VAIL, Walter Lennox

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Walter Lennox Vail (1852-1906)
Walter L. Vail
Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles

VAIL, Walter Lennox (1852-1906), born in Nova Scotia, came west from Virginia and New Jersey via Canada to Arizona in 1875 where he established the Empire Ranch and met life long friend and business partner, J. V. Vickers. At the age of 27, Vail was elected the youngest man to serve one term in the Arizona Territorial Legislature. Vail ranch holdings continued to expand in the 1880 and 1890s. Walter, along with his uncle Nathan developed the highly profitable Total Wreck Mine. The Vails laid out a town and sold lots near the mine. In 1883 with almost 10,000 head of cattle and good rail service to Los Angeles, Vail incorporated the Empire Land & Cattle Company. His business expansion led him to southern California, and in 1896 he moved his family to Los Angeles. 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. Vail acted as island manager while Vickers remained a silent partner. When Walter Vail died in 1906 at age 54, he left his share of the island to his wife Margaret, and their seven children:

  • Nathan Russell Vail (1883-1943)
  • Walter L. Vail (1885-1931)
  • Mary E. Vail (1887-1977)
  • W. Banning Vail (1889-1934)
  • Mahlon Vail (1890-1968)
  • Edward Newhall Vail (1892-1962)
  • Margaret Vail (1896-1957)

Eldest son, “N.R.” (father of twins Al and Riss)) became ranch manager from 1906 to 1943, followed by his brother Edward (Uncle Ed) from 1943 to 1962.

“The western Empire was built up by such men as the late Walter L. Vail. Very few of them did more than Mr. Vail did, nor accomplished greater things than he, after enduring great hardships, but he was a man with great personal courage and determination. He was not only a great cattleman, but a keen business man with wonderful foresight.” [Frank M. King Pioneer Western Empire Builders 1946, p. 33]

“...Walter Vail and C. W. Gates became the owners of a quarter interest in the Warner Ranch in the 90's. Walter Vail was known as the cattle king of California and Arizona for many years. C. W. Gates, his associate, was a self-made man with headquarters in Los Angeles and he was associated with Mr. Vail in many projects. They owned the Santa Rosa Island, off Santa Barbara, with a Mr. Vickers, Mr. Vail and I went hunting (with pistols) there, on horseback, for wild boar. They purchased the Pauba Ranch about the same time on the Temecula River. Salmons and I sold Vail and Gates the little Pauba Ranch of several thousands acres adjoining. Walter Vail controlled several hundred thousand acres of land between Tucson and Nogales as well. I was fortunate in having both of these men —Vail and Gates—as friends and did considerable business with them. The Indian curse seemed to continue and rest heavily on the lives of the new owners. Mr. Vail nearly lost his life, being thrown from a horse at the Springs. After many months he recovered. He supposedly killed a gila monster while over in Arizona, I was told, tied it to his saddle, and the monster, on the ride home, being only stunned, attempted to take a piece out of him. It is reported that this brought on a cancerous growth but before any deadly effects developed, Mr. Vail was killed by an electric car in Los Angeles while crossing the street.

Vail and Gates, as is elsewhere shown in this narrative, inspired by Judge Puterbaugh and Mr. McCrae, former engineer of Miller and Lux, conceived a plan for the building of a dam at the lower end of the Warner Ranch and developing 10,000 horsepower of electricity as well as water to irrigate thousands of acres of land along the coast. They were associated with H. E. Huntington, Wm. G. Kerckhoff and others in this enterprise. Before the papers were signed a misunderstanding arose and I had the pleasure of being instrumental in bringing these men together again in the development of this water and power project. While I as in charge, after Vail and Gates had sold their interest in the Ranch to the Pacific Light and Power Company, I invited C. W. Gates and his brother, Senator Gates, to the ranch for a hunt. We had a wonderful meal at the Springs. It was late afternoon; we were on a side hill hunting quail among the wild roses, and adjacent to a beautiful clump of oaks. We were having remarkable success, as the quail were plentiful. Of a sudden, to my horror, I saw Mr. Gates firing three or four shots in rapid succession, suddenly collapse and drop to the ground without a sound [Sunday, October 24, 1920]. We rushed over to find him dead—the Warner Ranch curse had claimed another victim, and in our arms we carried him whose life had passed away, to Oceanside, and later, after getting the consent of the coroner of San Diego, his body was taken to Los Angeles...” [Fletcher, Ed Memoirs of Ed Fletcher (1952) p. 90-94; 101-111]


  • [Empire Ranch]. Corkill, G. W. and Sharon E. Hunt. EMPIRE RANCH. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, (2012). Images of America series. Wraps.
[original in SCIF archives]

  • [FLETCHER, Ed]. Memoirs of Ed Fletcher San Diego: Pioneer Printers, (1952). First edition. Copy #1964 of a privately printed limited edition. Fletcher was a friend of Walter L. Vail, and his memoirs contain images of Vail, Carol W. Gates, and information about the Vail ranches.
[original in SCIF archives]

In the News~

March 23, 1892 [HL/BP]: “This agreement made and entered into this 23rd day of March, 1892, by and between F. P. Whittley of the County of Los Angeles, State of California, party of the first part, and Walter L. Vail of the County of Pima, Territory of Arizona, party of the second part. Witnesseth: That said party of the first part does hereby assign, transfer, sell, convey and set over unto the said party of the second part… the undivided one-half interest of all the sheep, horses and cattle which he now has on the Island of Santa Catalina… and the undivided one-half of all the wagons, harness, tools and appliances used by said party of the first part in connection with the rearing, shearing and handling of sheep on said island. And also the undivided one-half of all leases, or lease-hold interests which said party of the first part now has in and to said Island of Santa Catalina, or in and to the pasturage thereof. In consideration of which, said party of the second part hereby agrees to deliver upon said Island of Santa Catalina at his own expense, and within a reasonable time, three hundred (300) head of two-year-old cattle of the brand of 1890, the three hundred yearlings of the brand of 1891; said cattle to be from the ranches of said party of the second part in the Territory of Arizona, and to be of average quality. And it is mutually agreed between the parties hereto that from the net sales of wool or sheep now upon the said Island of Santa Catalina, there shall be paid to the said party of the first part the sum of $4,150, which money shall be his… (signed) F. P. Whittley; Walter L. Vail”

March 30, 1892 [HL/BC]: “Mr. Walter Vail, Pantano, Arizona. Dear Sir: We propose to lease you the pasturage on Catalina Island for a term of — years from October 1st, 1891 on the following conditions: You are to pay for the first year two thousand dollars ($2000) and for each following year at the same rate as pasturage can be obtained on the mainland. You are to use the pasturage for sheep or cattle and the rate paid will be based on the number of head of cattle or sheep the premises will carry. Provided, that we reserve the arable land on the island for agricultural and other purposes; this land can be fenced at our option and expense. Provided also that we can at any time take possession of the island on giving you or your agent six months notice in writing of our intention to do so; and that you will remove all your stock within six months after such notice has been served… Yours Very Truly, William Banning.”

January 28, 1893 [SFMC]: “The Gila monster. M. C. Bruce talks knowingly of the horrid critter… Is the bite of the Gila monster really poisonous?’ was asked of Mr. Bruce… ‘The second case was a memorable one in Arizona, and affected Walter Vail, the richest cattle king in Arizona and New Mexico. Vail had stopping at his large ranch a young lady who expressed a desire to see one of the Gila monsters. He said the first one he ran across he would bring to the ranch. Some time after while traversing the ranges with a large party of vaqueros he espied a large specimen of the animal. He easily captured it, as the animals are very sluggish. Thinking he had killed it, he put the monster on the back of his horse and started for the ranch. When he started to dismount, he placed his hand behind him and leaped to the ground. One of the fingers of his left hand was caught in the mouth of the animal, which had revived. Vail called to his men, but they could not prey open the closed locked jaws of the Gila. The men had to cut off the animal’s head before he could get his finger out. Vail thought he was gone, but coolly took out his penknife and chopped off pieces of flesh where he had been bitten. His men tied his hand with leather thongs to stop the circulation of the blood. Vail then rode thirty miles in this condition for a doctor, who managed to save his life. Even to this day, Vail has hemorrhages under the tongue as one of the effects of the poisonous bite.”

August 9, 1895 [SFCall]: “Walter Vail and family of Arizona are guests of J. B. Banning and family of Arizona are guests of J. B. Banning and family at their summer home at Catalina Island.”

March 31, 1898 [SFCall]: “Walter Vail, the big Arizona cattleman, is registered at the Palace from Los Angeles.”

March 31, 1898 [SFCall]: “At exactly 17 minutes to 12 o’clock last night, as shown by the halted hands of the clocks, San Francisco was shaken by the severest earthquake that has visited it in many years… Walter Vail was in his bed at the Palace Hotel. So violent was the shock that it tore the plastering from the ceiling and he hastily dressed, bringing out a large piece of plastering with him. ‘I rushed into the street as soon as I could dress, for I felt sure that a shock that did so much damage in the hotel must have seriously hurt tall buildings. The first agreeable surprise I met was to see the Claus Spreckles building standing as solidly as Gibralter.”

November 12, 1899 [SFCall]: “Walter Vail, one of the best known men in the Territory of Arizona, is a guest at the Palace. Mr. Vail is a power in the politics of his own Territory and is spoken of as the next Senator.”

September 17, 1902 [SBMP]: “Mr. and Mrs. H. F. R. Vail and Mr. Walter Vail and family of Los Angeles leave for a camping trip on Santa Rosa Island today. The party will sail from More's Landing and will be gone several days.”

May 16, 1903 [SBMP]: “The clear sky yesterday and the blustery weather last night are accounted for by the high wind that has prevailed for the past few days, dispelling the fog along the coast. Captain Ogenio Larco returned from the islands last night after a perilous trip in the Isabelle. He left here a few days ago to take Mr. Vail to Santa Rosa Island, which he succeeded in doing, but owing to the high wind was compelled to lay two days at anchor waiting for the storm at sea to subside. He says it was without any question the roughest weather he has encountered in fifteen years experience on the channel. The Edith, which left here for San Miguel Island, was driven to shelter on the lee side of Santa Rosa Island, unable to make her destination. She lost a 33-foot boat belonging to some Chinamen which she had in tow and which is now adrift somewhere on the high seas. A freight schooner caught in the gale had her sails split and torn away and left almost helpless, but succeeded inmaking port. The Isabelle came over last night, leaving the Edith at anchor, the captain preferring to wait for calmer weather.”

June 25, 1903 [SBMP]: “Mr. Walter Vail, one of the owners of Santa Rosa Island, has been in town several days looking after his interests here. He has completed arrangements for the shipping of stock from the islands to this point. Heretofore the products of the island were taken to San Pedro and shipped by rail from there. The new arrangement will add materially to the business of this port. The first trainload will be sent out in a few days.”

November 3, 1906 [SBMP]: “Sloop Nestella reports damage to Santa Rosa wharf and wreck of launch… The island is owned by Vail & Vickers of Los Angeles, and is stocked with cattle and horses. It is believed that a dozen or more men are employed on the island. Walter Vail, one of the owners of the island, arrived here from Los Angeles last night, but he had no advices of any destruction on the island…”

December 3, 1906 [LAT]: “Walter L. Vail succumbs to injuries received. Cattle king caught between cars on Thanksgiving Day and badly crushed. Walter L. Vail, for thirty years one of the largest land and cattle owners of Southern California, died yesterday from injuries received while stepping from a car at Grand Avenue and Seventh Street on Thanksgiving Day. He passed away surrounded by his loved ones at his home, No. 720 South Burlington Street… Among those who were closest to Mr. Vail he was regarded as a man of the most sterling honor. In all his business relations he was square, say those who knew him, and among his employees who have worked for him he is spoken of in the highest terms. His active, useful life was spent for the most part in Arizona, but while his great cattle interests took him outside the state, he always kept his home on Burlingame Avenue which he has owned since 1895…Those of the family who are left are the widow, Mrs. Margaret R. Vail, and the seven children, Russell, Walter, Mary, Banning, Mahlon, Edward and Margaret. There is a brother, Edward Vail, who is County Treasurer of Pima County, Arizona, and a sister, Agnes Vail, whose home is in Plainfield, N. J.”

December 7, 1906 [LAT]: “In the presence of hundreds of sorrowing friends, and with the beautiful and simple rites of the Episcopal funeral service, the body of Walter Lennox Vail was consigned to the grave yesterday afternoon. The few well-selected prayers, the few matchless words of consolation and of faith that the church takes from the Psalms to soothe the spirits of its mourners, and inspiring music from choir and organ, made up the service held at Christ Church yesterday afternoon. Other than these no words were spoken—no eulogy was attempted—and Reverend Baker P. Lee, who conducted the services, carried out the simple ritual of the church without deviation or addition. The entire front of the great chancel of Christ Church was buried in the wealth of floral offerings. The Chamber of Commerce and many other civic organizations sent their tributes of respect and sorrow, among others being a beautiful wreath from the members of the Los Angeles San Francisco Relief Committee, on which Mr. Vail rendered valuable service up to the time of his death…”

December 7, 1906 [LAH]: “Funeral services for the late Walter Vail were held yesterday at the residence, 720 South Burlington Avenue, and at Christ Episcopal church, Rev. Baker P. Lee, the rector, officiating. Mr. Vail was fatally injured by a street car on Thanksgiving day. A delegation consisting of F. Q. Story, C. C. Desmond, Joseph Scott and J. O. Koepfli attended the funeral services, representing the chamber of commerce. The church quartet rendered appropriate hymns.The pallbearers were John Norton, William Roland, B. Williams, R. Lacey, M. Everhardy, H. Ward, George Parsons and C. E. McGarry. Honorary pallbearers were J. C. Forkner, J. M. Elliott, Stoddard Jess, W. J. Gardner, W. L. Graves, W. H. Holiday, General Sherman, H. L. Heffner, W. R. Patterson, Judge Silent, P. Moore, J. C. Cline and R. A. Rowan. After cremation interment will be at Hollywood cemetery.”

December 24, 1906 [LAT]: “Cattle king’s estate. Vail leaves no will. A petition was yesterday filed for letters of administration upon the estate of Walter L. Vail, who died on December 2. Deceased left property in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Kings and San Diego counties, the total value being set at $376,836. In Los Angeles county the real estate is valued at $140,281; in Santa Barbara county at $137,155; in Kings county at $4400. The estate includes $90,000 worth of cattle. The heirs are the widow, Margaret R. Vail, and seven children, ranging in age from 11 to 23 years.”

January 6, 1910 [LAH]: “Friendly division of one of the largest estates in Southern California has just been consummated. For many years the late Walter Vail, who was killed in a street railway accident in Los Angeles a few years ago, and C. W. Gates were associated in development and other interests under the firm name of Vail & Gates. Their holdings represented vast sums of money, combining landed interests, business and residence property, mining, stock raising and other enterprises. In the appraisement and division the heirs of Walter Vail, eight in number, including the widow, receive the Santa Rosa ranch of 4700 acres in Riverside county; also the old Pauba ranch of 4000 acres at Temecula, and the Total Wreck mine and the Empire Ranch, located in Arizona. C. W. Gates received cash considerations and residence property in Los Angeles, at Huntington Beach, San Diego, Riverside and elsewhere. The heirs of Mr. Vail are also interested with J.V. Vickers in the ownership of Santa Rosa Island in the Santa Barbara channel.”

February 1, 1913 [SBMP]: “The heirs of the late Walter L. Vail of the firm Vail & Vickers, owners of Santa Rosa Island, have sold their interests to the Empire Land and Cattle Company, the deed going on record yesterday. There are over 66,000 acres on the island, which supports several thousand cattle. Frank Pepper, superintendent of the island, who is just convalescing at the Cottage Hospital, having been ill several weeks, states that there will be no change in management of the property as a result of the recent death of Mr. Vickers. Mr. Pepper expects to return to the island Sunday.”

February 1, 1913 [SBDN]: “Santa Rosa Island which includes over 60,000 acres has been sold by the heirs of Walter L. Vail, to the Empire Land and Cattle company. The cattle in the island are included in the deal. No immediate changes will be made on the island as a result of the transfer. Frank Pepper who has been for many years manager under the old owners, will return to his old duties under the new form Sunday.”

September 4, 2018 [Noozhawk]: “Earlier this year, former Santa Rosa Island rancher Walter Lennox Vail was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. The award is reserved for exceptional individuals who have made an indelible impact on the history of the American West. Born in 1850 in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vail and two partners founded the Empire Ranch on 160 acres near Sonoita, Ariz., in 1876. Silver was discovered on the ranch three years later, leading to the creation of the “Total Wreck Mine,” which enabled Vail to grow the ranch’s holdings to more than 100,000 acres. He dissolved the partnership and formed the Empire Land & Cattle Co., which maintained interests in cattle, mining, oil, real estate, land development and horse racing as Vail became one of the most prominent cattlemen in Arizona and, later, California. Vail’s civic contributions included serving in the 10th Arizona Territorial Legislature (1878) and on the Pima County Board of Supervisors (1884), where he was instrumental in modernizing the Arizona cattle industry. Among his initiatives were measures that called for the repeal and replacement of a Pima County fencing ordinance; levied fines on outfits that brought diseased cattle into the territory; established a system of recording brands and earmarks; helped create a livestock sanitary commission to oversee quarantines on infectious diseases; and implemented tighter trespassing laws. He also proposed the creation of Apache County in the northeastern corner of the Arizona Territory. In the late 1800s, Vail expanded his interests to California, leasing Santa Catalina Island and the Warner Ranch in what is now Calabassas to ease overgrazing in Arizona. He then acquired four Mexican land grants near Temecula in Riverside County to form the Pauba Ranch on the Santa Rosa Plateau, as well as the land grants for Santa Rosa Island, about 25 miles off Santa Barbara County’s South Coast. Vail died in a Los Angeles streetcar accident in 1906 at age 56, but the ranching operation on 83-square-mile Santa Rosa Island prospered as the Vail & Vickers Co. until the island became part of Channel Islands National Park in the 1980s. On behalf of the Vail family, Vail’s great-grandson, Dr. Tim Vail of Santa Barbara, accepted the Hall of Great Westerners induction at the April 13 ceremony in Oklahoma City. Tim Vail is a long-time board member at the private nonprofit Empire Ranch Foundation, which was established to work with the Bureau of Land Management to develop private support to preserve the ranch’s historical buildings and land and to enhance public educational and recreational opportunities there. Much of the Empire Ranch, which remains a working cattle ranch, was acquired by the BLM in 1988 and is now within Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. The younger Vail was joined at the ceremony by Empire Ranch Foundation president Faith Boice and vice president Jay Partone, as well as many family members, including ERF board member Susan Hughes. The awards banquet and presentation was hosted by actor Sam Elliott and his wife, actress and author Katharine Ross.”