179 U.S. 141 (1900), 9, Scranton v. Wheeler

Docket Nº:No. 9
Citation:179 U.S. 141, 21 S.Ct. 48, 45 L.Ed. 126
Party Name:Scranton v. Wheeler
Case Date:November 12, 1900
Court:United States Supreme Court

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179 U.S. 141 (1900)

21 S.Ct. 48, 45 L.Ed. 126




No. 9

United States Supreme Court

November 12, 1900

Argued October 16, 1899




The prohibition in the Constitution of the United States of the taking of private property for public use without just compensation has no application to the case of an owner of land bordering on a public navigable river, whose access from his land to navigability is permanently lost by reason of the construction, under authority of Congress, of a pier resting on submerged lands away from, but in front of his upland, and which pier was erected by the United States, not with any intent to impair the right of riparian owners, but for the purpose only of improving the navigation of such river.

It was not intended, by that provision in the Constitution, that the paramount authority of Congress to improve the navigation of the public waters of the United States should be crippled by compelling the government to make compensation for an injury to a riparian owner's right of access to navigability that might incidentally result from an improvement ordered by Congress.

The state courts of Michigan having recognized this action as a proper one under the laws of that state for the relief sought by the plaintiff, this Court has jurisdiction to consider the questions of a federal nature decided herein.

This writ of error brings up for review a final judgment of the Supreme Court of Michigan holding that the United States is not required to compensate an owner of land fronting on a public navigable river when his right of access from the shore to the navigable part of such river is permanently obstructed by a pier erected in the river under the authority of Congress for the purpose only of improving navigation.

Omitting any reference to immaterial matters, the case as made by the pleadings and evidence is as follows:

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By an act of Congress approved September 26th, 1850, c. 71, providing for the examination and settlement of claims for land at the Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan, the local register and receiver of the land office were authorized to report upon claims to lots at that place under instructions to be given by the Commissioner of the General Land Office. 9 Stat. 469.

In conformity with proceedings under that act, the heirs of Franklin Newcomb and Samuel Peck were confirmed in their claim jointly to premises known as Private Land Claim No. 3, and a patent was issued to them by the United States on the 6th day of October, 1874. The premises were at the west or upper end of the St. Mary's Falls Ship Canal, and one of the boundaries, as shown by the field notes, was "along the right bank of the Ste. Marie River." By mesne conveyances from the heirs of Franklin Newcomb the plaintiff, Scranton, became the owner of an undivided half of the land in question.

By an Act approved August 26th, 1852, c. 92, Congress granted to the State of Michigan the right to locate a canal through the public lands in that state known as the military reservation at the falls of St. Mary's River, and four hundred feet of land in width extending along the line of the canal was granted for the construction and convenience of the canal and the appurtenances thereto, the use being vested in the state for such purposes and no other. The act provided that the canal should be located on the line of the survey, made for that purpose, or on such other route between the waters above and below the falls as might be selected with the approval of the Secretary of War. In aid of the construction and completion of the canal, Congress also granted to the state seven hundred fifty thousand acres of public lands, and it was provided that the canal should be and remain a public highway for the use of the United States, free from toll or other charge upon the vessels of the government engaged in the public service, or upon vessels employed in the transportation of property or troops of the United States. 10 Stat. 35.

The construction of the canal was begun by Michigan in 1853, and completed in 1855. It was owned and operated by the state until the year 1881, when it was transferred to the United

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States in conformity with the River and Harbor Act of June 14, 1880, c. 211, by which $250,000 was appropriated for improving and operating the river and the canal, and by which also the Secretary of War was authorized to accept on behalf of the United States from the State of Michigan the St. Mary's Canal and the public works thereon -- the transfer to be so made as to leave the United States free from all debts, claims, or liability of any character whatsoever, and the canal after the transfer to be free for public use. By the same act, the Secretary of War was authorized, such transfer being made, to draw from time to time his warrant on the Treasury to pay the actual expenses of operating and keeping the canal in repair. 21 Stat. 180, 189.

Prior to the transfer, Congress had made large appropriations for the repair, preservation, improvement, and completion of the canal. 16 Stat. 224, c. 240; 16 Stat. 402, c. 34; 18 Stat. 238, c. 457; 18 Stat. 456, c. 134; 19 Stat. 136, c. 267; 20 Stat. 156, c. 264; 20 Stat. 369, c. 181; 21 Stat. 189, c. 211.

As originally constructed, a pier extended from the west end of the canal into the water, curving to the north. This pier was opposite to a part of Private Land Claim No. 3, but left at that time a riparian frontage for those premises of from three to four hundred feet.

In 1877, the United States commenced and in 1881 completed the construction in the water of what is known as the new south pier, which extended across the entire front of Private Land Claim No. 3, and was within the riparian ownership of the plaintiff as projected from the land towards the middle thread of the stream. The effect of the construction of this new pier was to exclude the plaintiff altogether from access from his land within the lateral lines of his riparian ownership, projected as aforesaid, to the navigable water or to the channel of the river that was navigable. On both sides of the space included within such projected lines of the plaintiff's riparian ownership, and between the new pier and the bank of the river, the water was only five feet in depth, so that, by reason of the construction and maintenance of the pier, the plaintiff was prevented from reaching navigable water of greater depth than five feet.

The plaintiff desired to land freight on the new south pier,

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and thus convey it to the lot in question. But he was prevented from doing so by the defendant, Wheeler, superintendent of the property, who was in possession of and exercised exclusive control over the canal and the pier as an officer or agent of the United States, and not otherwise.

No part of the pier in question in front of Private Land Claim No. 3 rests upon the fast land within that claim, but entirely upon submerged lands in front of or opposite to the fast land. The water between the pier and dry land is very shoal.

St. Mary's River forms a part of the boundary line between the United States and Canada, and, where navigable, forms, with the [21 S.Ct. 50] Great Lakes, a highway for interstate and international commerce. Near the point in question, the river was not originally navigable, owing to the falls, and the canal was built around the falls to connect its navigable parts above and below, and was used in connection therewith for the purposes of such commerce.

The present action was brought by Scranton against Wheeler in the Circuit Court of Chippewa County, Michigan, the declaration alleging that the plaintiff was the owner in fee, but was illegally deprived by the defendant of the possession of his interest in

Private Land Claim No. 3, Whelpley's Survey, in the Village of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, including therein that portion of the land beneath the water of St. Mary's River from the river bank on said lot to the thread of the stream of said river, which forms a part of said lot, and all riparian rights belonging and attaching thereto and being a part thereof,

which premises the plaintiff claimed in fee. The damages alleged were $35,000.

Upon the petition of Wheeler, the action was removed for trial into the circuit court of the United States on the ground that the government of the United States was the real party in interest, and that the defense depended upon the construction of the laws of the United States. In that court, there was a judgment in his favor. The case was then carried to the circuit court of appeals, where the judgment was affirmed, an elaborate opinion being delivered by Judge Lurton. 57 F. 803. That court held that an officer of the

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United States could be sued in ejectment by one claiming the title and the right of possession; that the case was properly removed to the circuit court for trial; that the circuit court of appeals had jurisdiction under the Act of March 3, 1891, c. 517, 26 Stat. 826, to review the judgment of the circuit court, and that, as

an incident to the ownership of land on the margins of navigable streams, the law of Michigan attaches the legal title to the submerged land under the stream comprehended within parallel lines extending perpendicular to the general trend of the shore along his [the owner's] land to the center of the stream.

After observing that, although the plaintiff, under the law of Michigan, was seised of the legal title to the soil under the water, yet, in the very nature of the property, such seizure was of the bare technical title, the court proceeded:

It must, from these constitutional principles, follow that the State of Michigan held the soil beneath her navigable rivers under a high public trust, to preserve them forever free as public highways, subject only to the power of...

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