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Cut his chops on Fraser River–TD Coldicutt in steamboat war

May 25, 2015

In our post about the Vancouver, New Westminster and Fraser Valley jitney service operated by TD Coldicutt, we noted the hostility his service encountered from the street rail operator, the BC Electric Railway (BCER).

Coldicutt was accused of taking only the most profitable routes  between Vancouver and New Westminster, leaving the BCER to service the money-losing routes. They accused him of taking the "cream" of the commuter business.

The economics that can make it cheaper to fly to London than Regina hold true in transit. It is a matter of public policy,  established in the jitney era, that profitable routes ought to, as a public good, subsidize the less profitable. (Interesting also that the profitable routes also pay higher fares.)

Having observed that Coldicutt had worked in the extremely competitive Fraser River steamboat commuter trade, we did not know just how fundamental that experience was in  preparing him for later success in transit.

In 1904, the new sternwheeler Pheasant went into service on the upriver run to Chilliwack. However, in May 1905, the Pheasant turned to the downriver runs, servicing Ladner, Steveston and points in between.
This put her in head to head competition with the Transfer, owned by the Canadian Pacific, and the dominant force in the steamboat business locally. As noted in the press, in this matchup,  "some fun is expected."

Within a week it was reported: "The steamer Pheasant is giving the Transfer a big run for downriver traffic in both passengers and freight."

Tom Coldicutt, who the year before had been working as a bookkeeper with CA Welsh, was now Purser on the Pheasant.

Steamboat competitions were relished by the press and the public. River mariners were much like two muscle-car drivers at a light, pride did not allow them to be the one left behind.  On the water they called this "trying conclusions." Passengers liked the competition and the faster service. A price-war might ensue, with both boats cutting fares to the bone in an effort make the competitor bleed losses to the point of expiration.

So it was no surprise to read, only a week after the two boats started running head to head:

"On the river this morning a race of considerable importance between the Transfer and the steamer Pheasant, both on the down run. The Pheasant won by about five minutes, but it is not recorded whether she made as many stops as the Transfer."

Of more interest are the observations in an article in the "Picked Up Along the Waterfront" column, illuminating  the tactics that proved effective in both steamboating and urban transit.

 

"There is a sidelight on the competition for passenger traffic on the lower river between the rival steamers.

Apparently the methodical courtesy of the representative of the str. Pheasant is irritating rival officials.

It appears he meets the tram arriving from Vancouver just before the steamers leave for down river, relieves them of their hand baggage and escorts them toward the wharf. If he learns their destination is, say the Brunswick cannery, he courteously informs them, it is alleged, that the other steamer goes there, and the luggage is relinquished with the directions how to reach the Transfer.

But where the shoe pinches is that it costs the Transfer possibly a couple of dollars worth of coal and forty precious minutes to convey perhaps one passenger to the Brunswick, which is some distance down Canoe Pass, and so the other boat gets ahead on the race for Steveston.

It does not invariably pan out this way, but it is liable to occur on every trip. 

However, all is fair in love and war (and this is a steamboat war), and whatever may be thought of the tactics employed, it shows the Transfer has a resourceful competitor for the passenger traffic between New Westminster and Steveston."

 

And that’s how Tom Coldicutt cut his transportation chops on Fraser River.

As the summer wore on, the competition got hotter, with the result that:

"A lively little rate war was inaugurated on the Fraser as a result of the competition between the Pheasant and the Transfer, the CP boat cutting her rates on passengers and freight down to half of what the opposition steamer was charging."

In September it was all over for the Pheasant as she was wanted up north to run on the Skeena. She was wrecked there in 1906.

TD Coldicutt had only whetted his instincts. He was said to be looking about for another boat to put up against the Transfer.

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