy siding would more than recoup the cost. By 1895, so many tickets were being sold trackside at Vail’s siding that the Southern Pacific made plans to build a passenger station. It was completed in 1900. Between 1895 and about 1914, Vail’s siding was a continuous beehive of activity.
The Helvetia Copper Company was located in the Santa Rita Mountains near present-day Corona de Tucson, southwest of Vail. The copper business was good. The Helvetia mine supported a booming community totaling nearly 500. Twenty-seven other copper claims were being worked nearby as well. Freight wagons pulled by twelve -horse teams loaded with 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of ore made the trip each day to Vail’s siding. The Helvetia Copper Company southwest of Vail needed a 200-ton stamp mill to crush the copper ore. It waited trackside at Vail’s siding to be transported to Helvetia. In 1899 the freight road was finally completed. It snaked from Vail to Helvetia in the Santa Rita Mountains. The waiting stamp mill was sent over the new wagon road. The Helvetia-Vail wagon road was the historic forerunner of present-day Wentworth Road.
The Town Between the Tracks
In 1910 the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad (EP & SW) was planning to expand. Their business was doing very well, but with a line that terminated at Tucumcari to the east and Benson to the west, they needed to link to national lines to maximize their business opportunities. Phoenix and Tucson were under consideration, both destinations would provide the needed link to transcontinental passenger and freight commerce. Siting crews investigated many routes between Fairbank and Tucson. Mescal’s 4,063 foot elevation near the mid-point was a distinct challenge as was the flooding that plagued the SPRR along Cienega Creek. When completed the rails wound masterfully through the steep grade to allow the massive steam locomotives to work most efficiently at between a .3 and 1.4% grade. Locating engineer R.H. Jones decided to keep the EP & SW line above Cienega Creek on a 536 foot long bridge that crossed over the top of the SPRR line very near Irene about eight miles east of Vail’s Station. When the track was completed in 1912 the new line ran parallel in many places to the existing SPRR line. This was the case at Vail’s Station. Residents began to call their community the “Town Between the Tracks”.
Vail’s early development is a story written by its landscape and sculpted by the rails that provided the means for the growth of ranching and mining. Today, the community is often defined by its commitment to education; this is a result of the work of early ranchers, miners and railroad workers and their desire to leave the legacy of a better life for their children. The Board of Supervisors received their petition for a school at Vail in the late 1890s. The Cienega School was the predecessor of the Vail School District which was designated in 1903. Those ranchers, miners and rail workers all picked up their mail between the tracks at the Vail Store & Post Office. (Figure 6) That building stands today as the sole remaining pre-statehood construction at the original town site; Vail’s last reminder of the hard work it took to make a life in Arizona Territory.
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 Pinckney Tully was a Jack of all Trades, stage line, trader and two-time mayor of Tucson
 1880, Wabash, Indiana was the first city in USA with electric street lighting.
A place where materials, ore or cattle, are transferred from one conveyance to another and shipped.
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 Named for homesteader Jane Wentworth. General Land Office Homestead Records.
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