Wisconsin Central R. Co. v. Forsythe
159 U.S. 46 (1895)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Wisconsin Central R. Co. v. Forsythe, 159 U.S. 46 (1895)

Wisconsin Central Railroad Company v. Forsythe

No. 238

Argued March 28-29, 1895

Decided June 3, 1895

159 U.S. 46

Syllabus

The land in controversy in this case is within the place limits of the road of the plaintiff in error, and was subject to the full control of Congress at the time of the grant made by section 3 of the Act of May 5, 1854, c. 80, 13, Stat. 66, and it passed by operation of that grant notwithstanding the fact that it was withdrawn by the Land Department in 1856 and 1859 in order to satisfy the grant made by the Act of June 3, 1856, c. 43, 11 Stat. 20.

Every act of Congress making a grant of public land is to be treated both

Page 159 U. S. 47

as a law and a grant, and the intent of Congress, when ascertained, is to control in the interpretation of the law.

When Congress makes a grant of a specific number of sections of public land in aid of any work of internal improvement, it must be assumed that it intends the beneficiary to receive such amount of land, and when it prescribes that those lands shall be alternate sections along the line of the improvement, it is equally clear that the intent is that, if possible, the beneficiary shall receive those particular sections.

The courts are not concluded by a decision of the Land Department on a question of law.

The facts set up by the defendant as an estoppel suggest the rule "de minimis non curat lex."

This is an action of ejectment commenced on April 5, 1890, by the Wisconsin Central Railroad Company against William O. Forsythe in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Wisconsin, to recover possession of the southwest quarter of section 11, township 47 north, of range 4 west in the County of Ashland, Wisconsin. At the trial on April 16, 1891, the court instructed the jury to render a verdict for the defendant. Judgment having been entered on such verdict, the railroad company brought the case here on this writ of error.

The title of the plaintiff rests on these facts: by the Act of June 3, 1856, c. 43, 11 Stat. 20, the United States made a grant of land to the State of Wisconsin. The first and fourth sections of the act making the grant are as follows:

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled that there be, and is hereby, granted to the State of Wisconsin for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a railroad from Madison or Columbus by the way of Portage City to the St. Croix River or Lake between townships twenty-five and thirty-one, and from thence to the west end of Lake Superior, and to Bayfield, and also from Fond du Lac on Lake Winnebago northerly to the state line, every alternate section of land designated by odd numbers for six sections in width on each side of said roads respectively. But in case it shall appear that the United States have, when the lines or routes of said roads are definitely fixed, sold any sections or parts thereof granted as aforesaid, or that the right of preemption

Page 159 U. S. 48

has attached to the same, then it shall be lawful for any agent or agents, to be appointed by the governor of said state, to select, subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, from the lands of the United States nearest to the tier of sections above specified, so much land in alternate sections or parts of sections as shall be equal to such lands as the United States have sold or otherwise appropriated, or to which the right of preemption has attached as aforesaid, which lands (thus selected in lieu of those sold to which preemption has attached as aforesaid, together with the sections and parts of sections designated by odd numbers as aforesaid and appropriated as aforesaid) shall be held by the State of Wisconsin for the use and purpose aforesaid, provided that the lands to be so located shall in no case be further than fifteen miles from the line of the roads in each case, and selected for and on account of said roads; provided further that the lands hereby granted shall be exclusively applied in the construction of that road for which it was granted and selected, and shall be disposed of only as the work progresses, and the same shall be applied to no other purpose whatsoever; and provided further that any and all lands reserved to the United States by any act of Congress for the purpose of aiding in any object of internal improvement, or in any manner for any purpose whatsoever, be, and the same are hereby, reserved to the United States from the operation of this act except so far as it may be found necessary to locate the route of said railroads through such reserved lands, in which case the right of way only shall be granted subject to the approval of the President of the United States."

"SEC. 4. And be it further enacted that the lands hereby granted to said state shall be disposed of by said state only in manner following, that is to say, that a quantity of land not exceeding one hundred and twenty sections, and included within a continuous length of twenty miles of roads, respectively, may be sold,

Page 159 U. S. 49

and when the governor of said state shall certify to the Secretary of the Interior that any twenty continuous miles of either of said roads are completed, then another like quantity of land hereby granted may be sold, and so from time to time until said roads are completed, and if said roads are not completed within ten years, no further sales shall be made, and the land unsold shall revert to the United States."

We are concerned in this case with only the first of the two lines of road named, and shall therefore treat the act as referring to it alone. On June 12, 1856, a withdrawal of the lands deemed necessary for the satisfaction of this grant was made by the Land Department. The grant was accepted by the State of Wisconsin on October 8, 1856, Laws of Wisconsin, 1856, c. 118, p. 137, and on October 11, 1856, the state conferred the benefit of it upon the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company, Laws of Wisconsin, 1856, c. 122, p. 217. Under authority of an Act of date March 5, 1857, Laws of Wisconsin, 1857, c. 230, p. 530, the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company conveyed to the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad Company so much of the grant as was north of the St. Croix River or Lake, and was to aid in constructing the road from that point to the west end of Lake Superior, and to Bayfield. On March 2, 1858, the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad Company filed in the Land Department at Washington its map of definite location of the road from the St. Croix River or Lake to the west end of Lake Superior, and on July 17, 1858, a like map of definite location of the branch to Bayfield. On March 1, 1859, the Commissioner of the General Land Office forwarded to the local land officers a plat showing these locations, together with the six and fifteen-mile limits thereof, and directed them to continue to reserve all vacant tracts outside of the six and within the fifteen-mile limits from sale or location for any purpose whatever. In the letter conveying this direction, it was stated that the agent of the state had selected all the vacant lands between the six and fifteen-mile limits in lieu of the lands within the six-mile limits already sold and preempted.

Nothing was done towards the construction of the road and branch from the St. Croix River or Lake northward until after the passage by Congress of the Act of May 5, 1864, 13

Page 159 U. S. 50

Stat. 66. The first, third, fifth, and sixth sections of this act are as follows:

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that there be, and is hereby, granted to the State of Wisconsin, for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a railroad from a point on the St. Croix River or Lake, between townships twenty-five and thirty-one, to the west end of Lake Superior, and from some point on the line of said railroad, to be selected by said state, to Bayfield, every alternate section of public land designated by odd numbers, for ten sections in width on each side of said road, deducting any and all lands that may have been granted to the State of Wisconsin for the same purpose, by the Act of Congress of June three, eighteen hundred and fifty-six, upon the same terms and conditions as are contained in the act granting lands to the State of Wisconsin to aid in the construction of railroads in said state, approved June three, eighteen hundred and fifty-six. But in case it shall appear that the United States have, when the line or route of said road is definitely fixed, sold, reserved, or otherwise disposed of, any sections or parts thereof, granted as aforesaid, or that the right of preemption or homestead has attached to the same, then it shall be lawful for any agent or agents, to be appointed by said company, to select, subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, from the public lands of the United States nearest to the tier of sections above specified, as much land in alternate sections or parts of sections as shall be equal to such lands as the United States have sold or otherwise appropriated, or to which the right of preemption or homestead has attached as aforesaid, which lands (thus selected in lieu of those sold, and to which preemption or homestead right has attached as aforesaid, together with sections and parts of sections designated by odd numbers as aforesaid, and appropriated as aforesaid) shall be held by said state for the use and purpose aforesaid, provided that the lands to be so located shall in no case be further than twenty miles from the line of the said roads, nor shall such selection or location be made in lieu of lands received under the said

Page 159 U. S. 51

grant of June 3, 1856, but such selection and location may be made for the benefit of said state, and for the purpose aforesaid, to supply any deficiency under the said grant of June third, eighteen hundred and fifty-six, should any such deficiency exist."

"SEC. 3. And be it further enacted that there be, and is hereby, granted to the State of Wisconsin, for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a railroad from Portage City, Berlin, Doty's Island, or Fond du Lac, as said state may determine, in a northwestern direction, to Bayfield, and thence to Superior on Lake Superior, every alternate section of public land, designated by odd numbers, for ten sections in width on each side of said road, upon the same terms and conditions as are contained in the act granting lands to said state to aid in the construction of railroads in said state, approved June three, eighteen hundred and fifty-six. But in case it shall appear that the United States have, when the line or route of said road is definitely fixed, sold, reserved or otherwise disposed of any sections or parts thereof, granted as aforesaid, or that the right of preemption or homestead has attached to the same, that it shall be lawful for any agent or agents of said state, appointed by the governor thereof, to select, subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, from the lands of the United States nearest to the tier of sections above specified, as much public land in alternate sections or parts of sections as shall be equal to such lands as the United States have sold or otherwise appropriated, or to which the right of preemption or homestead has attached as aforesaid, which lands (thus selected in lieu of those sold and to which the right of preemption or homestead has attached as aforesaid, together with sections and parts of sections designated by odd numbers as aforesaid, and appropriated as aforesaid) shall be held by said state, or by the company to which she may transfer the same, for the use and purpose aforesaid, provided that the lands to be so located shall in no case be further than twenty miles from the line of said road."

"SEC. 5. And be it further enacted that the time fixed and limited for the completion of said roads in the act aforesaid of

Page 159 U. S. 52

June three, eighteen hundred and fifty-six, be, and the same is hereby, extended to a period of five years from and after the passage of this act."

"SEC. 6. And be it further enacted that any and all lands reserved to the United States by any act of Congress for the purpose of aiding in any object of internal improvement, or in any manner for any purpose whatsoever, and all mineral lands be, and the same are hereby, reserved and excluded from the operation of this act except so far as it may be found necessary to locate the route of such railroads through such reserved lands, in which case the right of way only shall be granted subject to the approval of the President of the United States."

On March 20, 1865, Wisconsin conferred upon the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad Company the full benefit of the grant made by the first section of this act. Laws of Wisconsin, 1865, c. 175, p. 154. On April 22, 1865, the St. Croix and Lake Superior Railroad Company accepted this grant, and at the same time adopted the definite location theretofore made, as shown by the maps on file in the land office at Washington. In 1869, the Legislature of Wisconsin passed an act, Laws 1869, c. 90, p. 85, repealing said chapter 175 of the Laws of 1865, and in 1874, Laws 1874, c. 126, p. 186, conferred the benefit of grant on the North Wisconsin Railroad Company, which company afterwards, by consolidation, became merged in the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad Company (hereafter called the "Omaha Company.") This company constructed, and now owns and operates, the road from St. Croix River or Lake to Superior, on Lake Superior, and also the branch to Bayfield.

The grant made by section 3 of the act of Congress of 1864 was transferred by the state to the Portage, Winnebago, and Lake Superior Railroad Company, whose name was afterwards changed to that of the Wisconsin Central Railroad Company, the plaintiff herein. Laws of Wisconsin, 1866, c. 314, c. 362, p. 869; 1869, c. 257, p. 578; 1871, c. 27, p. 42. The map of definite location of the road thus aided was filed on November 10, 1869. Prior to December 31, 1876, the plaintiff had constructed, and now owns and operates, the road as far north

Page 159 U. S. 53

as Ashland, on Lake Superior. The Bayfield branch of the Omaha road also touches Ashland, and the land in controversy is within ten miles of the plaintiff's road, and between ten and fifteen miles of the Omaha road.

On February 12, 1884, the Omaha Company and the plaintiff, in consequence of the overlapping of their grants at and near the City of Ashland, entered into an agreement which provided, among other things:

"The Omaha Company consents that the Central Company [plaintiff] shall take patents for all lands in the overlap lying east of the easterly ten-mile limit of the Bayfield Branch of the Omaha Company, and north and east of the westerly ten-mile limit of the Central Company, and agrees to assist the Central Company to get such patents from the State of Wisconsin."

On February 25, 1884, the State of Wisconsin issued to the plaintiff a patent for a large quantity of land, including therein the tract in controversy, and on February 19, 1887, the Omaha Company executed a further instrument of release to the plaintiff, by which it surrendered and waived all right of whatsoever nature to any lands east of a line therein described, which was so drawn as to include the lands in dispute. On July 2, 1887, the plaintiff filed in the land office at Washington lists of land, including the land in dispute, claiming them as part of its grant. The Commissioner of the General Land Office rejected these lists, holding that the plaintiff had no title to the lands, and on appeal the Secretary of the Interior, on January 24, 1890, affirmed this decision. After this, the defendant took proceedings to enter the land under the laws of the United States, went into possession, built a residence, and made certain improvements at an expense of more than $200.

Page 159 U. S. 54

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