Empire Ranch Foundation

Empire Land & Cattle Company, 1883-1887

Empire Land & Cattle Company Stock Certificate.

Empire Land and Cattle Company - 1883

In 1883 the Empire Land and Cattle Company was incorporated with Walter Vail owning most of the shares. Walter signed over to the corporation his holdings in the Empire and other recently acquired ranches. The 1884 Pima County Tax Assessment records indicate that the company owned over 2,000 acres of land, 6,000 cattle, 163 horses, 129 bulls, and 12 mules.

Nathan Russell Vail, 1883.

John Harvey Visits the Total Wreck - 1883

In February John Harvey visited the Total Wreck mine. He wrote an amusing tongue-in-cheek letter to Maggie (2/10/1883). “I promised to indite unto you an account of the commencement of operations at the Total Wreck Mill, and as I really did see it at work yesterday, I suppose I must try and tell you something about it. Well, early yesterday morning, I mounted my prancing steed “Billy” and having donned a clean shirt for the occasion, betook myself to the town of Teetotal Wreck. The first sight which greeted mine eyes upon reaching that noble city was a black and white member of the genus Dawg rushing up Dillon Street, followed very closely by a large Tin Can but as this had no immediate connection with the Mill I did not wait, but proceeded at once to Mr. E. L. Vail’s stable where I put up my charger. The aforesaid Mr. Vail and I then proceeded to the Mill, as we considered that Mr. Armstrong would probably await our arrival before doing anything, and almost immediately upon our entry we had the satisfaction of seeing the Wheel revolve slowly but surely, and very shortly afterwards the whole Mill, or rather the Machinery, was in motion. Then indeed did we feel our hearts beating with joy and excitement, as we rushed frantically from “Battery” to “Pans” and from the “Pans” to the Engine again until we were completely out of breath, when we slowly, but not sadly by any means, wended our way back to town, when by way of shewing my thankfulness I shook Ned for the drinks and lost.”

Water tank at the VR Ranch, ca. 1898.

Ned Vail’s VR Ranch - February 1883

West of the Total Wreck mine, in the Rosemont Valley, Ned Vail began to develop the VR Ranch. In a February 9th letter to Walter he writes: “I wish I could raise about $2,500 to buy cattle for my ranch. Can’t you manage it for me in New York on my note? Will give for security property here or T.W. stock as collateral, but the latter of course would only wish to place in the hands of some friend.” By March he had managed to purchase some cattle. The VR stood for Vail & Risley. Eugene W. Risley, was a courthouse reporter and clerk of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, who invested in the ranch.

General George Crook.  Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Walter Returns from New Jersey - April 1883

Walter returned from New Jersey in early April to find “that Indian scare is about over with here but so far there have been no steps taken by the Government to stop the trouble there are about 1400 soldiers stationed along the Railroad between Deming and Benson who are drinking up all the whiskey they can get and I suppose are waiting for the Indians to come in and surrender. I spent an hour with General Crook yesterday but cannot decide from his conversation what he will do. I suppose time will tell.”

General George Crook had been called back to Arizona in late 1882 to persuade the Apache chief Geronimo to return to the San Carlos Indian reservation.

John Selah Vosburg. Courtesy of Jenn Hoff.

Pantano Ranch - 1884

In 1884 Walter Vail concluded a cattle partnership agreement separate from the Empire Land and Cattle Company. He contracted to operate the 2,700-acre Pantano Ranch with John Selah Vosburg, a Tucson merchant. The ranch straddled both sides of Pantano Wash from Rincon Valley east to Mescal Arroyo and controlled all the range between Sanford’s Ranch and the base of the Rincons. The Southern Pacific Railroad crossed the property, with a major station at the Pantano Ranch house. Vosburg had acquired clear title to the land for twenty-five thousand dollars, and Walter Vail stocked the ranch with the equivalent value in cattle. [Source: History of the Empire Ranch by Gregory Paul Dowell. Master’s Thesis, University of Arizona, 1978.]

Nathan Russell Vail, 1885.

Maggie and “Russie” Visit the Total Wreck - August 1884

In August of 1884 Maggie sent a long letter to her mother describing a week-long visit to several of the Empire Land & Cattle Company holdings and the Total Wreck mine (8/27/1884). “So little “Buster” is the “dandy” boy, he went into the Valley and back without so much as a whimper. We left here on Monday after lunch or rather were all ready to start when a neighbor of ours Mr. Gormley called (he brought me a basket of peaches) so, we did not get off until about three o’clock. When we got to the mine old Mr. ??? took care of the baby while I went through the hill. I enjoyed it all very much. It is perfectly wonderful. Walter enjoyed himself because I was green. He gave me some of the amalgam to hold and then put my hand in quicksilver which turned my rings to silver. He put one hand near the belt and the took hold of my arm. I jumped higher than a kite. The electricity was like thousands of needles going in my arm. After seeing the mill we had supper at the mine and then drove to Pantano and stayed at the little hotel which is on the Pantano Ranch.”

Section of 1893 Map of Pima County by Roskruge showing the locations of the Total Wreck Mine, Pantano Ranch, and Happy Valley Ranch. Courtesy Library of Congress.

From the Pantano Ranch to the Happy Valley Ranch - August 1884

Maggie continued: “The next morning Walter was busy about Ranch matters, so we did not leave until 1/2:00. Ah [the Chinese cook] left about an hour ahead of us. He looked very picturesque.  Harvey, Clark, and Shaw were on horseback. We stopped to water the horses at Miguel’s ranch.  We were invited in and the old man and his daughter talked at me but as I only understand very little, I cannot give you the conversation.  The road is very good and very bad but nothing like as bad as I had anticipated. We got to the [Happy Valley] ranch at ½ of two o’clock. The scenery is perfectly grand. Ah soon had some dinner ready to which we all did ample justice. The house has three rooms and a large porch and could be made very comfortable.”

The spring mattress Maggie described was probably like the one (it may have been larger) on display on the bed frame in Room 3 of the Empire Ranch House today.

A Restless Night at Happy Valley - August 1884

The beds in the Happy Valley ranch house were not especially comfortable. “Walter says if you come out we will all go over when he brands in the spring and stay a couple of weeks, but we will take some beds. The first night we slept on blankets on the floor. I never knew a floor was so hard. The next we found an old spring mattress; the Baby was on a cot but W and I wrestled with the springs. They were rather weak in the middle we would hold on the side while we were awake so were all right then but the minute we would go to sleep we would let go and roll down in the middle. The next night Walter and Baby had the cot so I had the old mattress and it were not so bad.

Brown bear and cub. Courtesy of Russ McSpadden / Center for Biological Diversity.

An Encounter with a Bear - August 1884

“The first afternoon there Walter, Shaw (the new foreman) and Leon Mathers went out to take a look at the cattle and about two miles from the house under a big oak tree there was a big mother bear and her baby eating acorns. The boys went after her trying to lasso her – she would run but the little bear was so fat he could not get along so she would wait for him and whenever any of the boys would come near she would raise up and be ready to embrace them. They wanted to get her in the open country but Shaw did not know how the land lay and fast as they got her started in the right direction he headed her off and she got in the hills again. Perhaps it is just as well someone might have got hurt. She was a brown bear. As she was sucking the little one she was thin but they said she would weigh 600 lbs. easy.”

Cave in Gardner Canyon, near Thomas Gardner’s Apache Springs ranch, ca. 1900.  Photo by Harry Heffner, Empire Ranch manager.

Exploring the Marble Canyon at Happy Valley - August 1884

The next day all started on a trip to the marble canyon or cañon. Leon took Baby and I in the wagon then we left Baby with Ah and after going ½ a mile on horseback we came to it. It goes far into the mountain and is all white marble. There was some water in it but during floods it must be frightful as I saw trunks of trees much larger than my body in there. We went in further than Leon had ever been, when we were coming out we found a cave–there were bear tracks so no one cared to go in  but on examination the tracks coming out were the freshest – so the boys all except Jack and I went in – they found Mr. bears bed and went on and found where someone had camped probably robbers. They found their way by matches–they went in about 200 ft. I don’t think I like caves. Then we went to a pretty place and had lunch.

Thomas Frederick Gardner, 1890. Courtesy of Edward Gardner.

Back at the Empire - August 1884

We had splendid shower yesterday and another one today. The Ranch looks so beautiful I wish you could see it. We had mushrooms for supper. I had a party on Monday. Tom Gardner, Mary and three children spent the day with me. Russie was delighted he got all his toys for them and was as big as any. Walter went to Tucson today and goes into Cal with the cattle tomorrow. He will only be gone a week at the longest, so I concluded to stay at home. Ned is to stay with me and Walter expects to bring Miss Wood out to Pantano tomorrow where Ned and I will meet her, she will stay a week. Walter will load the cattle tomorrow. Walter hurt his thumb quite badly with his riatta [reata]. It was quite painful last night. I hope it will soon be well. Jack [John] Harvey expects to leave for the east tomorrow or next day.

Pima County Building illustration from Roskruge 1893 Official Pima County Map.  Library of Congress

Pima County Supervisor - 1884

After trying two times before Walter Vail was finally successful in his bid for an elected seat on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. He only served on the Board for six months, resigning in July. The Supervisors did not immediately accept his letter of resignation “in a hope that he might be prevailed upon to withdraw it.” [Arizona Weekly Citizen, 7/12/1884] Walter did remain on the Board of Equalization until the cattle assessments were completed at the end of July. [Tucson Citizen, 7/26/1884]

Arizona Silver Belt newspaper reward notices.

Pima County Livestock Association - January 1885

Walter Vail was elected president of the newly formed Pima County Livestock Association. This group worked closely with the Territorial Stock Growers Association on a quarantine and anti-rustling proposal for presentation to the Legislative Assembly. There was concern about “Texas fever” and the cattlemen urged the Governor of New Mexico to maintain the quarantine he had imposed thus keeping Texas cattle out of Arizona.

Margaret Vail riding sidesaddle at the upper corral, ranch buildings in the rear, 1880s.

1885 Tax Assessment

The 1885 Pima County Tax Assessment records indicate that the Empire Land and Cattle Company owned over 3,400 acres of land, 8,000 cattle, 161 horses, 179 bulls, 12 hogs, and 12 mules. This represents a 70% increase in deeded land owned and 33% increase in cattle when compared to 1884.

Walter Vail shooting, ca. 1898.

Maggie and Russie - July 1885

Maggie’s newsy letter to her mother (7/2/1885), reflects the undercurrent of concern about Apache Indian raids in the area. “Russie made us laugh a little while ago. He had a lot of empty shot gun shells. He held one up to his eye and Said “Baby ittle spy-glass – to see some paches comin – Papa get gun and shoot um.”

Charles A. Proctor, 1888. Courtesy of Proctor Family

In Search of Peterson Murderers - August 1885

In early August Pima County Sheriff Paul enlisted help from the Empire Ranch to search for a group of four Apache Indians who had killed Mr. Peterson, the mail carrier, and stolen horses from ranches in the area. Walter Vail, Charles Proctor, and Phillip Moore participated in the search along with soldiers from Fort Huachuca. The Indians were not captured; they had fled to Mexico with about 40 stolen horses. Two Empire Ranch horses were recovered during the search. [Tucson Citizen, 8/8/1885]

Rollin R. Richardson. Courtesy of the Patagonia Museum.

Trip to Kansas City - October 1885

Walter Vail and R.R. Richardson, owner of the Pennsylvania Ranch near Patagonia, traveled to Kansas City to negotiate rail freight rates for shipping Arizona cattle to Kansas. Later that year Vail, Richardson, and Henry C. Hooker, owner of the Sierra Bonita Ranch in the Sulphur Springs Valley, shipped about 20 carloads of cattle each as an experiment to determine how much profit could be made. [Arizona Weekly Star, 11/12/1885] Finding new markets for Arizona beef was important at this stage as the Arizona market had become saturated.

Walter L. Vail, Jr., 1886.

Walter Lennox Vail, Jr. - November 1885

Walter and Maggie’s second son, Walter Lennox Vail, Jr., was born on November 25, 1885. This time, rather than going to New Jersey for the birth, Maggie traveled to Los Angeles where the family had begun to maintain a home.

Geronimo (right), son and two other braves, 1886. Photograph by C.S. Fly. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Indian Troubles - April 1886

In 1886 Geronimo’s warriors were crossing the border from Mexico again. It was to be the last of their raids before Geronimo’s final surrender in September 1886. The Vail’s were in Los Angeles when Mary E. Nickoll wrote to Margaret Vail [4/30/1886] about recent raids: “Dear friend, being as everything is in the greatest excitement over the Indians I will drop you a few lines thinking you and Mr. Vail would like to know that everything on the Ranch is all right so far. There was a family by name of Peck somewhere near Crittenden killed, a woman and child. The papers also state that eight men were killed on Richardson & Gormleys Ranch, that his place was attacked, but it was not, they were killed near there but his place was not attacked.”

Mrs. A.L. Peck, her 11-month baby, and a young hired hand, Charles Owen, were killed at their ranch near Aqua Fria. Mrs. Peck’s 12-year-old niece was kidnapped, and Mr. Peck’s life was spared. The niece was later rescued in Mexico by Mexicans who fought the raiding party. [Arizona Weekly Star, 7/1/1886].

1885 Kansas railroad map. Courtesy of Kansas Historical Society.

Finding New Pastures in the Midwest - 1886

In 1886, the Empire leased grassland in Kansas from the Jones Nelson Pasture Company of Strong City, Chase County and from Abbot Holmes of Ellinwood, Barton County. Both counties were close to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad lines. Shipping costs to Kansas were high, but Vail fared well because the Heart cattle survived the final trip to market in Kansas City with only minor weight losses.

Stock certificate for the Whetstone and San Pedro Land and Cattle Company.

Whetstone and San Pedro Land and Cattle Company - July 1886

On July 28, 1886, Vail, Rollin R. Richardson, and T. L. Stiles incorporated the Whetstone and San Pedro Land and Cattle Company with 640 patented acres of range previously held by Richardson south of Benson on the San Pedro River. The following year, Richardson sold his interest to another prominent rancher, Oscar T. Ashburn. Together, Vail and Ashburn placed several thousand Empire yearlings on this eastern range, then sold them as three-year-old steers to feeder operations in Montana.

Start of a flash flood in Davidson Canyon.  Courtesy of Charlotte Cook.

A Deadly “Water Spout” - July 1887

On July 1st local newspapers reported:” a terrific water spout on the Vail ranch in the Santa Ritas. Mr. Coy save that… heard a terrify roar, similar in many respects to the sound accompanying an earthquake. They ran to the bank overlooking the Vail Cienega and beheld with awe the approach of a monster water spout coursing its way down the Cienega valley which at this point is only a half mile in width and Captain Coy says the water was fully fifteen feet in depth. This terrific ocean was the result of a cloud burst up in the mountains and was sweeping along in its remorseless embrace everything in its path. Immediately after the water had ceased to be dangerous Mr. Vail and his men went forth to see theirs herd and on the first day, they discovered over one hundred dead animals. Mr. Vail feels assured his loss will reach two hundred head.” [Arizona Daily Star, 7/2/1887]

Mary Eliza Vail, 1888.

Mary Eliza Vail - September 1887

Mary Eliza Vail was born on September 3, 1887 in Los Angeles. She was the third child and first daughter of Walter and Margaret Vail.