LEITH KNIGHT The Moose Jaw Times Herald
Tommy Tait and Charlie Cumpston were legendary CPR managers
Tommy Tait was well acquainted with Moose Jaw long before he set foot in the frontier settlement as the 23-year-old assistant superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR’s) Moose Jaw Division.
Born in Montreal in 1864, the son of Sir Melbourne Tait, a chief justice of the Quebec Supreme Court, Thomas was only 18 when he went to work for the CPR as private secretary to William Van Horne, general manager of the railway during its construction period.
When the construction period ended with the driving of the Last Spike, Van Horne, quick to recognize an exceptional employee, sent Thomas to Moose Jaw as assistant superintendent of the Moose Jaw Division.
Although the town was an important rail centre and saw the initial rush of land-grabbing settlers and homesteaders, a depression that had been around since the 1870s continued to cast a gloomy shadow across the country. Unfavourable weather conditions brought on a succession of crop failures, and downward financial trends added to the doldrums. Many of the newcomers gave up and left the prairies as quickly as they came, either returning to former homes or moving westward to the more promising boom mining towns of British Columbia.
Together with his chief dispatcher Charles Cumpston, he staged theatricals in the CPR Dining Hall, certainly the forerunners of today’s dinner theatres. Both young men were members of vestry of their church, and Charlie joined the local Masonic Lodge, becoming its sixth worshipful master.
Charlie Cumpston began his career with the CPR in 1883, when the prairie section of the railroad was being constructed across what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta.
A native of Bloomington, Ill., and former employee of the Chicago and Alton Railway, Charlie came to his new job with plenty of experience.
Initially he was located at Moose Jaw as chief train dispatcher. A year later, he was transferred to Canmore, Alta., to take charge of trains on the “Big Hill,” a treacherous section of track with a 4.5 grade over the Selkirk Range. (Big Hill was later replaced by the Spiral Tunnels.)
After 18 months, he was moved to Winnipeg to become superintendent of telegraphs. Then it was back to Moose Jaw as chief train dispatcher under Thomas Tait.
Four years later he was transferred to Fort William as inspector of dispatchers’ offices. His next move was to Cranbrook, B.C., to organize the new rail service through the Crowsnest Pass.
Charlie was recognized as “one of the best known officials of the CPR.” A fellow railroader once remarked: “It has been a common practice of the company, whenever there was any difficult railroading to do, to send Cumpston there to clear it up.” Charlie died in Medicine Hat in 1900 at the age of 44. The funeral service was conducted by the Rev. William Nicholls, an old friend from his Moose Jaw days.
And a wreath from his Moose Jaw Masonic lodge accompanied the body to Fort Wayne, Ind., where burial took place.