The 45,000 acres of the Empire and Cienega ranches have been under the administration of BLM since 1988 (Empire-Cienega Resource Conservation Area or Las Cienegas National Conservation Area). These lush grasslands are in the high desert (4,500 feet) and receive an annual average of 15 inches of rain.
The Empire Ranch was developed by Walter Vail and his partners, starting with a 160-acre ranch with 612 head of cattle purchased in 1876 for $1,174. By 1881 when Vail bought out his remaining partner, the ranch included nearly 1,000 square miles (60 miles north to south and 30 miles east to west). By 1906 when Vail died, the ranch covered almost 1 million acres.
When purchased in 1876, the homestead included a small four-room, flat-roofed adobe house with packed dirt floors, no windows or doors, and no furnishings. Vail and his original partner installed windows, doors, and a wooden floor. Then, in 1881, Vail returned to New Jersey to marry and bring his bride back to the Empire Ranch. As a wedding present, he had a half-hexagon bay window built into the north wall of the living room. Over the years, rooms were added until there were 22 in total, and, along the way, a sloped roof was built over the northern half of the house, and a pitched roof over the southern portion.
After Vailís death in 1906, his family continued to operate the ranch until 1928, when they sold the Empire Ranch and adjacent property to the Chiricahua Cattle Company. A portion of the property was sold in 1949 and became the Cienega Ranch. The remaining portion of the Empire Ranch was sold in 1960 to Gulf American Corporation, which planned to develop the area. The development never occurred, and the Anamax Mining Corporation bought the Empire Ranch in 1974 and then the Cienga Ranch in 1977 for the water rights and mineral potential. Anamax changed its plans and put the ranches up for sale again. This time, public support for preservation over development led to a land exchange in 1988, converting the property to public ownership under the administration of BLM. Grazing continues on the property under lease. www.geocities.com/southernarizona3/Empire_Ranch.htm
Trails and Treasures Home Page Journey to the American Southwest 2003