Celebrating A California Ranching Legacy: Walter L. Vail

May 9, 2018 by Stephanie Herrera

It’s no secret that ranching runs in the family blood. There is no greater example of that than California Rangeland Trust CEO Nita Vail. On April 14, 2018 Nita had the opportunity to witness her great-grandfather Walter L. Vail’s induction into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. This high honor is bestowed by the Museum to “exceptional individuals who have made an indelible impact upon the history of the great West.” A pivotal figure in early California and Arizona ranching, Walter Vail joins just over only 200 individuals who have been inducted into this esteemed hall.

The Vail legacy of advocacy and ranching lives on strongly through his descendants, including Nita.

All these years later, Nita carries the mantle of advocacy for ranchers in her own work at the California Rangeland Trust. Reflecting on her great-grandfather’s induction ceremony in Oklahoma, Nita says, “Witnessing my great-grandfather’s induction with family and friends was an incredible experience and a reminder of why I do what I do. Ranching plays an integral role in the culture, economy, and quality of life in California. Generations later, I get to honor Walter L. Vail’s legacy in my work with the California Rangeland Trust every day, preserving those open spaces for new generations and partnering with ranchers to continue to sustain life on the range in California.”

Walter Vail History

A native of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, Walter Vail purchased the 160-acre Empire Ranch southeast of Tucson, Arizona in 1876, along with an Englishman named Herbert Hislop. In 1882, the Empire Land & Cattle Company was formed with Walter L. Vail as principal shareholder. Over the years Vail, along with various partners, expanded the original land holdings to include over one million acres. The year after Walter purchased the Empire Ranch, the Southern Pacific Railroad built a railroad line, which was great news for the Vail family as it provided a means for them to ship their cattle.

Edward L. Vail, George Scholefield and Bird at the mouth of Rosemont Canyon ca. 1896-1898
Standing Up for Ranchers

In the fall of 1889, the Southern Pacific Railroad announced they would raise cattle freight rates by 25 percent. They ignored loud protests from ranchers who had already been hit hard by depressed cattle prices. In response, the Vails made a plan to drive the cattle overland themselves without the railroad. They knew that, if they were successful, they could break the railroad’s monopoly on the ranchers and force prices down.

Walter’s brother Edward Vail and foreman Tom Turner volunteered to drive the almost 1,000 steers on the 300-mile trip to the Warner Ranch in San Diego. The journey ahead would be grueling. Most of their trip was through desert with water sources 15 to 30 miles apart.

The ranchers would face a slew of obstacles—a stampede, a chaotic Colorado River crossing, an encounter with a group of horse thieves. In spite of all the dangers and challenges, they reached their destination. Just 71 days after leaving Arizona, the Empire cowboys arrived at the Warner Ranch. They had only lost 30 steers.

The historic Empire Ranch Trail Drive of 1890 inspired other Arizona ranchers to make similar drives as a stand against the railroad. That fall, a group of Arizona cattlemen met and agreed to fund improvements to establish a safe cattle trail from Tucson to California.

In response to the united stand of the ranchers, sparked by the Vails, the railroad finally agreed to restore the old freight rate—on the condition that the cattlemen would make no more cattle drives.

Walter Vail led by example, but he was also an active representative of ranching interests in the legislature. He served in the 10th Arizona Territorial Legislature in 1878 and in 1884 on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. He introduced two significant bills: One proposing the creation of Apache County in the northeastern corner or Arizona Territory, and the other calling for the repeal and replacement of a Pima County fencing ordinance. Elected to the Arizona Stock Growers Association in 1884, Walter L. Vail advocated for levying fines on outfits that brought diseased cattle into the Territory, proposed a system of recording brands and earmarks, and requested the establishment of the livestock sanitary commission to oversee quarantines on infectious diseases, and tighter trespass laws.

Moving to California

In the late 1880s when a long drought hit Arizona, the Vails began leasing California pastures and shipping increased numbers of their cattle there to fatten. This marked the beginning of Walter’s efforts to purchase land in Temecula Valley.

Vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) at the Empire Ranch in Arizona
In 1890, with growing corporate holdings in California, Walter Vail established his headquarters in downtown Los Angeles and moved his family there. By this time, he had pieced together four Mexican land grants—Pauba Rancho, Santa Rosa Rancho, Temecula Rancho and Little Temecula Rancho—to form the Pauba Ranch. Eventually, the Vails would own more than 87,500 acres surrounding the little town of Temecula. In 1892 they leased Catalina Island and in 1901-1902 in partnership with J. V. Vickers, they purchased most of the interests in Santa Rosa from the estate of A.P. More. In March of 1894, Vail and Gates joined Vickers in setting up a third cattle company, the Panhandle Pasture Company, with the hopes of expanding new markets in the east. The Panhandle Pasture Company bought seven thousand acres of grassland in Sherman County, Texas, and an equal amount across the line in Beaver County, Indian Territory (later Oklahoma).

Walter Vail was tragically killed in a Los Angeles streetcar accident in 1906. After his death, the Empire Land & Cattle Company (later renamed the Vail Company) assumed control of all his ranches and other real estate holdings. Walter had five sons and they would all have a hand in running the various ranches and the Vail Company as whole throughout their lives. The Empire Ranch in Arizona was sold in 1928. The Temecula area ranches continued to operate until it was sold in 1965. Santa Rosa Island, the last of Walter Vail’s holdings, was sold to the National Park Service in 1986, and ranching operations shut down there in 1998.