204 U.S. 364 (1907), 431, Union Bridge Company v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 431
Citation:204 U.S. 364, 27 S.Ct. 367, 51 L.Ed. 523
Party Name:Union Bridge Company v. United States
Case Date:February 25, 1907
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 364

204 U.S. 364 (1907)

27 S.Ct. 367, 51 L.Ed. 523

Union Bridge Company


United States

No. 431

United States Supreme Court

February 25, 1907

Argued December 5, 6, 1906




Commerce comprehends navigation, and to free navigation from unreasonable obstructions by compelling the removal of bridges which are such obstructions is a legitimate exercise by Congress of its power to regulate commerce.

Congress when enacting that navigation be freed from unreasonable obstructions arising from bridges which are of insufficient height or width of span or are otherwise defective, may, without violating the constitutional prohibition against delegation of legislative or judicial power, impose upon an executive officer the duty of ascertaining what particular cases come within the prescribed rule.

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Requiring alteration to secure navigation against unreasonable obstruction is not taking private property for public use within the meaning of the Constitution; the cost of such alterations are incidental to the exercise of an undoubted function of the United States, exerting through Congress its power to regulate commerce between the state.

Although a bridge erected over a navigable water of the United States under the authority of a state charter may have been lawful when erected and not an obstruction to commerce as then carried on, the owner erected it with knowledge of the paramount authority of Congress over navigation and subject to the power of Congress to exercise it authority to protect navigation by forbidding maintenance when it became an obstruction thereto.

The silence or inaction of Congress when individuals, acting under state authority, place unreasonable obstruction in waterways of the United States does not cast upon the government any obligation not to exercise its constitutional power to regulate commerce without compensating such parties.

The provision in § 18 of the River and Harbor Act of 1899, 30 Stat. 1121, 1153, providing for the removal or alteration of bridges which are unreasonable obstruction to navigation after the Secretary of War has, pursuant to the procedure prescribed in the act, ascertained that they are such obstructions, are not unconstitutional either as a delegation of legislative or judicial power to an executive officer or as taking of property for public use without compensation.

143 F. 377 affirmed.

This is a proceeding in the nature of a criminal information in the District Court of the United States for the Western District of Pennsylvania against the Union Bridge Company, a corporation of Pennsylvania owning and controlling a bridge across the Allegheny River near where it joins the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River -- the Allegheny River being a navigable waterway of the United States, having its source in New York and being navigable in both New York and Pennsylvania.

Stating the matter generally, the Secretary of War found the bridge to be an unreasonable obstruction to the free navigation of the Allegheny River, and required the Bridge Company to make certain changes or alterations in order that navigation be rendered reasonably free, easy, and unobstructed. These alterations, it was charged, the company willfully failed

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and refused to make. Hence the present information against it. There was a verdict of guilty, followed by a motion in arrest of judgment, which motion being overruled, the company was sentenced to pay a fine of $5,000. To review that order this writ of error is prosecuted.

The information was based on § 18 of the River and Harbor Act of March 3, 1899, which provides:

That whenever the Secretary of War shall have good reason to believe that any railroad or other bridge now [27 S.Ct. 368] constructed or which may hereafter be constructed over any of the navigable waterways of the United States is an unreasonable obstruction to the free navigation of such waters on account of insufficient height, width of span, or otherwise, or where there is difficulty in passing the draw opening or the draw span of such bridge by rafts, steamboats, or other water craft, it shall be the duty of the said Secretary, first giving the parties reasonable opportunity to be heard, to give notice to the persons or corporations owning or controlling such bridge, so to alter the same as to render navigation through or under it reasonably free, easy, and unobstructed, and in giving such notice he shall specify the changes, recommended by Chief of Engineers, that are required to be made, and shall prescribe in each case a reasonable time in which to make them. If, at the end of such time, the alteration has not been made, the Secretary of War shall forthwith notify the United States district attorney for the district in which such bridge is situated to the end that the criminal proceedings hereinafter mentioned may be taken. If the persons, corporation, or association owning or controlling any railroad or other bridge shall, after receiving notice to that effect, as hereinbefore required, from the Secretary of War, and within the time prescribed by him, willfully fail or refuse to remove the same or to comply with the lawful order of the Secretary of War in the premises, such persons, corporation, or association shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and every month such persons, corporation,

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or association shall remain in default in respect to the removal or alteration of such bridge shall be deemed a new offense, and subject the persons, corporation, or association so offending to the penalties above prescribed: Provided, That in any case arising under the provisions of this section, an appeal or writ of error may be taken from the district courts or from the existing circuit courts direct to the Supreme Court, either by the United States or by the defendants.

30 Stat. 1121, 1153, c. 425.

Legislation similar in its general character can be found in river and harbor acts passed at previous sessions of Congress. Act of 1884, 23 Stat. 133, 148, c. 229; Act of April 11, 1888, 25 Stat. 400, 424, 425, c. 860, §§ 9, 10, and Act of September 19, 1890, 26 Stat. 426, 453, c. 907, §§ 4, 5. Finally, we have the Act of March 23, 1906, 34 Stat. 84, c. 1130, §§ 4, 5, which covers the same ground as the act of 1899 under which the present information was filed.

It appears that the Bridge Company was incorporated by an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature approved March 13, 1873, with authority to construct a bridge over the Allegheny River in the City of Allegheny. That act contains this proviso:

That the erection of said bridge shall not obstruct the navigation of said river so as to endanger the passage of rafts, steamboats, or other watercrafts, and the piers shall not be so placed as to interfere with towboats proceeding out with their tows made up, and shall be constructed in such manner as to meet the requisitions of the law in regard to the obstructions of navigation.

The bridge was constructed in 1874 and 1875, and has been in use since 1875.

In 1902, a petition was sent to the Secretary of War by persons, corporations, and companies in and about Pittsburgh, which contained, among other things, these statements:

There can be no doubt whatever that this bridge is an unreasonable obstruction to the free navigation of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny Rivers on account of insufficient

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height and the filling in of the river or rivers over which it passes in order to provide approaches for it. We respectfully request that you will investigate this matter, having full confidence that, after making such investigation, you will find it to be your duty to take action against its owners, the Union Bridge Company, under the provisions of Section 18 of the River and Harbor Act, approved March 3, A.D. 1899. . . . It was built of such a low height above the water as to cause the almost complete obstruction of all the packet and towboat trade passing from the Allegheny River into the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers, and from these rivers into the Allegheny. In building it, the width of the river was very materially narrowed, as already stated, by the fills made for the approaches. The river commerce of Pittsburgh, as you are aware, is of very great magnitude and importance, and is rapidly increasing in volume. For the last calendar year it amounted to 10,916,489 tons, being about equal to that of the harbor of New York. The extension of the manufacturing industries of Pittsburgh up the Allegheny River is making it of much greater importance than heretofore that the navigation to and from that river should not be obstructed. The present time is peculiarly appropriate for action by you. The Union Bridge is an old, wooden structure, and will soon need -- in fact, it already needs -- extensive repairs to make it safe for public use. Therefore, as the bridge in question deprives the community of a reasonable use [27 S.Ct. 369] of the Allegheny River in connection with the river business of this great harbor, we appeal to you to exercise the powers committed to you to abate, or to at least mitigate, this great public nuisance as you shall find yourself justified by the law and the facts of the case.

The matter was referred by the Secretary of War to the proper officers of the Engineer Corps of the Army for examination and report. Such examination was had upon notice to the Bridge Company, and, under date of December 8, 1902, Capt. Sibert, captain of engineers, who conducted the examination, reported and recommended to the Chief of Engineers

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that the company be given notice to make certain alterations in its bridge.

On December 16, 1902, the Chief of Engineers transmitted that report...

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