The Bridge Proprietors v. the Hoboken Company

Decision Date01 December 1863
Citation17 L.Ed. 571,68 U.S. 116,1 Wall. 116
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

THE Judiciary Act (§ 25) provides, that a final decree in the highest court of equity in a State, 'where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of . . . any State on the ground of its being repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, and the decision is in favor of such validity, may be re-examined and reversed' in this court. And the Constitution of the United States provides, that 'no State shall pass any . . . law impairing the obligation of contracts.'

With these provisions in force, the State of New Jersey passed, A. D. 1790, an act creating a turnpike company, from Newark to Powles Hook (near New York), and authorizing commissioners to fix suitable sites for building bridges over the rivers Passaic and Hackensack, and to cause to be erected a bridge over each river, with a right to take toll from classes of persons and things enumerated in the act, and which may be summed up shortly as persons on foot, animals and vehicles crossing the bridge. The statute enacted, 'that it should be lawful for the commissioners to contract with persons who would undertake the same for such toll, or for so many years, and upon such conditions, as in their discretion should appear expedient;' and further, 'that the said contract should be valid and binding on the parties contracting as well as on the State of New Jersey, and as effectual, to all intents and purposes whatever, as if the same, and every part, covenant, and condition therein contained had been particularly and expressly set forth and enacted in this law.' It was further enacted, 'That it should not be lawful for any person or persons whatsoever to erect, or cause to be erected [within certain limits specified], any other bridge or bridges over or across the said river; provided always, that if the said commissioners shall refuse or neglect, for the space of four years, to cause to be erected the said bridges, in pursuance of this act, or when erected, to maintain and support them, then it shall and may be lawful for the legislature of this State to repeal or alter this act, and to enact such other law or laws touching or concerning the premises herein enacted, as to them, in their wisdom, shall appear equitable and expedient.'

In 1793, the commissioners contracted with one Ogden and others his associates, for the erection of the bridges authorized, and demised them the said Ogden and his associates until November 24th, A. D. 1889, with a right to levy tolls as fixed in the contract. In 1797, the legislature of New Jersey created the said Ogden and his associates a corporation, which corporation the complainants below, the present plaintiffs in error, now were.

In 1860, the legislature of New Jersey, by statute, authorized another company altogether, to wit, the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company, the defendants in this case, to construct a railroad from the same town Newark to Hoboken (opposite New York), and to build the necessary 'viaducts' over these same Passaic and Hackensack Rivers. And the statute enacted that if unable to agree with the parties owning or claiming them, it should be lawful for the company to 'take and appropriate, use, and exercise, or cause to be taken and appropriated and exercised, so much of all rights, privileges, franchises, property, and bridges or viaducts, or such parts thereof as may be necessary to enable the said company to construct said railroad and branches, first making, or causing to be made, compensation therefor, as hereinafter provided. Provided, that nothing in this act shall authorize or empower the said company to construct more than one bridge over each of the rivers Hackensack or Passaic, and the bridge over the Hackensack to be twelve hundred feet, river measure, from any other bridge.'1

Under the authority of the act of 1860, the Hoboken Company now began to erect their 'structure' for carrying their railway across the Hackensack River, and inside of those limits within which the bridge proprietors considered that the act of 1790 gave them exclusive privilege of bridges. This was done without the consent of the bridge proprietors, and without condemning the value of their right of franchise.

The proprietors of the bridges over the rivers, &c., hereupon filed a bill in the Court of Chancery, praying an injunction and general relief. THE BILL set out the act of 1790, authorizing the commissioners to lease out the privilege of building, and the bridge when built, for a term of years, and that it enacted that no person, during 99 years, should erect any other bridge over the river within the limits in question; that the commissioners had leased their privilege for 99 years to Ogden and his associates, who had built the bridges; the incorporation, &c. It then proceeded to insist thus:

'That the said act and said lease, and all the stipulations and provisions and enactments in them, and either of them, contained, became a contract between the State and said party of the second part to said lease, who are now represented by your orators; and by the same the State became held and bound to and contracted with said party of the second part, and are now, by force of such contract, held and bound to your orators, as provided in the act, that no persons whatever should erect any other bridge or bridges than that erected by laid lessees, and now belonging to your orators. And your orators insist that the State cannot, by any law, violate, void or impair said contract, even upon providing and making compensation for the damages sustained thereby.'

It next set out several statutes, which it charged recognized these rights, and then the act of 1860, and alleged that thereby the defendants were authorized to construct a railroad, and to erect viaducts or bridges over the Hackensack River, and to take and appropriate property, rights, franchises, & c., necessary to construct the railroad. It further set out the sections providing compensation for the franchises taken (see ante, p. 119, note), and that one section of the act, the first, recognized the complainants' right as still existing. The bill set forth further, that the defendants had commenced to build a bridge within the prohibited limits; and that the complainants had not given their consent to this; nor the defendants tendered any compensation for the violation of their contract with the State.

It insisted, 'that there exists no such public necessity for building a bridge within the prohibited limits as warrants or requires the violation of the contract,—even had the State the power to pass a law impairing the obligation of a contract: that there exists no public necessity for the construction of the defendants' railroad, such as to authorize the taking of the property and franchises of other persons or corporations.'

It submitted, 'that there does not exist that kind of public necessity which requires or justifies taking private property for public use, or the abrogation of a contract.'

As respected the contract, the bill charged on the defendants as follows:

'And they sometimes give out and preted that the State is not held and bound, by any contract to or with your orators, that no other bridge shall be erected within said limits, whereas your orators charge the contrary to be true, and that the State is held and firmly bound to your orators by their contract that no bridge shall be erected within said limits before the 24th day of November, 1889.'

The bill prayed the defendants might be restrained from building the bridge commenced; and for general relief and injunction.

THE ANSWER, admitting that 'of course the obligation of no contract can be impaired,' declared 'that the defendant does not pretend that any public necessity requires the violation of any contract,' and it set up several defences.

1. That by the act of 1790, the State did 'not contract,' and therefore the defendant 'denied' the allegation that it had done so; adding an admission, 'that the said lease was a contract by which the State was bound,' and an allegation that 'this defendant is advised and insists, that it is the only contract between the State and the said lessees, or their alienees (if any), and was by said law declared to be the contract by which the State was to be bound.'- 2. That the prohibitory language, 'it shall not be lawful for any persons to erect any other bridge,' &c., in the act of 1790, was not in restraint of the legislature.

3. That any contract in the act of 1790 was discharged by a non-performance of the conditions precedent contained in the act.

4. That the structure of the defendant is not a bridge in the sense that the word 'bridge' is used in the act of 1790; that it would differ from a bridge in these particulars:

a. 'It will not,' the answer averred, 'be connected with the shore on either side of the river, except by a piece of timber under each rail, and must necessarily be made so as to make it impossible for man or beast to cross said river, upon the viaduct, except in defendant's cars.'

b. 'The only roadway,' it was further asserted, 'between said shores and said structure, will be two or more iron rails, each of the width of two and one-quarter inches, and of the height of about four and one-half inches, laid and fastened upon timber, said rails being at a distance of four feet asunder.'

a. 'It will be impossible,' it was finally said, 'for any vehicle or animal, which can cross the river upon the bridge of complainants, to cross the same upon the railroad of defendant, and no foot-passenger can cross the same with safety; nor is it intended that any foot-passenger shall, but on the contrary, the said railroad across the said river shall and will be so constructed, and this defendant intends to construct the same in such manner that no vehicle can cross the said river on the said road or viaduct of the...

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