242 U.S. 409 (1917), 540, Louisville Bridge Company v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 540
Citation:242 U.S. 409, 37 S.Ct. 158, 61 L.Ed. 395
Party Name:Louisville Bridge Company v. United States
Case Date:January 08, 1917
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 409

242 U.S. 409 (1917)

37 S.Ct. 158, 61 L.Ed. 395

Louisville Bridge Company


United States

No. 540

United States Supreme Court

January 8, 1917

Argued December 8, 11, 1916




The Acts of July 14, 1862, c. 167, 12 Stat. 569, and February 17, 1865, c. 38, 13 Stat. 431, under which appellant's bridge was built across the Ohio River, were not intended and did not operate to confer an irrepealable franchise to maintain the bridge as authorized and originally constructed, nor did they create a vested right demanding compensation under the Fifth Amendment when changes were subsequently required by Congress in the interest of navigation. United States v. Parkersburg Branch R. Co., 134 F. 969, 143 F. 224, overruled. Monongahela Navigation Co. v. United States, 148 U.S. 312, and United States v. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co., 229 U.S. 244, distinguished.

When indefeasible private rights are sought to be derived from regulatory provisions made in the exercise of the power to regulate commerce, the case is peculiarly one for the application of the universal rule that grants of special franchises and privileges are to be strictly construed in favor of the public right, and nothing is to be taken as granted concerning which any reasonable doubt may be raised.

In construing the acts above cited, the Court judicially notices their coincidence in time with the Civil War, the lack of bridges over the Ohio at Cincinnati, Louisville, and points west, the natural difficulties of crossing the stream, the urgent need of a bridge to transfer troops and supplies south, and the fact that financial disturbances made it difficult to secure capital for large undertakings.

Page 410

The absence of an express reservation of the right to alter or repeal has not the same significance in acts of Congress as in state legislation, and in the acts above cited is without conclusive effect.

Acts like those here in question, being passed in the regulation of commerce for the guidance of future conduct, carry the suggestion of future changes, and, in their construction, it should be presumed that Congress intended to preserve its power to make future adjustments, in pace with commercial developments -- assuming, but not deciding, that such power could be shackled or surrendered.

The Act of March 3, 1899, c. 425, 30 Stat. 1121, 1153, so repealed or modified the Acts of 1862 and 1865 as to include appellant's bridge within its operation.

The authority of the Secretary of War under the Act of 1899, to require changes involves no unlawful delegation of legislative or judicial power.

233 F. 270 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 414

PITNEY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE PITNEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant is the owner of a bridge across the Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, known as the "Ohio Falls Bridge," which was built under an act of Congress approved February 17, 1865, c. 38, 13 Stat. 431, supplementary to an act approved July 14, 1862, c. 167, 12 Stat. 569. The 1862 Act, as amended, allowed the bridge to be built under one of several plans detailed, and with a prescribed minimum width for spans and a minimum clearance height above the water. This act, in its fifth section, declared:

That any bridge or bridges erected under the provisions of this act shall be lawful structures, and shall be recognized and known as post routes, . . . and the officers and crews of all vessels, boats, or rafts navigating the said Ohio River are required to regulate the use of the said vessels and of any pipes or chimneys belonging thereto so as not to interfere with the elevation, construction, or use of any of the bridges erected or legalized under the provisions of this act.

The first section of the 1865 Act contained [37 S.Ct. 159] a proviso "that said bridge and draws shall be so constructed as not to interrupt the navigation of the Ohio River;" the second section declared "that the bridge erected under the provisions of this act shall be a lawful structure, and shall be recognized and known as a post route."

The Ohio Falls Bridge was built in all respects in accordance

Page 415

with the requirements of these acts except that, instead of the minimum channel span of 300 feet prescribed, the builders made spans of 380 feet and 352 1/4 feet, respectively, and exceeded the clearance height of the highest of the authorized plans, thus expending $150,000 more than was necessary to comply with the letter of the law. The bridge was completed in the year 1870, and since then has been continuously in use as a railroad bridge, furnishing one of the principal thoroughfares across the Ohio River from north to south. Its superstructure now requires renewal, but this can be done without obstructing navigation any further than the bridge does at present and has done ever since its construction.

In the year 1914, the Secretary of War, proceeding under § 18 of an act of Congress approved March 3, 1899, c. 425, 30 Stat. 1121, 1153, gave notice to appellant that he had good reason to believe the bridge was an obstruction to navigation because of insufficient horizontal clearance of the channel span crossing the main navigable channel of the river, and insufficient width of opening in the existing swing span crossing the Louisville & Portland Canal, and appointed a time and place for a hearing upon this question. Appellant introduced no evidence at the hearing, but filed a protest against any action by the Secretary under the Act of 1899 on the ground that this act did not affect bridges constructed under the Acts of 1862 and 1865, or that, if it attempted to do so, it was unconstitutional. After the hearing, the Secretary made an order notifying appellant to alter the bridge within three years so as to provide an enlarged horizontal opening for the main navigable channel, and to change the swing span across the channel to a lift span having a prescribed horizontal clearance, and a prescribed vertical clearance when open. A further hearing and some correspondence having led to no result, appellant notified the Secretary of War in writing that it insisted on the right

Page 416

to renew its superstructure on the existing masonry without changing the length of any of the existing spans, "so that, when completed it will not interfere with navigation any more than it does now," and that it intended to commence the work of renewal at once. Shortly thereafter, the Attorney General filed a bill for an injunction in the district court; appellant answered, setting up its claims as above indicated, and the case was brought to a hearing upon stipulated facts presenting, as the sole question to be determined, the legality of the order of the Secretary of War as applied to the bridge in question. A final decree was made restraining appellant from reconstructing the superstructure of the bridge in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the Secretary's order (233 F. 270), and the case comes here by direct appeal, as permitted by § 18 of the 1899 Act.

Concisely stated, the position of appellant is that the Ohio Falls Bridge was constructed under an irrevocable franchise, and became upon its completion a lawful structure and the private property of appellant; that Congress had no power to require its removal except in the exercise of the federal authority to regulate commerce, and subject to the provision of the Fifth Amendment that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation, and that the Act of 1899, being a general act, does not, by fair construction, operate to repeal the special franchise conferred by the Acts of 1862 and 1865, and, if it does, it is unconstitutional because it fails to make provision for compensation.

The first and fundamental contention is rested in part upon facts of which we may take judicial notice -- that, when the Acts of 1862 and 1865 were passed, the Civil War was in progress, and there was urgent need of a bridge over the Ohio River west of the Big Sandy (the eastern boundary of Kentucky) to provide for the transfer of troops and supplies from the North to the South; that there

Page 417

were no bridges crossing the Ohio at either of the Cities of Cincinnati or Louisville, or at any point west of them, and that the movement of troops and supplies was thereby greatly hampered; that the river at Louisville is approximately a mile wide, the current quite rapid on account of the falls, and in winter frequently filled with ice, so as to render a bridge a pressing necessity, and that the war had disturbed somewhat the finances of the country, and capital for large undertakings was difficult to secure. But the argument lays especial stress upon the declaration that the bridge in question should be a lawful structure and recognized and known as a post route, and the fact that neither the original nor the supplemental acts contained any reservation...

To continue reading