Weems Steamboat Company of Baltimore City v. People Steamboat Company

Decision Date01 June 1909
Docket NumberNo. 181,181
Citation53 L.Ed. 1024,29 S.Ct. 661,214 U.S. 345
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The complainant (the above-named petitioner) commenced this suit in the circuit court of the United States for the eastern district of Virginia against the defendant the Peo- ple's Steamboat Company and its officers and agents, for the purpose of obtaining an injunction restraining the corporation defendant from using certain wharves on the Rappahannock river, in the state of Virginia, of some of which the complainant was the owner in fee, and of others the lessee of the exclusive use from the owners. The complainant contended that it had the exclusive right to the use of such wharves, either as owner or lessee, and that the defendant illegally, and against the will of the complainant, insisted upon using them to carry on its business, although offering to pay the complainant what was the reasonable value of the defendant's use of such wharves.

The corporation and the individual defendants filed joint and separate answers, setting up a claim of right to the use of such wharves upon compensation being made therefor, and the case came before the court on motion of complainant for a temporary injunction, as prayed for in the bill of complaint. The court, without then passing upon any other question, ordered that the matter be referred to a special master for the purpose of taking such evidence as might the submitted to him by either party, or which he might find necessary to take, bearing upon the title to the several wharves mentioned in complainant's bill and claimed by complainant, and to ascertain what rights passed to complainant with the acquisition of such wharves, and whether or not the wharves were public or private wharves. Pursuant to this order of reference, hearings were had before the master, who returned the evidence taken before him with his opinion in favor of granting the injunction as prayed for by the complainant, on the ground that the wharves in question were private wharves, owned or leased by the complainant, who had the exclusive right to their use. The facts found by the master were not overruled, but his conclusions of law were not concurred in by the court, and the preliminary injunction was refused. The case was then submitted to the court for trial upon all the evidence taken, and the bill was dismissed with costs. 141 Fed. 454.

The complainant appealed from the decree of dismissal to the circuit court of appeals for the fourth circuit, where it was affirmed upon the opinion of the circuit court.

The complainant then applied to this court for a writ of certiorari to bring the case here, which petition was granted, and the case has been submitted to this court upon the briefs of respective counsel.

Messrs. George Weems Williams, St. George R. Fitzhugh, and Nicholas P. Bond for petitioner.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 347-349 intentionally omitted] Messrs. William D. Carter and Ellerbe W. Carter for respondents.

Statement by Mr. Justice Peckham:

[Argument of Counsel from pages 349-351 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice Peckham, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court:

It appears that the complainant herein is a corporation of the state of Maryland and the defendant is a corporation of the state of Virginia, the individual defendants being officers or agents of such corporation and citizens of the same state. The complainant has been for a long time engaged in the business of transportation of passengers and freight between Baltimore and various landings or places on the Rappahannock river, in the state of Virginia, and for many years has been the owner or lessee of the wharves on that river, mentioned in the bill of complaint. Some time before the commencement of this suit the defendant began the transporation of passengers and freight between Fredericksburg and Urbanna, in Virginia, and along the Rappahannock river, in that state, stopping at the same wharves on that river as complainant, and engaged in the same business. In order to transact its business it made use of the wharves owned or leased by the complainant, in spite of the opposition of complainant, and against its protests, although defendant offered to make compensation for the reasonable value of the use which it made of such wharves in the prosecution of its business, which offers were refused by the complainant, and it notified the defendant to desist from the use of the wharves owned or leased by it. The action of the defendant in making use of the wharves of complainant was based upon the contention that the defendant had the legal right to do so, inasmuch as, in many cases, there were no other wharves at such places where the defendant desired to land, and that it was necessary to use such wharves in order that defendant might prosecute its business of transporting passengers and freight to and from the various landings on the river, and because the wharves had, for many years, been used by the public.

It was proved before the master (and we take the facts in the case as found by him) that the complainant was the owner in fee of five different wharves along the banks of the river and of the land under the water where the wharves were built; also that the complainant was the lessee of eight wharves owned by different persons who had, prior to the commencement of this suit, leased their exclusive use to the complainant, and that it was during the time of the existence of the leases that the defendant entered upon and used the wharves for its own purposes. The master reported that there was no evidence of any prior dedication of any of such wharves to the public, either those owned by or leased to complainant, and, of course, none of any acceptance thereof by the public authorities, nor was there any evidence of any condemnation of any of such wharves on the part or in behalf of any public authority; that the wharves were private wharves, either owned by the complainant in fee or leased by it, for its exclusive use, from the owners in fee of such wharves. The most that can be said is that, in some cases, the former owners of the wharves now owned by the complainant, as well as the lessors of the wharves before they leased the same, and while owners thereof, had built them and while owners thereof, had built them, and had frequently received compensation for such use, and in many cases the use had been without compensation. After the sales of the wharves and after the execution of the leases, neither the former owners nor the lessors made any claim to the use of the wharves or to any right to permit others to use them, either with or without compensation, and the complainant formally notified the defendant that the complainant refused to permit such use any longer. It appeared that public roads had been made from the surrounding country to the places where these private wharves had been built, sometimes before the building of the wharves, and sometimes the roads had been laid out after such wharves had been built. The use that had been made of the wharves after they had been built and prior to the purchase or leasing by the complainant was nothing more than such as was founded upon a mere license on the part of the owners and without any dedication of the wharves to the public or any acceptance on the part of the public further than by indiscriminate user, and with no taking or condemnation of the right to use the wharves as public wharves. The title to the wharves as private property remained unaffected in any way, and there was nothing to prevent the withdrawal of license to use at any time. In some cases the wharves were the only ones that had been built at the places where such wharves existed, and the use of such wharves was convenient for the transaction of the defendant's business.

The complainant is in the actual possession of all the wharves, those which it...

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