Vails before Temecula
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The Vails, Before Coming To Temecula

 By Rebecca Marshall Farnbach

             Two greenhorns from the East with good business savvy cashed in on adventure and made their fortunes in frontier Arizona.

 Walter Lennox Vail was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1852, the same year Indians gathered at Apis’ adobe by Temecula Creek to sign the Treaty of Peace and Friendship.  By Walter’s sixth birthday, he and his family moved to New Jersey where his father owned grain farms and a mill.  Although Walter agreed to someday take over the family business, he dreamed of venturing to the West.  When profits fell, Walter’s father sold the grain business, freeing Walter from obligation to family business, so, on the day he turned twenty-one, he bade his family goodbye, and with one hundred dollars in his pocket, he left to seek his fame and fortune in the West.

Walter’s story is not just about success.  In fact, his first venture didn’t go well at all.  He traveled to Virginia City, Nevada, hoping to strike it rich in the silver mines.  He was a timekeeper in the silver mines, but he didn’t like the gambling and drinking, and he didn’t make a fortune.  When his savings were stolen, he asked Nathan Vail for help.  Uncle Nathan urged him to buy a ranch near Tucson, Arizona to start a cattle raising enterprise.  The rest of his story is legendary.

Walter made his first trip to the Arizona ranch in 1876 with a prospective investor. They traveled south from Tucson on mud roads and arrived at a tumbledown adobe house surrounded by a few cattle.  The wild country with few conveniences and reports of recent Indian raids on white settlers frightened the prospective partner, who was immediately disinterested.

Uncle Nathan then contacted Herbert Hislop, a young man he met in London, where Nathan had made a fortune installing the city’s first streetcars.  In 1876 Walter Vail and Herbert Hislop, two twenty-four-year-old greenhorns, purchased Fish Ranch.  A month later they bought an adjacent ranch property that came complete with sheep, cattle and a yellow dog named Billy.

When an Englishman named John Harvey joined the venture a few months later, the locals to dubbed the enterprise “The English Boys Outfit,” despite the fact that Walter was an American.

They soon bought more cattle and sold the sheep.  The ranchers built a corral, attaching the only gate to the wall their adobe house so they could vigilantly guard against Apache raiders and animal predators.

While the two Englishmen preferred to stay at the ranch, Walter eagerly traveled into New Mexico to buy more cattle.  Walter wrote of his adventures in the “Wild West,” to his older brother Edward in New York City.  In one letter, Walter told about camping with some of the ranch cowboys along the San Pedro River in New Mexico during a cattle buying trip.  Apaches came within 50 yards of them and stole the cowboys’ horses, plus a large number of wild horses the cowboys had rounded up.  The cowboys thought they would track the Apaches and steal the horses back, but after seeing how badly they were outnumbered, the cowboys gave up pursuit. 

Walter’s letter didn’t say how they got home with the cattle after they were stranded without horses 200 miles from home, but he did mention that the same Indians headed immediately to the ranch, killing three neighbors and stealing horses from every ranch except for theirs.

Another adventure is described in a later letter, “I left the ranch to be gone one day and was gone seven.  I have been in the saddle from daylight to dark, and part of the time I have ridden half the night as well.  I found after I left home that some of the cattle that we bought from Mr. Miller had gone back to the San Pedro River, so I went right after them.”

Walter told how he almost lost his life trying to defend his dog Billy.  Billy always ran under the tongue of Walter’s butcher wagon, between the mules.  One day, a big dog “jumped on Billy and was chewing him up.  I picked up a stock and was beating the big dog off of Billy when the owner of the dog came up and pulled out a gun.  In a minute several men with six shooters drawn were facing each other and I was in the middle.  But some way, although I was scared, I felt most anxious to prevent a fight.  I think I said, ‘You men are all friends of mine; don’t kill each other over a yellow dog.’  One of them laughed and I said: ‘Come with me,’ and we all went into George’s saloon and I paid for the drinks and that ended the trouble.”

By 1879, after just three years of ranching, both Englishmen sold out to Walter.  Walter’s brother Edward, working south of New York’s Wall Street as a ship chandler selling supplies to outfit ships, wanted Western adventures and left his job to take part in the ranching enterprise. 

While in New York Edward had a hobby that paid good dividends later for the two brothers.  Assaying, determining the value of precious metals in rock, fascinated him, and he frequently visited an assay office, assisting with calculations. 

 Business at the ranch took off when Edward joined Walter in Arizona.  The two had a plan, and it worked. They bought all available acreage in the area, especially property that gave controlling water rights.

They held offices in every organization dealing with the cattle industry.  Walter served on the Arizona Territorial Legislature, and they each served as Pima County Supervisors.  While Walter presided over the Livestock Ranchman’s Association he authored several regulations that were to their own advantage, including fencing regulations to curb cattle rustling.

The two brothers maintained strict control of every aspect of their ranching enterprise, never relinquishing management of operations to anyone else.

Although Walter didn’t get rich from his first experience with silver mines, something happened one day at the ranch that changed his fortune.  His friend Jerry Dillon looked up at the hillside and said, “There’s a big ledge, and the whole damned hill is a total wreck with quartz boulders of ore.”

They filed a claim and called it the Total Wreck Mine.  They set up a stamp mill to extract the silver, and built a house for the mill man nearby.  Edward, the assayer, wrote about the mill man later, “He said he slept fine as long as the mill was running, but if for any reason it stopped he was up there in a minute – anyone who has ever heard a quartz mill running would not consider it a lullaby to induce sleep.”

A town grew around the mine.  It boasted of fifty houses, three stores, three hotels, four saloons, a brewery, butcher shop and a lumberyard.  The Vail, Arizona post office building sat on Vail Road.  The Southern Pacific put rails to the new town.  It brought supplies in and carried ore out.

  The mine produced up to $2,000 worth of silver daily, with a total production of $500,000.  The Vails used capital from the Total Wreck mine to expand their ranch land holdings and to improve the herd.  They bred Herefords at the Empire Ranch and shipped them out to fatten elsewhere before selling.  By maintaining a superior quality of cattle, they could command higher prices.

In 1881, Walter Vail married his longtime sweetheart Margaret Newhall in New Jersey and took her to their Empire Ranch home.  He had improved it from the bare adobe with dirt floor and no windows or doors, to one habitable by a civilized lady.

Walter and Edward founded the Empire Land and Cattle Company in 1886.  Three years later California entrepreneur Carroll W. Gates bought a half interest in the company.  When the Arizona markets for beef collapsed in the mid-1880s, the company found new markets in Kansas City and Los Angeles, and expanded to new grasslands in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and California.

Walter faced death in 1890 after he shot a beautifully marked Gila monster and slung it over the saddlebag behind him.  After riding a distance, he reached backward, and the reptile that Walter thought was dead bit him.  He hurried back to the ranch and someone sent a message for the Southern Pacific Railroad to rush an engine to the mine to take him to Tucson for medical treatment.  Walter was seriously ill for several weeks, but eventually recovered from the potentially deadly bite.

Shortly afterward, Walter and Edward led a protest against the same rail line that had saved his life.  The Vails needed to get cattle from Arizona to pastures in California.  Southern Pacific had sharply raised shipping fees, so the Vails boycotted the railroad and took the stock by cattle drive.  Edward, Empire Ranch foreman Tom Turner and eight Mexican ranch hands drove 917 steers from the Empire Ranch in Arizona to the Warner Ranch pastures in California. 

They survived a stampede and a perilous crossing of the Colorado River.  They recaptured 110 runaway steers, and were detained in Yuma by a sheriff who demanded taxes.  After intervention by their Tucson attorney, they followed the old Butterfield Stage Trail and encountered a challenge by Indians.  After appeasing the Indians with sugar and coffee beans, they passed through a valley full of rattlesnakes.  They traveled the desert at night with a lantern hung on the tailboard of a wagon, which the steers followed “like soldiers.”  They stumbled on cattle bones, a broken-down wagon and a human skull.  A sheriff approached and shot and killed a young man who had joined them, and took his brother into custody. 

After two months and ten days of adventure, the desert drive ended at the Warner Ranch pasturelands.  They had lost only two head of cattle while crossing the Colorado River.  When the cowboys returned to Arizona, they met with other ranchers to identify a safe route for driving cattle to California.  The route was never established, because a Southern Pacific representative attended the meeting and shipping fees were reduced to the previous rates.

The Vails developed one of Arizona’s largest and most influential livestock operations of one million acres and 40,000 cattle, a success mainly attributable to Walter’s business genius and constant supervision.  Walter constantly analyzed breeding patterns and sales, and adapted ranch practices to capitalize on trends. 

The one room adobe with a dirt floor was transformed into a 22-room home with electricity and indoor plumbing.  Walter and Margaret raised seven children there before it was sold in 1928. The house is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The United States Bureau of Land Management manages the ranch as a conservation area, and allows cattle to graze, by special permit.  One of Walter Vail’s great-granddaughters heads the Empire Ranch Foundation, a non-profit historical group that presents educational programs at the ranch.

 Two young men from the city came west, seeking adventure.  They found it and amassed a fortune, too.  None of the dangers of frontier life killed them, not Apaches, Gila monsters or fights over a yellow dog. 

 In tragic irony, streetcars provided Walter’s initial investment and also killed him.  At age fifty-seven, with his empire at its zenith, he was fatally injured when two Los Angeles streetcars crushed him.

Edward Vail never married.  He stayed in Arizona where he regaled listeners with stories of his early life in the Arizona Territory.  He served as president of the Arizona Pioneer Historical Society and died in 1936 at the age of 87.


 Dowell, Gregory P., “History of the Empire Ranch,” unpublished masters thesis, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 1978

 Fontana, Bernard L., An Englishman’s Arizona, the Ranching Letters of Herbert R. Hislop 1876 - 1878, Tucson, AZ 1965

 Hicks, Sam, “The Trail of Vail,” High Country,” Summer 1970, pages 6 - 12

 Internet Web Site:

 King, Frank, Pioneer Western Empire Builders, Pasadena, CA 1946

 Tucson Daily Citizen 1/20/1876, 5/5/1914, 3/10/1921, 11/7/1931, Edward Vail’s obituary 1936

 Vail, Edward, “The Diary of a Desert Trail,” TEXASLAND – The Pioneer Magazine, San Antonio, TX, 1892