Alison Bunting: The Empire Ranch—Partners travel from San Francisco to the Colorado River

By Alison Bunting

Last month we introduced Walter Vail and Herbert Hislop who first met in San Francisco and set out for Arizona Territory to make their fortune in ranching. Hislop wrote about the journey in a diary style letter to his grandmother. “We took steamer to Los Angeles which took us 3 days and 2 nights touching at Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo and Santa Monica for Los Angeles.” Walter and Herbert arrived in Los Angeles in the midst of the centennial celebrations of Independence Day 1876. Events on 4th of July eve included, “…firing anvils in the streets. The way they fire anvils is this, they bury one anvil in the ground, the bottom side upper­most and fill the little square hole with gunpowder, placing the other anvil on the top and then with a red hot iron about 12 feet in length set fire to the gunpowder and the explosion is just like a huge cannon going off, quite deafening to be anywhere near at the time.” They departed Los Angeles on July 5th on the Southern Pacific railroad. “Left Los Angeles for Tucson at 2:30 p.m. having girded on our revolvers and belts. We arrived at the end of the railroad [Indio, California] at 11 p.m. At 10 p.m. we had to stop the train to clear the line as we were caught in a sandstorm which blocked the line like snow.”  

The next leg of the journey continued via stage coach, following the “Bradshaw Trail” through Riverside County, California. “Started in the stage coach with 6 horses at 20 to 1 a.m., travelling all night. When daylight broke you never saw such pictures as we looked, what with the heat and dust. The man that was opposite me at night, when I saw him in the morning I could not believe it was the same man. He looked so strange with the dust all over his clothes and face to the thickness of a penny. Changed horses for the first time at 8:30 a.m., not getting breakfast till 12:30 p.m. Then changed again at Cañon Springs…where we had an accident which might have been very serious. We had 6 horses that were half broken and when the driver wanted them to start they began bucking… and bolted away, the reins breaking. I never heard any man swear like the driver did. I really thought he had gone mad as he kept it up so long.”

On July 7th they “Arrived at Chuckawalli [Chuckawalla Springs] where we breakfasted off bacon and beans and had coffee. Here we saw lots of varieties of cactus and got some of the fruit which is just like a dried fig and very good. It seems to be the only thing growing on the Mohave Desert, some of them are as high as 40 feet and more. 8:10 a.m. again changed horses and passed some dead horses … The dust was very bad again, it being alkali dust parched one so. Reached the Colorado River [near Blythe, California] at 5 p.m. but had to wait a long time till they ferried us across, which they did after we had fired off revolvers and blown bugles. It took us over an hour to cross and the river is only about 50 yards wide, but the stream is so very swift that they have to be very careful and the little boat, only fit for 4 persons, had over 14 besides baggage.”  

Next month’s episode covers the grueling trip from Ehrenberg to Tucson.


Alison Bunting, volunteer archivist and historian for the Empire Ranch Foundation (ERF), holds a Masters in Library Science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She retired from a 32 year career at UCLA in 2002, having served as the Director of the UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library and as interim University Librarian. She was member of the ERF Board of Directors (2006-2009) and ERF President (2007-2009). She established and coordinates the ERF docent program, served as project director for the Arizona Humanities Council grant to ERF to create a Cowboy Life Exhibit now on display in the Empire Ranch House, is the ERF webmaster, and coordinated the republication of Edward L. Vail’s Diary of a Desert Trail: 1890 Cattle Drive from Arizona to California, 2016.  First published in the January 2017 issue of the Patagonia Regional Times, page 8.  



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