Bounded by the Rincon, Empire and Santa Rita Mountains, the Vail area is a point of natural and cultural convergence. Seasonal migrations of prehistoric Hohokam, and later the Tohono O’odham, took them along the Cienega Creek riparian corridor. Early European explorers, Euro-American military reconnaissance forces and surveyors passed nearby. The Mormon Battalion also relied on the area, building a wagon road through the eastern edge of the greater Vail area in 1846 camping along the Pantano river on their way to Tucson. This wagon route was well-traveled by westward-bound Euro-American emigrants looking for a new life. Following the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, the region was transferred from Mexico to the United States. Cargo companies, like Tulley and Ochoa, used long freight mule-pulled wagon trains to haul goods between California and Missouri. Later, it provided a southern route for coast to coast rail access. In 1880, the Southern Pacific Railroad forged a ribbon of steel across Arizona. Following the old wagon road, these tracks were the catalyst for Vail. In 1927, Highway 80, The Broadway of America, the first southern, all-weather coast to coast roadway came right through downtown Vail. It, like the paths before it, followed the old wagon road. Today, Old Vail Road contains remnants of this important roadway. A second set of tracks were laid in 1912 by the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad. They mirrored the earlier Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. Afterwards Vail became known as The Town Between the Tracks©.
Vail gets its name from brothers Walter and Edward Vail. Walter Vail stepped out of a stagecoach onto the dusty streets of Tucson in 1876. Twenty-four years old, with a keen sense of purpose, he intended to become a successful businessman and rancher. Edward arrived in 1879 with the same goal. Walter and his partners built the Empire Ranch, near Sonoita, into one of the most important ranches in southern Arizona. Edward operated the Vail Ranch in the Santa Rita Mountains. Walter, along with J.S. Vosberg and others, purchased land along the proposed rail line and negotiated right-of-way agreements with the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880 and again in 1888. One of which would become Vail.
The town site of Vail traces its history back to the first railroad surveys. Lieutenant John Parke led one such survey in 1854 and recommended a route around the southern end of the Rincon Mountains and through Apache Pass. However, construction of the railway was delayed for over 25 years. In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail and Stagecoach Company, as well as the San Antonio to San Diego Stage Line, utilized Lt. Parke’s corridor to transport mail and passengers. Shortly before the construction of the railroad, the first homesteaders settled in the Vail area. Southern Pacific Railroad track, constructed by Chinese rail workers, cut a line across the landscape in 1880. A siding, or passing track, was constructed on the last flat piece of land before the steel rails followed the wagon road into the Cienega Creek bed. The passing track was named Vail’s Siding. A facilitating train steamed through on its way east to the town of Pantano on April 24, 1880.
The town first appears as Vails, on George Roskruge map commissioned by Pima County in 1893. The section of track from Vail eastward to Dragoon Summit was the most difficult and expensive to build and maintain along the entire southern Arizona route. The Vail brothers gave Vail its name, but the community is better defined by the tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit of those that settled, stayed, and made a life there. Vail became a break-of-bulk site, a point of transfer for commercial activities: stagecoach travel, freighting, mining, and ranching throughout southeastern Arizona. These activities drew individuals and families seeking a safe place to live and pursue a livelihood. Some were Euro-Americans, but many were fleeing unrest in Mexico, including members of the Yaqui tribe. They all made the Vail area home, however, their influx began to exclude Tohono O’odham and Apache.
Established in 1880, Vail has grown dramatically since those early years when the population fluctuated between 25 and 150. The beautiful landscape, great schools, and friendly community have been a catalyst for explosive growth. Vail has experienced a roughly 400% increase in population since 2001. In 2015, the greater Vail community encompasses about 425 square miles, generally defined by the Vail Unified School District boundaries. The train no longer stops in Vail, but the double set of railroad tracks that encompass the original town site are a reminder of the town’s roots as a railroad town. J.J. Lamb, Vail Preservation Society.