by Tom Prezelski
On July 3, the Pima County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring “Empire Ranch, Walter L. Vail, and Arizona Cowboy Heritage Day” to honor the legacy of one of the most storied Anglo-American pioneers of 19th century Southern Arizona. While his career as a rancher and miner were significant enough, it was his contribution as a political figure that has proven most transformative and long-lasting.
A native of Nova Scotia, Walter Vail arrived in Arizona in 1876 after his efforts at mining in Nevada proved disappointing. Prompted by advice from his family, he purchased a ranch east of Tucson for $2,000. Vail called the modest establishment, a four-room adobe house and 160 acres, “The Empire Ranch,” which may at first seemed pretentious, but his ambition made the name prescient, as the operation would eventually expand to thousands of cattle over a spread of more than 100,000 acres.
Walter Vail’s political career began in 1878, when a “Citizen’s Meeting” nominated him for Territorial Representative. Praising his nomination, the Tucson Citizen cited his recent successful pursuit of a murderous gang into Sonora as proof of his being a “public-spirited and self-sacrificing citizen.” Elected in November, Vail reported to the capitol at Prescott as a member of the 10th Legislature in January 1879.
Known as the “Whoring Tenth” or the “Divorce Legislature,” the 1879 legislature was distinguished by its libertine behavior and for its focus on “personal legislation” such as divorces and name changes, though Vail does not seem to have participated in the worst excesses. Early in the session, in an effort to make peace regarding a contentious issue, he broke ranks with rest of the Pima County delegation by supporting a procedural motion which killed a bill to return the Territorial Capitol to Tucson, a maneuver which might have generated controversy if the measure was not generally believed to be doomed anyway. Generally, his reputation does not seem to have suffered from his association with the Arizona Legislature.
During a hiatus from electoral politics, Vail developed a mining claim called Total Wreck in the Empire Mountains eight miles north of the ranch headquarters. Owners of neighboring claims disputed his title, however. Though the courts eventually found for Vail after a complicated lawsuit, the matter remained a sore point with some Pima County residents
In September 1882, local Republicans nominated Vail and two others as their candidates for the three-member Pima County Board of Supervisors. Vail was singled out for attacks from Democrats, who alleged that the cattleman was running only to boost his own interests. The controversy about the Total Wreck was likewise cited by the Arizona Star, which declared that “Vail won’t find it half so easy to get into the Board of Supervisors as to steal a mine or to buldoze [sic] miners out of their rights.” Vail came in fourth place behind Democrat Mariano Samaniego in a year that was otherwise good for Pima County Republicans.
After a member resigned in December 1883, Vail was appointed to the vacant seat on the Board. In addition to the mundane business of dealing with County finances, during his term the Board authorized construction of a “good road,” now State Route 86, to the booming mining camp of Quijotoa, and a bridge over the Santa Cruz River at Silverlake. It also spent a good deal of time on controversial and largely unsuccessful efforts to encourage the development of railroads by issuing bonds.
Vail did not run for re-election and his term ended in January 1885. He was not implicated in a scandal that led to the indictments of both of his colleagues by a Territorial grand jury, and it does not appear that he was involved or that this had anything to do with his stepping down. More likely it was because Vail had chosen to devote more time to a different and perhaps more consequential political venture outside of elected office.
Local cattlemen had formed a livestock association by 1884. As President later that year, Vail expanded the organization beyond Pima County, eventually calling for the organization of a Territory-wide association. While such associations were previously concerned chiefly with organizing round-ups and coordinating efforts to combat rustling, Vail presided over a more overtly political turn for the organization, something prompted by the threat of “Texas Fever” to Arizona’s herds. The newly formed Arizona Stock Growers Association convened at Prescott for its first meeting concurrent with the session of the “Thieving Thirteenth” legislature in January 1885, and lobbied successfully for a package of bills that included measures to regulate brands, fencing and rodeos, and banned the importation of diseased cattle. These new laws brought order to an industry which was previously governed largely by custom and gentleman’s agreements.
While individual ranchers had always been prominent in politics, Vail’s efforts helped make cattlemen as a whole a powerful political force in Arizona. If anything, it was an acknowledgment that while most ranches in Arizona were still family outfits or partnerships, the future would belong to operations like Vail’s: large, heavily capitalized, and run like corporations. The expansion of the railroads brought outside investment and opened new markets, making cattle big business.
Vail remained active in the association, usually in a leadership capacity, during the remainder of his time in Arizona. In 1896, he moved his family and corporate headquarters to California, where he had significant business interests. He left his brother Ed, who was likewise active in politics, having later served as chairman of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, behind to watch over his investments in Arizona. Walter died in a streetcar accident in Los Angeles. The irony of his having survived encounters with hostile Indians, cattle rustlers and at least one near-fatal incident with a Gila monster, only to meet his end at the hands of modern technology, was not lost on contemporaries.
Vail’s legacy lives on in his ranch, whose headquarters, surroundings, and history are currently preserved by the Empire Ranch Foundation, and the community east of Tucson that still bears his name.
Tom Prezelski is a Tucson native and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives. His first book, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West was a finalist for the 2016 Latino Book Awards. He has also been a guest on the Voices of the West radio program. Article appeared in the Pima County monthly newsletter.