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Family reluctantly gives up its hold on Santa Rosa Island

The Vails' former ranch, now part of Channel Islands National Park, is no longer a home for cattle, cowboys or adventurous children. And now the family's last link to the place is being severed.

November 28, 2011|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Santa Rosa Island, Calif. — For the family that once owned Santa Rosa Island, it was part Zane Grey, part "Robinson Crusoe."

Generations of Vail cousins would arrive from the mainland and take refuge for months at a time. They would explore places with pirate-map names: Skull Gulch, Abalone Rocks, China Camp. They were city kids, but they rode with the island's cowboys and knew the island lore — stories about ghosts, about shipwrecks, about a mythical temptress named Rita who supposedly awaited new cowboys.

For a senior project in high school, Nita Vail talked her teachers into letting her saddle up for a full season on Santa Rosa, spending weeks on end with the cowboys.

It was hard, but worthwhile.

"You're in a sitting trot at dark-thirty in the morning and you're riding 20, 30 miles," Nita Vail recalled. The "gathers," as they were called, weren't over until all the cattle were herded onto custom-made ferries — the Vaqueros I and II — for the rough trip across the Santa Barbara Channel.

These days, when members of the venerable ranching family fly out to Santa Rosa Island, it isn't to round up cattle. It's to say goodbye.

The island became part of Channel Islands National Park in 1986, and the storied Vail & Vickers ranch — a spread that spanned the island's 84 square miles of rolling grasslands and rugged coastline — shut down 12 years later. But the family continued to run a big-game operation, guiding hunters to the trophy deer and elk transplanted to the island nearly a century ago.

Under an agreement with the National Park Service and an environmental group, the sport hunting ended last month. Now, professional marksmen are tracking the remaining dozens of deer and elk from canyon to canyon, sometimes targeting them from helicopters.

The Vail & Vickers Co., a partnership formed by Arizona ranchers in 1889, will dissolve Dec. 31. Without land or cattle — or deer or elk — there's nothing left to manage.

Once home to thriving Chumash villages, the island is all but unpopulated — a natural gem that only hints at its rich human history. In its day, the Vail & Vickers ranch was part of a California shaped by outsized personalities and powerful families, a state where palaces built by the likes of Hearst and Huntington have long since become public treasures.

But that doesn't make the story's ending any easier for the Vails.

"This is a sad time for us," said Nita Vail, a great-granddaughter of the rancher who bought the island 26 miles off Santa Barbara in 1901. "We tried everything we could to keep the herds, but it didn't work."

A cowboy's tale

Like all great westerns, the Vail saga started with a larger-than-life cowboy.

Walter L. Vail turned a $100 grubstake into a million-acre ranching empire based in Arizona. When the Southern Pacific railroad tried to gouge him, he orchestrated the West's last great cattle drive. He left for California in the 1890s, eventually establishing an 87,000-acre ranch in Riverside County. He survived a near-fatal Gila monster bite and other Old West calamities, but was killed by a Los Angeles streetcar in 1906.

The Santa Rosa spread was an overgrazed sheep ranch when he and J.V. Vickers bought it. The Vickers family participated in big decisions about the property, but the Vails ran it day to day, at some points living on the island for long stretches of time.

Ed Vail, one of Walter's seven children, was "a slave-driver," his nephew Russ Vail once told an interviewer. "He was a hell of a cattleman and a hell of a horseman and a hard drinker."

He also was an old-fashioned gentleman, Russ Vail said: "He rode in a coat, a tie and a vest all his life. Even if he was drunk, he was courteous as hell."

In the 1920s, the family began importing Roosevelt elk and Kaibab mule deer to the island. "There was an ethic of ranchers wanting to see wildlife on their property," said Vail cousin Will Woolley.

Those animals were also the game hunted by the family and their guests.

From time to time, Ed Vail hosted his friend Will Rogers. The two were so close that Vail was a witness when the famous humorist signed his will on Aug.5, 1935. Twelve days later, Rogers died in a plane crash at Point Barrow, Alaska.

Earl Warren, the former California governor, was hunting on Santa Rosa on Sept. 25, 1953, when a Navy PT boat showed up to ferry him back to the mainland. A guest of the Vails, he was being summoned to become chief justice of the United States.

In 1978 — partly to manage herds that had grown to 1,100 animals and partly to help the ranch through lean years — the island was opened to commercial hunting. Hunters would pay as much as $10,000 for a four-day outing, ranging the hills with guides and bedding down in the family's 1855 ranch house, the oldest wood-frame home in Santa Barbara County.

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